What Might Have Been in Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom!
Emerging from and dwelling within an all-consuming lamentation, the characters of William Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! enwrap themselves in a world of hurt wherein they cannot or will not release the past. Each comes to know the tragic ends of lingering among an ever-present past while the here and now fades under fretful shadows of days gone by. As the narrative progresses. the major players in this installment of Faulkner's fictional Yoknapatawpha County grow ever more obsessed by what alternative actions different circumstances might have afforded. Trapped in his/her own notions of "what might have been" (115), Miss Rosa Coldfield's wistful, yet indignant exhortation, the historicized characters of Thomas Sutpen and Miss Rosa remain fixated by Antebellum illusions--he in a desperate effort to gain what he could not, she in bitter remembrance of what had never, but might have been.
... in that barren hall with its naked stair... rising into the dim upper hallway where an echo spoke which was not mine ut rather that of the lost irrevocable might-have-been which haunts all houses, all enclosed walls erected by human hands, not for shelter, not for warmth, but to hide from the world's curious looking and seeing the dark turnings which the ancient young delusions of pride and hope and ambition (ay, and love too) take.
--Miss Rosa p. 109, Absalom, Absalom!, William Faulkner
The novel's effective narrative technique of expansion and contraction via a series of interconnected yet ever more distanced recollections, retellings. and speculative reconstructions of the Sutpen-Coldfield-Yoknapatawpha County past offers various perspectives in its chronicle of what might have been. The analytical focus here will be on Miss Rosa's phrase and its place in the multi-temporal multidimensional scope of the novel, for it is in their desire to realize that "might have been which is more true than truth" (115), which equally exposes the motivation of the characters in Sutpen's ill-fated story, and the narrative depiction of it.
In getting at Miss Rosa's might have been, consider the townspeople's propensity to speculate. In her introductory account of Sutpen, Miss Rosa says, "Anyone could have looked at him once and known that he would be be lying about who and where and why he came" (11). From the start, the townspeople of Jefferson concoct the basest notions of Sutpen's origins and business dealings. Mr. Compson tells how the town ruminated over Sutpen's time away:
[They] pictured him during [his] absence with a handkerchief over his face and the two pistols glinting beneath the candelabra of a steamboat's saloon... [or doing] something performed in the lurking dark of a muddy landing and with a knife from behind. (33)
Though some answers to the town's questions about Sutpen come in time, initial uncertainties and allegations invite the reader to participate in the guesswork as...