Absalom, Absalom begins with Quentin Compson making observations about Rosa Coldfield's old home in Jefferson, Mississippi. He has been summoned to hear her story for some reason, though he doesn't know her very well and has only spoken to her in passing. She is much older (in her sixties), and he is a Harvard student.
Much of what Rosa says to Quentin assumes that Quentin already knows the basic facts of her life and her family connection with the Sutpen family. The first chapter reveals or hints at most of the important facts of the plot, including Sutpen's death, Charles Bon's murder, Rosa's departure from the Sutpen house and her refusal to return, and the disappearance of Henry Sutpen. The book repeats and elaborates on the same basic plot structure, but here is a basic skeleton of the important dates in the book:
- 1833 - Thomas Sutpen appears in Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi, with only twenty slaves (including two females), no friends, and no apparent history. He quickly obtains a 100-square mile block of land from a Chickasaw chief and sets about building a house, establishing a plantation, and finding a wife.
- 1838 - Sutpen marries Ellen Coldfield, and the town of Jefferson expresses its outrage by pelting him with vegetables at his wedding. He has two children shortly after-Henry in 1839 and Judith in 1841. (He already has a daughter, Clytemnestra, that he fathered with one of his slaves.) Sutpen quickly becomes one of the richest men in northern Mississippi.
- 1859 - Sutpen's son Henry meets Charles Bon at the University of Mississippi; Henry brings Bon to the Sutpen house, and an engagement between Judith and Bon quickly takes place.
- 1860 (Christmas Eve) - Sutpen forbids the marriage between Judith and Bon, and Henry becomes so upset that he renounces his family ties and his inheritance of his father's estate, and rides away with Bon. The Civil War breaks out shortly thereafter (April 1861), and Bon and Henry enlist, as does Sutpen in a different regiment. Judith, shocked by the dissolution of her family, falls ill and dies in 1863.
- 1865 - Having survived the war, Henry and Bon ride back to Sutpen's Hundred . Henry shoots and kills Bon just before they arrive at the house, and leaves Bon's corpse there. Henry disappears. Sutpen returns from the war, finds Bon is dead and his son has disappeared, and starts trying to rebuild his family and home.
- 1866 - Sutpen proposes to Rosa Coldfield, and she seems to accept. A few months later, Sutpen makes an indecent proposal to her, and she breaks the engagement.
- 1869 - Milly Jones gives birth to a daughter, and Sutpen is the father. Wash Jones murders Sutpen, then kills his granddaughter (Milly) and the infant great-granddaughter, and then is killed by the sheriff.
- 1871 - After hearing that his mother has died in New Orleans, Clytie brings the orphaned Charles Etienne de St. Valery Bon (Bon's son) to Sutpen's home, where she and Judith raise him.
- 1881 - Charles Etienne de St. Valery Bon, after disappearing for a year, returns to Sutpen's Hundred with his "negro" wife, who gives birth to their "idiot" son, Jim Bond.
- 1884 - Charles Etienne de St. Valery Bon contracts yellow fever, gives it to Judith who was caring for him, and both die from it.
- 1909 - September - The present of the novel, when Quentin Compson is summoned to Rosa Coldfield's house for some unknown reason (because she wants him to come with her to the old Sutpen house to find out what's in the house).
Quentin is native to Jefferson, just as Rosa is, and he has seen the now-dilapidated house and heard much of the story (or legend) of the Sutpen family. Quentin seems to be trying to determine why he was summoned, while thinking about the ways that Rosa's family and personal history can be seen and felt in her present environment.
On the first page of the book, then, the reader sees Quentin thinking about Rosa and her relation to the infamous Thomas Sutpen, describing her house and her appearance as he sits in front of her listening to her tell her story. Quentin muses repeatedly, and in varying images, about the appearance of Thomas Sutpen in Yoknapatawpha, and his rapid rise from a man with nothing to a prosperous landowner, and his equally rapid fall just after the war.
Through an inserted conversation that will occur later between Quentin and his father, it becomes clear that Rosa wants Quentin to accompany her somewhere. She then spends considerable time talking about Sutpen, and it becomes clear that she still hates him.
Rosa's basic argument in the first chapter, that she illustrates with complex and detailed examples from her family and from her knowledge of the Sutpen family, is that Thomas Sutpen represents the kind of person that the South encouraged and developed. Sutpen had courage, but had no scruples. He was strong, but he lacked honor. The loss of the Civil War, as Rosa suggests, was a divine punishment for the kinds of sins that men like Sutpen were committing in the South. As an example, she talks both about the kinds of things that Sutpen did while he was building his house (like having his slaves fight each other, and even entering the ring and fighting one of his own slaves, with an audience of men from the town) and about the influence he had on his children (the child Judith encouraging the dangerous race to church every Sunday, and Judith and Clytie sitting in the loft of the barn, secretly watching the slave fights).
The book opens with Quentin wondering why he has been asked to visit this old woman, Rosa Coldfield. The chapter tries to quickly convince the reader (and Quentin) that Rosa has a strong voice, and that she has her own reasons for telling her story. She seems to get Quentin's attention by the end of the chapter, and he becomes very interested in the details that she suggests.
This first chapter (and most of the book) presents typical Faulkner, with ornate, even eccentric sentences that fill half of a page and juxtapose Southern vernacular with abstract, Latinate words. In other words, Faulkner blends odd elements together. The result is a challenging mix of complex vocabulary and local references. Rosa's storytelling style, as represented in this chapter, borders on bombast, and by the end, it becomes difficult to accept everything that she says. Her self-important rhetorical style seems to suggest that she might be exaggerating or at least misrepresenting things. Faulkner adds to this doubt by including some of Quentin's skepticism, and some of Quentin's father's skepticism of Rosa.
This first chapter contains somewhat vague hints to several of the important plot events, and this vagueness of some of the more shocking elements in the plot tries to encourage suspense.
The first chapter presents a general overview of the plot, but it also introduces the reader to the way that the story will be filtered through different perspectives. In this chapter, the reader notices that Rosa is interpreting the events as she's describing them, and that she's not just a passive reporter. Inserting Quentin's voice and his father's voice into the chapter helps the reader see the biases of Rosa's story, as well as her purposes in telling it.