Thomas Sutpen

Character Key Number: 
85
Display Name: 
Thomas Sutpen
Sort Name: 
Sutpen, Thomas
Ever Present in Yoknapatawpha?: 
No
Biography: 

As the central figure in one of Faulkner's greatest novels, Absalom, Absalom!, Thomas Sutpen is a very different character, depending on which of the novel's story-tellers is telling his story. On the opening pages, for example, he is a dominant if demonic force that, according to Miss Rosa, is responsbile for destroying the culture of the Old South. When he gets to tell his own story, however, as transmitted through three generations of Compsons, he appears as a traumatized small boy who is himself determined if not destroyed by the culture of the Old South. At the same time, Sutpen is also a character whom Faulkner himself revises several times across the course of the eight Yoknapatawpha fictions in which he appears. Faulkner probably has no larger design for him in mind when, the the very first Yoknapatawpha fiction, Flags in the Dust, John Sartoris' sister refers elliptically to the "better colonel" who replaced her brother in command of the Confederate regiment from the county (238), but later the replacement colonel is Sutpen - though in "Retreat" (and again in The Unvanquished) Buck McCaslin calls him "a damn whippersnapper" and an incompetent soldier (21). In "Wash," the first publication to give him a name, he is "Colonel Sutpen" - overbearing owner of a large plantation in Yoknapatawpha, a Confederate officer who earns a citation from Robert E. Lee, a man obsessed with producing a male heir after his son is killed in the War, and the father of a female child with a poor white teenager, Milly Jones, whose grandfather Wash kills him. This short story gives no information about Sutpen's pre-Yoknapatawpha biography, nor any reason to question his aristocratic pedigree. The same events recur in Absalom!, but there the narrative ultimately exposes his very humble beginnings and reveals his determination to build a dynasty - his "design" - as his attempt to revenge himself upon the plantation aristocracy that denied his humanity. His design fails - tragically, or ironically, or perhaps even justly. But it also becomes the means for Faulkner to take one of his hardest looks at the Southern past and the legacy it has left. Quentin Compson raises the novel's implicit question when he wonders if it took "Thomas Sutpen to make all of us" (210). But even as he was writing Absalom!, Faulkner was working on the Unvanquished stories, and in them he imaginatively returns to John Sartoris as the epitome of the Old South. Late in that novel, in a conversation with Drusilla comparing the two colonels, Bayard essentially reduces Sutpen to an "underbred" and "a cold ruthless man" (222). Sutpen's name is mentioned in four additional fictions, but mainly in a still more reduced role as the landowner who sold Major de Spain the camp in the wilderness where Faulkner sets his hunting stories. While Quentin remains haunted by Sutpen's ghost at the end of Absalom!, Faulkner's later fictions seem to seek to exorcize him.