Absalom, Absalom!: Novel Summary: Chapter 7
This chapter opens with a return to the present of the novel, 1910, at Harvard. Quentin and Shreve are still talking about the Sutpen family, and they are still working out the details of the family story.
Shreve opens the chapter by making a comment about Sutpen's goal of having a son. This leads to Quentin telling the story of Sutpen's conversations with General Compson early in the 1830's and in the 1860's about his design or plan.
The circumstances that set up the first exchange between General Compson and Sutpen in the 1830's involve the French architect trying to escape. Sutpen makes a kind of social event of it, and invites several men from the town to help him track the French architect. When the dogs they are using are fooled and lose the scent, Sutpen and Compson sit and talk about Sutpen's origins.
Sutpen says that he is from the northwest parts of Virginia (or currently West Virginia, though it had not split from Virginia yet), and that he was raised in the mountains with a large family and an irresponsible drunk of a father. The family eventually moved south into the wealthy Tidewater region of Virginia near the James river. Here, Sutpen talks about his inability to understand the social systems in place in plantation Virginia. His father sends him to an opulent plantation home with a message, and he approaches from the front door. Before he can even state his message, the well-dressed slave butler tells him that he is not to come to the front door and that he should go around to the back door. Sutpen is shocked and runs into the woods to try to figure out what just happened, because he can't really account for a system that would refuse to even listen to him based on what he looked like, and where the fact that he had come to the wrong door was more important than anything that he had to say.
Sutpen uses the analogy of a fine rifle to explain his system of thinking before this encounter. To him, the owner of the plantation might show off a fine rifle, and might have cause to be proud of that rifle. But the fact that he owns a fine rifle doesn't give him the right to say that his body is superior. Sutpen can't resolve this situation until he eventually realizes that he is powerless to do anything about the insult he has been given. He wants to kill the plantation owner that he has managed to sneak looks at as the rich man lounges on his property, but he realizes that killing him will not fix the problem. Returning to his rifle analogy, he decides that the best way to fight the people with the nice rifles is to get his own nice rifle.
Sutpen says that his brief exposure to school taught him about the West Indies, and he confronts his teacher about something he heard the teacher read in a book about getting rich quickly in the West Indies. After he confirms this, he finds a way to get there. He doesn't explain how he did it, just that he went to sea as a sailor and found a way there.
Mr. Compson mentions that Sutpen said that he had to set aside his first wife when he found out that she was not suitable for his purposes (after Sutpen has a child with her (Charles Bon), Sutpen finds out that she has a small amount of "negro blood").
Sutpen jumps ahead in his life to the point where he has established himself at a plantation in Haiti, and he is forced to defend the plantation owner and his daughter from a slave revolt. They are blockaded in the house, taking turns firing muskets out into the darkness, with the daughter and two slaves taking turns loading the muskets for them. After eight days, the water runs out, and Sutpen decides that he must do it. So he puts down the musket, goes outside, and "subdues" the slaves, single-handedly. When he recovered, he married the daughter (Eulalia Bon).
Sutpen interrupts his story when the architect is recovered, and General Compson doesn't hear any more of it until about thirty years later. Quentin pauses in the telling, and Shreve asks him to continue, which he does. Sutpen comes to General Compson's office to talk about his history. He explains his "design" to Compson, which was to establish a family dynasty, and he uses a kind of rational morality that allows him to justify his abandonment of Eulalia and Charles Bon by saying that they lied about important details before the marriage and because he was sure to give them plenty of money to live on after he left.
Quentin and Shreve pause in the telling of this to connect this information with what they know about Charles Bon. Quentin talks about what his father said about Sutpen's decision to name Charles Bon-not after himself, because he didn't want to be associated, and not after Eulalia's father. Shreve asks about the contradiction: if Mr. Compson knew that Charles Bon was Sutpen's son, why did he say that Henry killed Bon because of the threat of bigamy? Quentin responds that his father didn't know until he told his father the day after Quentin's visit to Sutpen's house in September 1909.
Quentin and Shreve put much of the Henry-Bon-Sutpen story together from Sutpen's perspective with this new knowledge, saying that Sutpen knew a great deal about what would happen when he met Bon, and that he saw only a limited set of options for himself. Instead of telling Henry that Bon had a wife and child on that Christmas Even in 1860, Sutpen told Henry that Bon was his half-brother. This is the reason that Henry abandons his family and inheritance. Sutpen keeps his last detail for the moment that he needs it, and he communicates this last bit of information to Henry near the end of the war when his regiment happens to be stationed near his son's. He tells Henry that Bon has "negro blood."
Quentin thinks to himself about Sutpen and Rosa after the war, and he decides that Sutpen was merely worried that he only had enough time and energy for a single child when he proposed his indecent idea to Rosa. (What if, after all, they were married, Rosa became pregnant, and then had a girl? How quickly would they be able to try again? Would Sutpen still be alive for a second try if the first failed?) Again, his rational morality made him think that such a proposition might be acceptable.
Here Shreve interrupts, and takes over the telling for a paragraph, but Quentin takes over again shortly after. The story moves into Sutpen's seduction of Milly Jones, with beads, ribbons, and even a new dress from the store that he was now running (with Wash Jones, Milly's grandfather). Wash confronts Sutpen about the dress, and Sutpen quiets him. Milly becomes pregnant, and Wash tries to remain neutral about the identity of the father. He is standing outside of the cabin (in the fish camp where Wash and Milly live) where Milly is recovering from having her baby when Sutpen enters the cabin. Sutpen has just found out that his mare has foaled a male horse, and he goes to the cabin hoping that he has a son. He asks the midwife, and she tells him that it is a daughter (though that is not revealed until the end of the chapter).
On the way out of the cabin, Sutpen makes a remark about Milly, saying that it's too bad that she's not a horse so that he could keep her in the (probably better-kept) stable. Wash overhears this, and he stops Sutpen on his way out of the cabin. The midwife hears Sutpen telling Wash not to touch him, and Wash responding that he is going to touch him. Sutpen's whip is heard, and then nothing. Wash has killed Sutpen with the rusty scythe he borrowed from Sutpen to trim the weeds.
Wash enters the cabin to talk to his granddaughter, and he tries to comfort her. A young boy comes by, looking for Sutpen on an errand from Judith, and sees the body (and Wash in the cabin). Sheriff De Spain arrives a little after with several men and dogs, expecting to have to hunt down Wash. Instead, Wash talks to the sheriff from inside the cabin. De Spain tells Wash to come out of the cabin, and he says he will in a moment. Wash calls out for his daughter, and cuts her throat and his great-grandchild's throat. The sheriff and his men rush into the cabin, and Wash rushes them with the scythe. They shoot and kill him.
When the story is finished, at the end of the chapter, Shreve asks if the child was a son or daughter. Quentin misunderstands and repeats Sutpen's goal of having a male child, but then says that Milly's child was a girl.
This is a key chapter, because it is finally in this chapter that the reader sees inside Sutpen's head (through his description of his origins and his plan). It describes the major sin of his life that brings about his downfall, and introduces the connection between Bon and Sutpen, though the circumstances that prevented this detail from coming out in Mr. Compson's earlier versions are complex. Quentin provided the crucial detail-that Charles Bon was Sutpen's son from an earlier marriage -to his father the day after the tellings that are recorded in chapters 2, 3, and 4.
This chapter corrects the invalid assumptions that Mr. Compson makes in those earlier chapters, and also presents a much more full account of Sutpen's death. Wash Jones becomes a more important character in this chapter, partly because of the amount of time that Quentin and Shreve spend talking about him.
The reader hears about Compson's strange conscience in this chapter, and also the fantastic stories about what Sutpen did in Haiti. These ideas seem to connect with what Rosa said earlier in the book, about how men with no morality are the reason that the South deserved to lose the war.