Saturday, April 24, 2010

Getting to the Good Stuff

Grandfather said it was the only time he ever knew him to say anything quiet and simple: ‘On this night I am speaking of (and until my first marriage, I might add) I was still a virgin. You will probably not believe that, and if I were to try to explain it you would disbelieve me more than ever. So I will only say that that too was a part of the design which I had in my mind’ and Grandfather said, ‘Why shouldn’t I believe it?’ and he looking at Grandfather still with that quiet bright expression about the eyes, saying, ‘But do you? Surely you don’t hold me in such small contempt as to believe that at twenty I could neither have suffered temptation nor offered it?’ (p 248—Modern Library)

--A hilarious exchange between Sutpen and 'Grandfather,' drinking whisky and talking about their lives with such an economy of words. Just, ‘you wouldn’t believe me if I told you I were a virgin.’ You might think they were out fishing or on some quaint masculine bonding trip if you didn’t know that they were on a living, breathing man-hunt for the escaped architect.

I’m sorry to say that my own Grandfather, prior to his conversion, made a similar comment to my cousin when she dated a thirty-year-old man who gave chastity talks and spoke openly about his virginity. "What the hell is wrong with him?" I believe is how he put it.

Yet Sutpen offers this piece of information as evidence of how thoroughly he considered his long-term design. He had to win his wife honorably, by laying down his life, in a sense, going out to protect her and her family from besiegement. I love the image of her, loading the muskets with her hair falling over her face—the only physical description we have of her, until she lets herself go after Sutpen leaves.

It was part of his design, to win a wife by honor. But how quickly he put honor aside, along with wife and child, when he discovered her secret. Certain facts trump honor—a speck of black blood would suggest she hadn’t deserved such honorifics.

I think this story illustrates the effects of having only “codes” of honor, rather than, as Mrs. Darwin points out, a Christian perspective of honor.

I also think it validates Miss Rosa’s condemnation of Sutpen as the devil himself. Throughout his story, he uses the appearance of ‘good’ to manipulate others. He sets traps for people and holds them in slavery until they have served his ends, his design, and then, once he has used them, he puts them aside.

It’s been an interesting thought evolution for me to read this book, because there are so many details that at first just seem funny, like the quote above, then I think about it a little more and start to feel warmly towards Sutpen, “Oh look, he did have a shred of honor; he wasn’t evil incarnate,” but then I think about it more, and it becomes clear how he used even goodness, the appearance of honor, for his own subversive designs.

“You cannot know yet whether what you see is what you are looking at or what you are believing.”
(p 314) Wow—pretty much sums up the whole book for me.

I have to consider S Riddle my marriage counselor with Faulkner. His post made me slow down a bit, be less concerned with romance and plot, more content with the little details along the way, the humor, the mystery, then rest assured that Faulkner saves the best for last; the reward is in sticking it out.

Still thinking though--will be back.


mrsdarwin said...

I like your mention of the one description of Sutpen's first wife before the falling-out (according to the genealogy at the end of the book, her name is Eulalia). The impression you get during the siege is one of beauty; after he repudiates her she turns into a Haitian version of Miss Rosa, all fury and dowdy black clothes. Sutpen seems to have that effect on the women he shames.

I had the impression, though, that it was not so much that Sutpen wanted to win a wife honorably as that he wanted to ensure that his own hereditary line would be untainted -- his first-born would be gotten clean and without stain. His bigotry and selfishness is his downfall -- again and again. He'd rather die than acknowledge an unworthy offspring. Oddly enough, Clytie escapes his utter contempt (or at least his utter rejection), mainly because there's no doubt of her social standing. No one will ever mistake her for Sutpen's heir. All he cares about is his legacy, although he spends his life destroying his legacy by treating everyone in his path as a tool.

That's the sense in which the "demon" label is accurate: there's no human softness in him. I was touched by his early life circumstances, but I was struck by how his one living descendant (by novel's end) is doomed to live in exactly the same squalor and ignorance out of which his great-grandfather strove so hard to raise his line.

BettyDuffy said...

Good point on his hereditary line, I agree. But I also think he wanted to project an image of himself as honorable, as honor was necessary to secure a fortune and his standing in society. I think that is part of the reason he chose Ellen, to be his (second) wife. She gave him instant respectability, even as he was about to be attacked by a crowd.

At one point Quentin returns to that particular scene, and says something to the effect of, "And SUtpen had won his property by illicit means, then stolen all the goods to furnish his house, and they were about to throw him in jail for it, but then they absolved him because he married Ellen, so that was settled."

It's a recurrant historical theme that events happened for ill intentions of by illicit means, but then mysteriously the perpetrators were absolved, so that's it. History suddenly approves, or if not approves, at least ignores.

Emily J. said...

I have much less sympathy for Sutpen than you, dear sister. I finally read over the section on his beginnings last night, and I'm not sure his pulling himself out of the squalor of his birth is any great achievement. He's still blind to humanity. And I'm not even convinced that it's honor he's after, although I've still got a big chunk left to read. That section about how he studied the white man who lay in his hammock and was barefoot during hte day by choice leads me to question whether honor is his desire. Respectability may be part of what he wants, but I'm not sure exactly what it is -- why he is so driven to realize a vision of a certain kind of life that he never accomplishes that sort of leisure - nor the lifestyle that allows him to have a carriage with a driver and a butler who will call out to a girl, his sister, in the roadway for her to move and then kick dirt up in his face as it drove away.

I can't figure out these women either. Do the Coldfields have no spine or is there something in Sutpen's nature that they desire?

Back to reading...