Haiti (Location Key)


Although Quentin most often refers to it generically as the "West Indies" (192) and Shreve flippantly refers to it as "Porto Rico or Haiti or wherever it was" (239), the place to which Sutpen goes to accomplish the first step in his design is the island of Haiti, as the Chronology and the Genealogy at the end of Absalom! make clear. The "Haiti" in the novel is not the historical Haiti, which successfully won independence from France and abolished slavery in1804, before Sutpen was born; Faulkner's Haiti is still a slave-holding French colony when Sutpen arrives there in 1820, and the slave rebellion depicted in the novel occurs in the late 1820s. Absalom! represents "Haiti" in vague and essentially symbolic terms that evoke both the American dream and Joseph Conrad's descriptions of the Congo in Heart of Darkness. The 14-year-old Sutpen who goes there imagines it as a land of opportunity, "a place called the West Indies to which poor men went in ships and became rich" (195). The one long description of the "little lost island," furnished in Quentin's narrative but based on what his "Grandfather said," locates it in a moral realm rather than in the Caribbean or in history: as "the halfway point between what we call the jungle and what we call civilization," as "a spot of earth which might have been created and set aside by Heaven itself, Grandfather said, as a theatre for violence and injustice and bloodshed and all the satanic lusts of human greed and cruelty" (202). In terms of the story, the most important Haitian setting is the French sugar plantation where Sutpen is an overseer until the slaves revolt, and afterward where he marries his first wife and has his first child, and where he acquires the twenty slaves he brings with him to Yoknapatawpha. In terms of Faulkner's engagement with the issue of slavery, it seems likely that just as he uses the Indians as slave-owners in the story "Red Leaves," so here he uses a foreign country's exploitation of an enslaved population for profit as a way of engaging the history of slavery in the American South at an imaginatively safe distance: 'they' committed this injustice, not 'us.' The planters of Haiti probably bought and sold people and sugar in livres or francs, but the novel's reference to Haiti as the place where "the sheen on the dollars was not from gold but from blood" (201-02) is what Freud called a parapraxis and we call a Freudian slip.

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