The depiction of slavery in William Faulkner's novel "Absalom, Absalom!"

Essay, 2015

8 Pages


The Civil War and especially slavery is an important theme in American history. The Civil War was from 1861 to 1865 and around 1, 1 million people lost their lives in it. The war took place because of the prohibition of slavery in the north of America although it was still allowed in the south where slaves were needed for the work on plantations or in the household. Therefore, the prohibition of slavery was a huge contentious issue. Abraham Lincoln was the president of the Union army (who was elected in 1860) and thus from the North and Jefferson Davis was the president from the Confederate army and thus from the South. South Carolina was the first state that announced its separation from the United States of America and six other southern states joined them. The bloodiest battle was in Gattysburg in July 1863 where around 51 000 soldiers were killed. This battle was at the same time the turning point in the Civil War because the Union won. After the war it was decided that everyone has a right to vote not depending on colour, religion or any other circumstances what was then the reason why the Ku-Klux-Klan was formed on Christmas Eve 1865. William Faulkner’s novel Absalom, Absalom! was first published in 1936 and deals with the problems of the family Sutpen before, during and after the American Civil War. Thus, slavery plays an important role in this novel because the Sutpens own a huge plantation in Virginia and hence have slaves to do the work. The attitude towards slavery within the novel is very bad. The people do not like slaves or coloured people in general and this becomes obvious through several narrators.

The novel starts from the view of Rosa Coldfield who tells Quentin Compson the story of her family. Her brother-in-law Thomas Sutpen comes to the town in 1833 with a carriage full of black slaves and marries her older sister Ellen. Rosa makes Sutpen responsible for the bad things that happened in her life and the lives of her family. Through the novel one can see from her usage of words and her behaviour towards the slaves that she does not like them and is afraid of them. She calls them “wild niggers like beasts” (Faulkner, 8) in her first contact with them and says that they are “tamed to walk upright like men” (ibid.). The word “nigger” is nowadays an absolute terrible swear-word for coloured people because it refers back to the time when most coloured people were slaves. By saying that the slaves are domesticated to walk like men Rosa induces that these blacks are no humans. “Walking like men” rather implicates that these people walk like anthropoids which are in evolution less developed than Homo sapiens sapiens although their genome is quite equal to the ones of humans whereas bonobos have 99% of the same DNA as humans have. Therefore, slaves are less developed than white people and are more like animals in Rosa’s opinion. She also uses the term “wild beasts” (Faulkner, 16) what indicates that the slaves are mean and only controlled by their drives because a beast is not fully aware of its actions and just wants to hunt and kill others. Moreover, she avoids calling them by their names or even slaves and always uses snarky words like “negroes” (Faulkner, 20) to talk about them. It is not enough for her to use snarky words for them she also always uses negative adjectives for them to support her opinion. In addition she compares Sutpen with his slaves because he is as wild and uncivilized as they are.

Thomas Sutpen fights with his own slaves and sets up slave fights in which the slaves have to fight against each other. Therefore, they had no choice because they had to do what their master wanted them to do. “Thomas Sutpen’s slaves have been engaged in one of those regular bouts of brutal wrestling without rules that attract an avid audience of white and black gamblers or curious male spectators” (Williams, 25) shows that white people enjoyed to watch coloured people fighting like animals. By saying that her sister saw “two of his wild negroes fighting, naked, fighting not as white men fight, with rules and weapons, but as negroes fight to hurt one another quick and bad” (Faulkner, 29) Rosa again points out that slaves or coloured people are in her opinion less worth that white people. That the slaves are naked comes up several times and shows that they are less developed than white people because white people would be ashamed of being naked in public but because slaves are not that intelligent and more like animals than like humans they do not care about being naked. What Rosa does not think of is that it was forbidden for slaves to train with weapons after 1662 thus the fighting slaves do not have the opportunity to fight with weapons like white men as Rosa criticises. Slaves were hunted and punished for the smallest offenses against their masters will and sometimes even when their masters were in a bad mood and they did not do anything wrong. Rosa as a little child recognizes some characteristics of the slaves more than others. Hence she describes one slave only by his “face and teeth” (Faulkner, 23). The big eyes and mouth with the bright teeth were a stereotype for portraying coloured people especially in advertisement until the late 1980s and sometimes even still nowadays. Moreover, the same slave is described as a “performing tiger” (Faulkner, 24) that is again a comparison to an animal. Rosa does not have any good thought about the salves and thinks that they do not belong to their city because Sutpen brings them to the city “out of whatever dark swamp he had found them” (ibid.). This shows again that Rosa thinks of the slaves as wild animals and dirty creatures who do not have a civilised home but live in the dirt and on the floor. Moreover, Sean Lathan says that Sutpen “understands black bodies as merely one aspect of a Nature that must be violently tamed and controlled” and Sutpen is willing to hurt his slaves like any other plantation owner in the South during that time to gain the power over them.

This negative attitude of Rosa towards coloured people is not only against coloured people who she does not really know but also against Thomas Sutpen’s daughter with one of his female slaves with whom Rosa grew up. She does not like Clytie although one should assume that children do not have racist projections because prejudices are learned and not genetically braced. When Rosa wants to walk up the stairs in Sutpen’s Hundred and Clytie grabs her arm she says: “Take your hand off me, nigger!” (Faulkner, 140). By calling Clytie a “nigger” Rosa reduces Clytie to a normal slave although she has besides her coloured blood also white blood in her. Rosa does not care about this fact because for her all people with coloured or even mixed blood are the same. She also compares Clytie’s face with the one of an ogre (62).

Slaves were used as cheap workers for plantations or the household and could be bought as food or animals on a market. Like Quentin’s father tells him, Sutpen bought his slaves from a slavedealer near the river (35). As Dussere describes it [t]he epistemological foundation of slavery is the ability to see other human beings as property to be bought and exchanged and recorded in the account book, the transformation of people into monetary value (333).

Slaves are seen as property in Absalom, Absalom! as one can see on page 61 where female slaves are compared to livestock. “[H]e [Sutpen] probably chose them [two female slaves] with the same care and shrewdness with which he chose the other livestock- the horses and mules and cattle” (Faulkner, 61) depicts how slaves were treated in the South. They were the property of their master and they could do with them whatever they wanted to. Moreover, the female slaves are seen as “horses, mules and cattle” which are all animals that work for or with people. The slaves could be used for any purpose like hunting the runaway architect, distributing wedding invitations and telling stories. Furthermore, they had fewer opportunities to take care of themselves that is the reason why they are “smelling like a wolfden” (Faulkner, 35). When the slaves are used to hunt the architect they fulfil the same role as dogs. They are used as dogs to catch another human being and this shows how less a slave was worth. Additionally, it is said that the slaves sleep without any blankets which is such a negligibility that it is not worth mentioning. However, it portrays how the people react to the slaves that they are even interested in those things in which would nobody would be interested if white people do it. It is not curious to sleep without blankets in a state like Virginia where the summers can be very hot. Although Sutpen is a white man he is often compared to his slaves because of his wild and unusual nature. By saying that the architect is the only human creature at Sutpen’s Hundred (cf. Faulkner, 37) Sutpen and his slaves are degraded to animals or just something less developed that humans. Moreover, it is said that his slaves are the only men he can rely on (55) because his slaves do not have another opportunity than to do what he wants. The other people in the village do not like him and hence do not want to help with anything. Thus, his slaves are his only allies and they are bought.

Charles Bon Henry Sutpen’s University friend tells him that he is already married to a woman of mixed race and that they have a son together (100). Henry does not care about this fact because he grew up with Clytie who also has mixed blood (109). Bon describes his wedding as “meaningless” (Faulkner, 118) and compares his wife with a “hired prostitute”. It makes clear that Bon does not take this wedding serious as he would take a marriage with a white woman. A black woman can only be used for fun or amusement but only a white woman can be married seriously. In addition, an interracial marriage was forbidden in the USA since the 1660s whereby Bon violates the law by marrying a black woman. Bon asks Henry: “Have you forgot that this woman, this child, are niggers?” (ibid.). This sentence shows directly Bon’s attitude towards coloured people. Although he is married to this woman and has a son with her he still sees them as something subordinated. The most important thing that he thinks of about his family is that they are of mixed race. The people in Absalom, Absalom! always talk snidely about slaves, coloured people in general and their children. They do not want the little slave children to go around at Christmas for some Christmas gifts although these children are poor and do not have anything enjoyable in their lives. However, it reflects the American attitude towards coloured people or as Sean Lathan describes it “an American national consciousness that understands slavery as its own peculiar institution”. American people tend to see themselves above many other things. This view started with the settlers who thought that the whole country belongs to them and that the Natives do not have any right to be there. They thought of America and its citizens as “God’s chosen country” and that it was their “manifest destiny” to explore the unknown West of America.


Excerpt out of 8 pages


The depiction of slavery in William Faulkner's novel "Absalom, Absalom!"
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
648 KB
william, faulkner, absalom
Quote paper
Laura Commer (Author), 2015, The depiction of slavery in William Faulkner's novel "Absalom, Absalom!", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


  • No comments yet.
Read the ebook
Title: The depiction of slavery in William Faulkner's novel "Absalom, Absalom!"

Upload papers

Your term paper / thesis:

- Publication as eBook and book
- High royalties for the sales
- Completely free - with ISBN
- It only takes five minutes
- Every paper finds readers

Publish now - it's free