Poetic Justice in William Faulkner's "Absalom Absalom"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2010

16 Pages, Grade: 2,5


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Poetic Justice: Definition and origins

3. Poetic Justice in “Absalom, Absalom!”
3.1. Thomas Sutpen
3.2. Rosa Coldfield
3.3. Sutpen’s children
3.3.1. Judith Sutpen
3.3.2. Henry Sutpen
3.3.3. Charles Bon

4. Conclusion

5. Bibliography

1. Introduction

In his novel “Absalom, Absalom!” William Faulkner recounts the story of Thomas Sutpen, a pioneer who tries to establish his family dynasty in the Southern aristocratic plantation society in Mississippi. Thomas Sutpen rigorously pursues his design at all costs, not considering the possible consequences. This moral flaw in his character causes the downfall of his dynasty and the destruction of the whole family. At the end of the novel Sutpen’s Hundred, the decaying mansion Sutpen built to accomplish his design, is burned down, together with the last descendants of the family.

This tragic development of the story provokes the idea of poetic justice, where virtue is rewarded and vice is punished. But can such a sharp categorization really be applied on this complex novel?

In the following paper I will show whether the term poetic justice can be applied on “Absalom, Absalom!”. I will take a look at the elements which might support this assumption by considering the characters’ development and function in the novel in order to show if they support the idea of punishment or reward.

However, first of all I will take a closer look at the term poetic justice in general. I will give a definition, view its origins and examine its use in historical and recent context before applying it on Faulkner’s novel “Absalom, Absalom!”.

2. Poetic Justice: Definition and origins

The concept of poetic justice dates back to ancient philosophers such as Plato where it was understood as the representation of fortune of virtue and the misfortune of vice (Zach 107). However, the term poetic justice was coined by Thomas Rhymer, an English critic of the later seventeenth century, in his work “ The Tragedies of the Last Age”. He was inspired by the termiustice du poëmeby La Mesnadière (Zach 25). According to Rhymer, poetic justice signifies the distribution, at the end of a literary work, of earthly rewards and punishments in proportion to the virtue or vice of the various characters. Ryhmer suggested that a poem is an ideal realm of its own, and should be governed by ideal principles ofdecorumand morality and not by the random way things often work out in the actual world. Rhymer’s rigid recommendation has often been criticised since then. It would, for example, destroy the possibility of tragic suffering. This tragic suffering is to be separated from what a protagonist may have deserved because of his tragic flaw (Abrams 239).

The term poetic justice was first only reserved to be used for tragedy, but by the seventeenth century it was also used for comedy, epos and novel and eventually spread to all genres. Until the end of the nineteenth century the term was a definite element of literary criticism in England (Zach 26).

Up to around 1900, poetic justice was much supported by audience and literature

(Zach 7). During the period of classicism the concept of poetic justice obtained a central role all over Europe. It was considered to be the main rule to obey in writing. This can be illustrated by the following quote by Samuel Croxall, who wrote the preface of a novel of six volumes in 1726: “The chief Design of a Romance, and which the Writer ought in the first place to have in View, is the Instruction of his reader, before whom he is to represent the Reward of Virtue, and the Chastisement of Vice” (Zach 9). Thus, Croxall names the just distribution of reward and punishment as the first duty of any writer.

Even though the term was of great importance in the seventeenth and eighteenth century it was more and more pushed to the side and devalued in the nineteenth century. Zach illustrates the example in the novel “ The Importance of being Earnest” by Oscar Wilde.

Wilde criticises the term poetic justice in the dialogue of Miss Prism and Cecily, when Miss Prism tells Cecily of having written such a novel:

Cecily. Did you really Miss Prism? How wonderfully clever you are! I hope it did not end happily?

I don’t like novels that end happily. They depress me so much.

Miss Prism. The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what fiction means.

Cecily. I suppose so. But it seems very unfair. (Zach 3).

This example shows the general attitude towards the term poetic justice in the nineteenth century up to nowadays. The necessity of its usage in literature is questioned as the term is said to be inartistic and thus turns the work it is used in into a less valuable piece of work.

Nowadays, the terms poetic justice seems to have become a reliable indicator of the trivial as it is often found in movies, comedies and novels of low quality (Zach 5). This fact provokes the question whether the usage of poetic justice is still worthwhile. The answer seems to be yes as these kinds of texts or films have many recipients and the principle of poetic justice is declared a standard and necessity in television as the programme guidelines of ARD and ZDF point out:

Die Darstellung von kriminellen Handlungen, von Laster, Gewalt oder Verbrechermilieu darf nicht vorbildlich wirken, zur Nachahmung anreizen oder in der Durchführung strafbarer Handlungen unterweisen…Hinweise auf Strafe, Reue oder Sühne sollen in der Darstellung nicht fehlen.(Zach 7)

This example shows that the concept of poetic justice in a definition as punishment of vice, is, at least in some genres of literature and television, still necessary.

Summing up, you can say that poetic justice is a controversially discussed principle in literature that is regarded rather negatively since the nineteenth century. In the following part of this paper, I will now apply this term on William Faulkner’s “Absalom, Absalom!” and discuss whether the use of the concept of poetic justice is adequate for this novel.

3. Poetic Justice in “Absalom, Absalom!”

In order to apply the concept of poetic justice on “Absalom, Absalom!”, I will look at several different characters of the novel that influence the development of the story and its tragic ending. I will examine whether they can be considered as rewarded for virtue or punished for vice according to their actions and behaviour. I will begin with Thomas Sutpen, the focal figure of the novel.


Excerpt out of 16 pages


Poetic Justice in William Faulkner's "Absalom Absalom"
University of Stuttgart
William Faulkner
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ISBN (Book)
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Poetic, Justice, William, Faulkner, Absalom
Quote paper
Manuela Gertz (Author), 2010, Poetic Justice in William Faulkner's "Absalom Absalom", Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/153908


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