Faulkner's Map of Yoknapatawpha: The End of Absalom, Absalom!

Robert Hamblin

Reading Absalom, Absalom! as a celebration of the superiority of art over life contributes to an understanding of the significance of the map of Yoknapatawpha County which Faulkner drew and allowed to be tipped into the back of his novel.1 Though the point has been generally ignored by readers and critics, the end of Absalom, Absalom! is not Quentin's tortured and passionate assertion that he doesn't hate the South. Nor is it the appendix listing the Sutpen "Chronology" and "Genealogy." The end of Absalom, Absalom! is Faulkner's map.2 As I hope to demonstrate, that map functions in much the same way as the title does, that is, by extending the province of the novel beyond the regional to the universal, by converting the "facts" of history into the "truth" of myth. In fact, the title and the map serve as matching bookends, or, better, a symbolic parenthesis enclosing the tragic history of Thomas Sutpen. Taken together, they are the Alpha and Omega, the first word and the last, of the novel, and both express Faulkner's faith in the triumph of art over the inevitable, downward spiral of history.

Most critics have interpreted Faulkner's title as an ironic commentary on the Sutpen family history. As John Hagopian has pointed out, the Sutpen narrative parallels the biblical story of David and Absalom in the emphasis on "revolt, incest, and fratricide," but it differs in that Faulkner's David, unlike the biblical one, is unable to feel love and compassion for his rebellious son. Hagopian views this key difference as "the main point of the Sutpen story.3

While he is undoubtedly right in his point-by-point comparison of the two stories, Hagopian ignores the broader implications of Faulkner's biblical allusion. Faulkner's interest in the David-Absalom story, as it is in the Greek and medieval legends with which it is clustered, is its mythic dimension--the manner in which it captures and reiterates, in its retelling, important aspects of the universal human condition. Faulkner's view of the Bible is pertinent here. As he made quite clear, his reading of the Bible was always literary, mythic, never religious. Like Ike McCaslin, Faulkner viewed the authors of the biblical myths as "human men" who "were trying to write down the heart's truth out of the heart's driving complexity, for all the complex and troubled hearts which would beat after them" (GDM 260). What impressed Faulkner primarily about the David and Absalom material was that it was a story that had been written and preserved through the centuries for generations of readers. That preservation had little to do with the religious significance or the historical accuracy of the story--in point of fact King David was a petty tyrant in a petty kingdom whose story would have been quickly forgotten had it not been recorded in "The Book." The real hero of the narrative is neither David nor Absalom but the anonymous bard/scribe who told/wrote a story that has outgrown and outlasted the author, the subject, and the historical era that produced it--that, in short, like Quentin and Shreve's retelling of the Sutpen myth, has conquered time and death to live on as an art.

Just as the biblical allusion of the title extends Sutpen's regional, temporal story into the realms of the universal, the mythic, and the timeless, so too does the map that ends the novel. Like the title, the map functions at three different levels:  the realistic, the ironic, and the symbolic.

As Jules Zanger has explained, one of the most obvious purposes of a literary map is to provide clarification and verisimilitude for the story it accompanies.4 Faulkner, of course, would have been familiar with numerous maps employed in this manner: for example, biblical maps tracing the migration of the Hebrew people or the missionary journeys of Paul, Bulfinch's maps depicting the settings of the Greek and Roman myths and the wanderings of Ulysses, Sir Thomas More's map of Utopia, Jonathan Swift's maps of the travels of Lemuel Gulliver, Thomas Hardy's maps of Wessex, Sherwood Anderson's map of Winesburg. Like other authorial devices such as Hawthorne's "discovery" of the scarlet A and the papers of Jonathan Pue in the Salem custom house or the "missing" parts of Henry Mackenzie's The Man of Feeling, the literary map enables the reader to suspend disbelief and momentarily accept a fictionalized world as authentic and actual. To visualize Sutpen's Hundred on a map makes it easier to view Thomas Sutpen as a historical character inhabiting a real world.

On this level Faulkner's map reiterates and extends the tragic view of life and history that the Sutpen narrative has already conveyed. Through the handwritten entries that Faulkner made, the landscape of Yoknapatawpha is presented primarily as a setting for grief, villainy, and death. At the top is the "fishing camp where Wash Jones killed Sutpen"; at the bottom is the place "where Popeye killed Tommy." In between are references to the deaths of other characters--old Bayard Sartoris, John Sartoris, Addie Bundren, Joe Christmas, Joanna Burden, Lee Goodwin. The cemetery and the jail are highlighted, as also are the unscrupulous actions of Flem Snopes and Jason Compson. Even the courthouse, which sits at the center, as Faulkner says in another place, "laying its vast shadow to the uttermost rim of horizon" (RFN 35), and which ideally should be identified with order and stability and justice, is instead associated with Temple Drake's perjury and the pathetic fate of Benjy Compson. Like the story of Thomas Sutpen, Faulkner's map of Yoknapatawpha depicts history literally as a dead-end, or, to use the phrases that Faulkner later directed to Malcolm Cowley, a "pointless chronicle," "the same frantic steeplechase toward nothing everywhere" (FCF 7, 15).

But a map is not merely a representation of place; it is also a guide, a means of assisting a traveler in getting from one point to another. "You are here," we read in the subway or museum and chart our intended destination, trusting the map to show us the way, to keep us from getting lost. In this regard a map serves as an ideal corollary to a novel of quest and initiation. Absalom, Absalom!, of course, is just such a novel, being filled with travel references and journeys of one kind or another: Thomas Sutpen's journey from the mountains to the Tidewater and thence on to Haiti and Mississippi; Charles Bon's migration from Haiti to New Orleans to Oxford to Sutpen's Hundred; Henry Sutpen's travels to Oxford, New Orelans, the war, Texas, and back to Mississippi; the various characters' trips back and forth between Sutpen's Hundred and Jefferson; Quentin Compson's trip to Harvard. All such journeys represent psychological quests as well: Sutpen's attempt to escape his threatening past by creating a "design" of safety and security, Bon's search for a father, Henry's search for personal and cultural identity, Quentin's desperate hope to understand both himself and the South.

In this connection, however, Faulkner's map, like his title, functions ironically. All of the personal quests in Absalom, Absalom! end in futility and failure. Bon dies, unacknowledged by his father; Sutpen dies, frustrated in his design; Henry dies, outcast and condemned; Quentin will soon die, still troubled and confused about the meaning of existence. Faulkner's map, like the plot of the novel it underscores and supports, is, so far as it is a map of history and the human condition, a map charting failed ambitions and pointing the way to death. Had Faulkner chosen an epigraph for his drawing, it might well have been the quotation from Shakespeare alluded to earlier, the one he used for the title of his second-greatest novel:

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

Any map, however, as Faulkner surely understood and appreciated, is more than a graphic representation of an actual place and a practical guide for travelers; it is simultaneously a metaphor. Despite its seeming verisimilitude, every map remains, like the familiar Mercator projection, a distortion of the actual, a substitution for the real, an evocation of an order and harmony that exists, finally, only in the mapmaker's mind and imagination. Cartography, therefore, is not only a science but also an art.

Moreover, even to the degree that a map may be considered metaphorically "true," as opposed to "factual," that truth is always temporary and partial. Thus maps must be periodically redrawn, as medieval maps were rendered obsolete by the discovery of the New World and as celestial charts were altered by the invention of the telescope. Thus, too, maps must always be understood in relation to a larger whole. Maps end at their edges, but reality and meaning do not. Counties merge into states, states into nations, nations into continents, continents into hemispheres and worlds, and so on outward through the cosmos.

All such observations suggest why Faulkner's map of Yoknapatawpha County provides an appropriate ending for Absalom, Absalom!. Just as the map blends both "factual" information and metaphor, the novel fuses actuality and art. Just as the map--with its roads, rivers, and railroad leading off the edge and its arrows pointing to Memphis and Mottstown and ultimately, as Faulkner claimed in The Town, "from Jefferson to the world" (315)--suggests a geography beyond Yoknapatawpha, the novel links local, time-bound history with universal, timeless myth. Just as Faulkner's map, like every map, must eventually be revised and redrawn,5 the novel presents truth as partial and relative, changing with the addition of new information and constant shifts in perspective.

Faulkner's map of Yoknapatawpha is the artistic equivalent of the historical Sutpen's Hundred. Each is the result of its creator's great "design" to impose order and meaning on chaos. But whereas Sutpen's, as a part of what Faulkner considered to be a fatally-flawed human history, is inevitably doomed to fail, Faulkner's, by being elevated to the level of great art, is timeless. On Faulkner's fictional "historical" map Sutpen's Hundred is a tiny, finite circle, ending where it began. On Faulkner's real map, however--the one that depicts the mythical "Jefferson, Yoknapatawpha Co., Mississippi"--Sutpen's Hundred survives and endures, a lasting symbol of the redeeming power of art. Like the novel of which it is such an integral part, and the title which it complements, Faulkner's map both evidences and celebrates the artist's capacity to defeat time and death by crafting a work of art that will last "a long time, a very long time, longer than anything" (LIG 103).



1.  This essay is the concluding section of a paper, "'Longer Than Anything': Faulkner's 'Grand Design' in Absalom, Absalom!," delivered at last year's Faulkner and Yoknapatawpha Conference at the University of Mississippi. I am grateful to conference officials for permission to print this excerpt here.

2.  The most detailed treatment of Faulkner's map of Yoknapatawpha is Elizabeth Duvert, "Faulkner's Map of Time," Faulkner Journal, 2 (Fall 1986), 14-28. Duvert's essay is an excellent discussion of the map in relation to the entire corpus of Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha fiction but says nothing of its function in Absalom, Absalom!. To my knowledge, Pamela Dalziel, in "Absalom, Absalom!: The Extension of Dialogic Form," Mississippi Quarterly, 45 (Summer 1992), 277-294, is the only previous critic to link the map to the text of Absalom, Absalom!. She views Faulkner's drawing as "the final narrative" (292) of the novel and argues that it contributes to the pattern of inconsistency and ambiguity that characterizes the novel as a whole.

3.  John V. Hagopian, "The Biblical Background of Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom!," CEA Critic, 36 (January 1974), 22-24. See also Ralph Behrens, "Collapse of Dynasty: The Thematic Center of Absalom, Absalom!," PMLA, 89 (1974), 24-33.

4.  Jules Zanger, "'Harbours Like Sonnets': Literary Maps and Cartographic Symbols," Georgia Review, 36 (1982), 773-790.

5.  Faulkner redrew his map in 1945 for Malcolm Cowley's edition of The Portable Faulkner, published in 1946. A variant of that map is reproduced as the endpapers for Volume I of Faulkner: A Comprehensive Guide to the Brodsky Collection, ed. Louis Daniel Brodsky and Robert W. Hamblin (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1982).

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