The Decomposing Archetypes of Thomas Sutpen and Mr. Kurtz in the Motley Flag of Modernism

Amy E. C. Linnemann, Southeast Missouri State University

Without the safety net of reason, which the Enlightenment thinkers had taken such pains to secure by firm and unbending bolts of rationality, the twentieth century acrobats of religion, rule, and birthright began tumbling to the floor.  Philosophies of dialectic reason crumbled, notions of empirical truth imploded, and the certainties of an entire society lay threadbare and limp on the carnival floor.  As is always the function of clowns, artists and writers immediately clamored into the center ring, gathering and immortalizing the remnants of tattered social fabric out of the trampled dust and elephant dung. Hoisted like a motley banner over the chaotic big top, the makeshift flag of modernist art and literature waved its patchwork of eroded absolutes against the nihilist wind that threatened to destroy the circus. 

Stitched into this flag are the works of William Faulkner and Joseph Conrad. These two writers, as though marking the variegated pulse of a common humanity from two sides of a single ocean, excavated and displayed the disillusionment of a world whose edges had irrevocably frayed.  With muddled metaphors and cracked theologies, Conrad and Faulkner often assembled their books from the broken pieces of the fallen allegories, among which lay the fragments of a once unified church and a once powerful religion.  Using the same symbols by which the church hierarchy had justified its ascension to power, they wrote of lives whose very humanity defied such conscription, people to whom the icons would not adhere.  Among these characters stand Thomas Sutpen, the dissolving Satan figure of Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!, and Mr. Kurtz, the decomposing Christ figure in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.  Like modernist bookends, these two characters perch upon opposite ends of a span, bridged only by the words placed between them, demonstrating through their respective stories humanity’s inability to support the weight of either.  

Critics have long acknowledged the connection between these writers, citing the influence of Conrad’s allegorical allusions, thematic development, and unconventional organization upon some of Faulkner’s most well-known work (Moore; Wegelin 375-6).  In fact, Richard Adams goes so far as to state that, “In the whole of Faulkner’s work, the influence of Conrad is the  ‘strongest and most pervasive’” (qtd. in Meyers).  Jeffrey Meyers expounds upon this point by noting, “[Faulkner] was influenced by Conrad’s muddled chronology…his lush descriptions of jungle wilderness, his contrast of light and dark imagery, his scenes of passion that occur near flowing streams, and his fictional characters and settings that recur in several works.”  And he goes on to cite Stephen Ross, gest impact on Absalom, Absalom!” (191). Although these insights go a long way toward demonstrating the connections between several aspects of each writer’s work, they fail to forge a direct link between the binary allegories of Thomas Sutpen and Mr. Kurtz, allegories which are most telling in their inconsistency.

Thomas Sutpen, whose last name is a near rhyme with its allegorical double, is painted throughout the first chapters of Absalom, Absalom! as an impressionist rendering of Satan.  In the initial account of the dialogue between Miss Rosa and Quentin, references to Sutpen as a “demon” are dispersed throughout Miss Rosa’s words, Quentin’s thoughts, and the vague narrative presence.  “Out of quiet thunderclap,”  Faulkner writes of Sutpen’s haunting presence in Miss Rosa’s voice, “he would abrupt (man-horse-demon) upon a scene peaceful and decorous as a schoolprize water color, faint sulphur-reek still in hair clothes and beard, with grouped behind him his band of wild niggers like beasts half tamed to walk upright like men” (4).  These unmistakably Satanic allusions employ the very symbols of the western demonic archetype, and with thunder, sulphur, beard, and beasts, Sutpen descends upon the “soundless Nothing” of earth like an inverted creator.  Twisting the invocation “Be Light” from the words of Genesis, the description of Sutpen’s paradoxical construction of decay on the land just outside Jefferson shows him calling his own empire into existence with the phrase “Be Sutpen’s Hundred” (4).  This implication of perverted scripture in the building of a hellish dynasty after the proverbial “fall,” as it were, serves to solidify a pervasive parallel between Sutpen and the Satanic stereotype.  Even his own progeny, “which should have been the jewels of his pride” (5) come to both destroy  and be destroyed by Sutpen himself, as Quentin’s internal dialogue explains.  Ultimately, the colorful fragments of this initial kaleidoscope of demonic references in the novel’s opening chapter coagulate to form the “ogre-shape” of Sutpen-Satan, leaving the reader with a clear sense of connection between evil and the presence of Thomas Sutpen, in death as well as in life and name. 

Likewise, the character of Mr. Kurtz in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, becomes an anthropomorphised force in the book’s first section, although the descriptions of Kurtz leave his presence deified rather than demonized.  Marlow’s initial mention of Kurtz occurs in reference to a conversation with “the Company’s chief accountant,” who relates, with almost mythic reverence, a message that he hopes Marlow will carry to the “remarkable” Kurtz.  This adjective in itself is by no means sufficient grounds to discuss Kurtz as a deified character, but as the accountant begins to relate stating Miss Rosa’s perspective to be a privileged narrative point of view, Betina Entzminger goes so far as to suggest that, “Possibly, it is Quentin’s inability to listen to Miss Rosa’s voice, to accept the fundamental truth of her narrative (that the events at Sutpen’s Hundred were madness rather than heroic and romantic feats) that destroys him” (110).  Whatever the implications, Quentin is certainly saddled with the responsibility of navigating through the tangled growth of Miss Rosa’s demon myth and the other points of view that dissolve the certainty of that myth.        

Throughout these varied descriptions of the Sutpen story, Thomas Sutpen gains psychological and emotional dimensions that snap the parameters of Miss Rosa’s ogre-demon projection, portraying him alternately as an innocent victim and a primitive but misunderstood hero of self-sufficiency.  Although the imperialist context of his conquests support the demonic representation of his character, the dimensions added by Quentin’s description of the Grandfather’s perspective and Shreve’s conjecture about the Henry/Bon conflict pile layer upon layer of complexity over the opaque veneer formed by an absolute conscription of Sutpen as evil.  Illustrating the disparity between Miss Rosa’s account of madness and depravity and the Sutpen legends described by the male characters, Entzminger writes: “Mr. Compson tells his story – that of a hero, a man with a design, who rose to greatness out of nothingness, and then, because of his perverse innocence, was cast into nothingness again” (116).  Robert Hamblin echoes the fundamental significance of Sutpen’s plan, describing him as a “character type that is frequently found in American history and literature but one that in the 1930s was becoming increasingly controversial: an entrepreneurial, laissez-faire capitalist” (Hamblin, “‘A Fine Loud Grabble’” 14).  In each of these descriptions, Sutpen’s character is discussed from perspectives that erode the purely demonic archetype, investigating motivation that extends beyond sheer depravity or absolute evil. In fact, Faulkner even relates the evolving Sutpen story in such a way that the reader, especially in the third- and fourth-hand allusions to Thomas Sutpen’s childhood, is cajoled into a near sympathy for this character who ceases to embody an absolute demonic character, a character imposed upon the story by a woman who loathes him. And Miss Rosa dies as the sole purveyor of the Satan-Sutpen myth, a legend decomposed and recomposed in its perpetual retelling.

In Heart of Darkness, the mythic dimensions of Kurtz’s character are also, ultimately, championed by the “Intended” bride in an unconsummated engagement. Although Miss Rosa’s portrayal of her former fiancée’s archetypal parallels are laid out in the first pages of Faulkner’s novel, and the Intended’s illusions of a messianic savior are not solidified until the closing chapter of Conrad’s work, both women never waver in their totalization of Sutpen and Kurtz as allegorical super-humans.  Even in her grief at Mr. Kurtz’s death, the Intended maintains that “He drew men towards him by what was best in them…the gift of the great,” demonstrating her own perspective on an obviously Christ-oriented characterization  (75).  Marlow, on the other hand, discovers a less divine character as he relates to Kurtz in the jungle.   In fact, in the few hours during which Marlow actually interacts with Kurtz, the image of the introspective Christ figure deteriorates into a thin shadow, until, as he finally explains to his shipmates, “The shade of the original Kurtz frequented the bedside of the hollow sham, whose fate it was to be buried presently in the mould of primeval earth” (68).  Thus the divinity of Christ wanes into Adamic mud rather than erupting into luminescent resurrection.  Even the very symbols that surround Jesus’s crucifixion transform and tarnish in Kurtz’s own last seconds.  Just as the temple veil tears when Christ relinquishes his own spirit, Marlow describes the final moments of Kurtz’s life by saying, “It was a though a veil had been rent” (69).  Behind the veil surrounding Kurtz, however, Marlow finds the element remains of the allegory’s demise, “I saw on that ivory face the expression of sombre pride, of ruthless power, of craven terror – of an intense and hopeless despair” (69).  In these words, Marlow notes the incapacity of even a “remarkable man” to maintain a character of absolute divinity, the inability of any human being to bear up under the weight of an archetype.  The irony of the venue to which Kurtz was to represent some form of salvation gains a great deal of momentum in these decomposing absolutes, and the imperialistic forces of terror and inhumanity that saturate the entire novel are brought to bear on its consummate hero, a defiled Christ figure and a “violent lost soul” (Michel 95).  Marlow, however, seeks to preserve the fallen image of the icon in his lie to the Intended wherein he denies “the horror” in favor of a name.  And the Intended becomes the solitary champion of a singular empty allegory, to which no human being actually corresponds. 

Along with their respective fiancées, each character also has a loyal disciple whose perspective serves to both enhance and disperse the allegorical certainties of their personae.  In Heart of Darkness, the motley clown tiptoes, like a Nietzschean tightrope walker, across the chasm that lies between Kurtz’s image and his human reality, fully aware of the fallacy attached to both extremes.  Certainly, the very mythology that surrounded Kurtz rendered his impact upon his followers beyond his on humanity.  At the same time, though, the persistence of the myth bore no real force in transforming the decaying mor(t)ality of the Kurtz from a man into a being beyond the grasp of internal or external decomposition.  As Kurtz’s most loyal follower, the Russian “phenomenon” knew of Kurtz from a first- hand perspective that balanced an awareness of the mythology with the awareness of the humanity.  Kinkead-Weekes describes the privileged perspective of the clown: “The fuller knowledge of the two people who know Kurtz (as Marlow doesn’t) is kept from us, because one doesn’t speak our language and because Marlow won’t listen to the other, the Harlequin” (40). And the motley disciple, though fully aware of the non-deity, also elects to champion the myth of Kurtz beyond the boundaries attached to his own direct perceptions.

Similarly, Wash Jones follows closely behind the character of Thomas Sutpen, a dedicated caretaker of the deception that he represented.  When that deception extends in its scope to include the degradation of his own grandchild, however, Wash becomes the instrument of Sutpen’s final demise.  The events of this triple murder seem to fall out of an imbalance that arises in the Sutpen allegory, tended throughout the story’s development by Wash himself.  For Wash insists upon relating to Sutpen as a human being, while living upon the scattered breadcrusts of the excessive evil and decay from which the family derives its profit.  It is in the relegation of his granddaughter to the position of breeding livestock that Wash Jones is forced to acknowledge a disparity between his image of an evil provider and the actions of an opportunistic imperialist, driven by human inadequacies as much as demonic pride. Thus, the allegorical binary collapses in the final scenes of Sutpen’s life.  In a twist of dramatic irony, the reader is forced to negotiate between the vulnerable innocence of Sutpen the man and the apparent evil of Sutpen the demon, and the novel leaves Quentin to sift through the rubble of the story fragments for his own conclusion. 

The decomposition of the absolute archetypes attached to Sutpen and Kurtz, demonstrated extensively in the variegated perspectives offered for each story, also extends into the very theme and structure of the language itself.  The development of both characters seems to revolve around imperialistic conquest, operating as a tool of Sutpen’s demonic rise to power and a venue through which Kurtz offers his own poetic “salvation” to the inhabitants of the interior.  In many ways, this appropriation of imperialist motivations may account for the distinction noted in Hamblin’s “‘Longer than Anything’:  Faulkner’s ‘Grand Design’ in Absalom, Absalom!” wherein he explains, “Unlike Kurtz, Sutpen survives his Descent into Hell;  but he does not escape unscathed:  the horrors he saw and experienced there have a catastrophic effect upon his subsequent life and career” (280).  Because the drive toward descent is motivated by different brands of imperialism in each character (Kurtz’s in Africa, Sutpen’s in Haiti and then America), the ultimate impact of these imperialistic ventures upon their personae serves to underscore some of  the extension beyond archetype.  For Sutpen’s imperialistic terror is balanced by an implicit psychological vulnerability and warped undercurrent of innocence, and Kurtz’s  nobility is diluted beyond recognition by the imperialistic venue that he chooses for his messianic journey. 

Even the language that surrounds each character betrays some of this complexity, often mingling images of holiness and God-like sovereignty with Sutpen’s demonic attributes, and alluding to Kurtz’s inadequacy and depravity alongside the twisted Christ images that pepper his characterizations.  With references to Sutpen’s three years of rest, unknowable past and parentage, and large, congregated following, Faulkner confounds the certainty of Sutpen’s demonic attributes in the very symbolic attributes that surround biblical accounts of Christ’s ministry.  Similarly, fear, death, and an exhortation to slaughter his own followers smear the edges of any absolute analogy that might be drawn between the violent conquests of Kurtz and the peaceful life and message of the scriptural Christ (50).  Of these contrasts, Renner explains, “The hypocrisy of civilization made manifest by the truth about man’s nature is heavily underscored by the ironic contrast between the appearance of a Christlike Kurtz and the reality of his divergence from orthodox view” (98).  In these deviations from the absolutes of archetype through language and motivation, the two allegories erode even further into modernist obscurity.

In the characters of Mr. Kurtz and Thomas Sutpen, both Conrad and Faulkner display the imperfect unity of humanity, bound to both halves of any dialectic and inconscribable in any iconic representation.  The very form of an icon, in its stasis and stone, conflicts with the motion and blood of life and existence, and man can only fully achieve any immobile status of legend or myth in the inaction of death.  Even the enduring forms of art, which can be framed in a museum or bound in a dust jacket, are in flux insofar as they exist in the dialogue of human life, as exemplified by the dialogic formats of these two novels.  Certainly the lives of Sutpen and Kurtz, as encountered through the muddled narration of multiple characters and mingled symbolism of language and motivation, reveal something of this imperfect unity, this human particularity of motion that extends beyond all static impositions of meaning.  Renner explains of Kurtz’s archetypal demise, “Perceiving the degradation of his own noble intentions…he discovers that human nature is imperfectible.  His last words, which he speaks twice, reveal his loss of faith in the soul of both man and the universe.  He dies, is buried, and is not resurrected” (101).  Faulkner counterbalances this ignoble view of life and human possibility by offering, in Sutpen, an equally adulterated portrait of evil, demonstrating that man is as incapable of perfecting darkness as he is of generating the purity of absolute light.  And in the decomposition of these Christ and Satan archetypes, mortal divinity is challenged at both ends, and human potential falls somewhere between.

Works Cited
Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. Herfordshire: Cumberland House, 1995.

Entzminger, Betina. “Listen to them Being Ghosts’: Rosa’s Words of Madness That Quentin Can’t Hear.” College Literature 25 (Spring 1998): 108-121.

Faulkner, William. Absalom Absalom! New York: Vintage International,1990.

Hamblin, Robert W.  “‘A Fine Loud Grabble and Snatch of AAA and WPA’: Faulkner, Government, and the Individual.” Arkansas Review 31 (April 2000): 10-15.

Hamblin, Robert W. “‘Longer than Anything’: Faulkner’s ‘Grand Design’ in Absalom, Absalom!” Faulkner and the Artist, ed. Donald M. Kartiganer and Ann J. Abadie. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1996, 3-35.

Kinkead-Weekes, Mark. “Heart of Darkness and the Third World Writer.”  Sewanee Review 98 (Winter 1990): 31-50.

Meyers,  Jeffrey. “Conrad’s Influence on Modern Writers.” Twentieth Century Literature 36 (Summer 1990): 186-203.

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