Racial mixture, racial passing, and white subjectivity in Absalom, Absalom!

Racial mixture, racial passing, and white subjectivity in Absalom, Absalom!

The Faulkner Journal
Volume 23, Issue 2 (Spring 2008)
pages 3-22

Masami Sugimori, Instructor of English
University of South Alabama

In his 1987 study of the critical reception of Absalom, Absalom! Bernd Engler points out that “since the mid-Seventies the only interpretations to gain favour have been those which, at least partly, regard Absalom, Absalom! as the conscious realization of an open work of art” (246). Somewhat testifying to how the text’s indeterminacy specifically concerns the interconnection of race and narrative, Engler’s survey also shows that noteworthy monographs from the decade include those concerning “Faulkner’s attitude towards racial questions” (252) as well as “the novel as a study in narratology and/or epistemology” (256). Indeed, even as Quentin and Shreve finalize their reconstruction of the endlessly uncertain past by reading Charles Bon’s white-looking body as “passing white,” Faulkner does not supply any evidence for Bon’s racial mixture outside the white character-narrators’ invention.

Engler is quick to note, however, that most race-related scholarship does not fully attend to the novel’s open-endedness, as exemplified by four studies from 1983: “Walter Taylor,  Eric J. Sundquist, Thadious M. Davis, and Erskine Peters begin, as do most others, with the dubious assumption that Bon’s identity as Sutpen’s part-negro son has been clearly established in the text” (253). And it seems that this problem is still compromising the Absalom, Absalom! scholarship. (1) For example, while critiquing the discursive domination of “‘legitimate’ white caretakers of history,” Maritza Stanchich bases her postcolonial reading upon the same white “legitimacy” and uncritically follows Quentin and Shreve’s re-creation of Bon as “a free mulatto who can ‘pass’ as white”: “When the narrators of different generations are faced with Bon, a free mulatto who can ‘pass’ as white and threatens to upset the South’s rigid race caste, their pre-Civil War and post-Civil War fears overlap and intermingle… The strategy of the narrative seeks to uphold white domination by representing all characters of color through Rosa, Quentin, General Compson and Shreve, the ‘legitimate’ white caretakers of history” (608)…

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