Absalom, Absalom!: Novel Summary: Chapter 6
In this chapter, the frame shifts to Harvard in January, 1910. Quentin and his Harvard roommate, Shreve McCannon, are talking about the Sutpen family. The chapter opens with reference to a recent letter from Quentin's father about Rosa Coldfield's death.
The first half of the text of the letter is presented in the beginning of this chapter, with Mr. Compson talking about her lingering (two week) coma. Quentin feels obliged to say something aloud about Rosa, and Shreve takes up the comment to ask a question that Quentin has been hearing (apparently) since he began at Harvard in the fall of 1909-the famous "Tell about the South."
Quentin begins by describing his first visit to the Sutpen house with Rosa, in September of 1909. Shreve interrupts in a long parenthetical series of questions that start to establish context by recapitulating much of what is already known about the plot. Shreve asks long, involved questions that fill several pages and Quentin responds only with "Yes."
Then, in the middle of this series of questions, Quentin observes that Shreve sounds like Mr. Compson, his father, and he enters a long italicized flashback that begins with the important realization that Mr. Compson didn't know as much about the Sutpen family history as he did after Quentin's return from his visit to the Sutpen house that night in 1909. In other words, Quentin knows more about the Sutpen family history than his father, and Shreve himself has already achieved a level of understanding equal to Mr. Compson.
Quentin himself thinks through some of the details of the story, saying that Sutpen must have realized his limited time and resources when he returned after the war, and that he must have tried to plan things carefully. He talks about Sutpen's country store, about Wash's importance in the store and to Sutpen in general as companion, and about Wash's role in the seduction of his granddaughter Milly. He imagines Sutpen as a drunk, with Wash carrying him home and putting him to bed, when Wash had not been permitted in the house before. He also imagines Wash murdering Sutpen with the scythe, and Judith dressing the body and taking it to the family cemetery to be buried.
Within this imagining, Shreve interrupts to bring up an incidental visit that Mr. Compson and Quentin make to that family cemetery. Quentin starts re-telling that incident, involving Luster trying to avoid going near the old Sutpen house, and Mr. Compson talking about Sutpen's purchase of two imported headstones while still in the war, and how Sutpen took extreme pains to bring the headstones to Mississippi through a Union blockade and across a war-torn South in 1864. Then Mr. Compson starts asking Quentin to try to figure out how the other three headstones were purchased and placed. Mr. Compson says that Judith paid for Bon's headstone with money from the sale of Sutpen's store. This brings up Bon's "octoroon" wife's visit to Sutpen's Hundred in 1870, with Charles Etienne in tow, and her visit at the grave.
Mr. Compson also mentions how Clytie went to New Orleans to fetch Charles Etienne in 1871, after the "octoroon" had died. Then Mr. Compson relates much of Charles Etienne's brief story, telling how he would appear at "negro" parties and start fights, and how he eventually ended up in court with General Compson, and how Compson offered him money and suggested that he leave Yoknapatawpha and become a different person (suggesting that he might pass for white if he wanted to). Charles Etienne disappears for a year, and returns with a full-blood "negro" wife. He takes up residence on Sutpen's Hundred, builds a small cabin, and soon has a child (Jim Bond). In 1884, he contracts yellow fever, which he passes to Judith, and they both die. Judith makes arrangements to pay for Charles Etienne's headstone far in advance, though Clytie insists on paying for it. Rosa Coldfield tells Judge Benbow to pay for Judith's headstone. This brings up a mention of Rosa's finances, and how Benbow financed her expenses out of his own pocket.
Quentin also mentions a brief childhood incident where, as a small boy, he and some other boys had wandered onto the Sutpen property and began daring each other to enter the decrepit Sutpen house. They were surprised by the aging Clytie and Jim Bond, and ran.
Quentin's responses early in the chapter (connecting Shreve's remarks about Rosa to questions about the South in general) suggest that the story of Sutpen can help explain the South, if such a thing is possible.
This chapter seems to begin after many long conversations between Quentin and Shreve about the South and about the Sutpen family. Shreve seems to know quite a bit already, and he is able to point out flaws and inconsistencies in the story that Quentin seems aware of but unable to articulate. In other words, this particular combination of the Southerner and the curious Canadian allows the story to take a fuller shape than the previous speeches from Mr. Compson and Rosa Coldfield.
The tombstones in the Sutpen family cemetery represent another important piece of factual evidence, and Mr. Compson seems to be teaching Quentin to read them, encouraging him to make his own conclusions about who purchased, composed, and placed them. They become a way to talk about what happens after Sutpen's death, and how the Sutpen family story connects with the present moment of the novel (now 1910).