Set, like many of Faulkner's stories, in the fictional Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi, it is the story of the rise and fall of Thomas Sutpen, who comes to Mississippi to build the next great American dynasty in the decades before, during, and after The American Civil War. Sutpen's story is told by various characters to Quentin Compson shortly before he leaves for Harvard, and Quentin then retells some of it to his roommate before Quentin kills himself, an act detailed in The Sound and the Fury.
The title comes from the biblical (2 Samuel) story of Absalom, a son of King David who murdered his half-brother Amnon, much as Henry Sutpen murders his own illegitimate half-brother Charles Bon in Faulkner's tale.
This novel contains examples of:
- Big Fancy House: Sutpen builds one with the help of a bunch of slaves and a French architect, although it is fallen into disrepair by the end of the novel.
- BrotherSister Incest: It's vaguely implied that Henry has a thing for his sister Judith, as well as the fact that Charles is Judith's half-brother. Also, there's Quentin.
- Downer Ending: Not only in the tale of the Sutpens, but especially if you know what happens to Quentin afterward.
- Heir Club for Men: Sutpen keeps remarrying in the hope of producing a male (white) heir to continue his legacy.
- Knight Templar Big Brother: Henry protects the honor of his sister Judith by killing Charles, her fiance, after finding out that he is their father's illegitimate son. Strangely, he's perfectly okay with the incest. What he ultimately can't abide is that Charles is part black.
- Literary Allusion Title: The title comes from the biblical story of Absalom.
- Maligned Mixed Marriage: Sutpen renounces his marriage to a plantation owner's daughter after finding out she has black blood.
- Punny Name: Rosa Coldfield, forever a virgin.
- Rags to Riches: Sutpen, although this being Faulkner, it then goes back down the other way.
- The Rashomon: The story has several different narrators, each with their own biases about what happened to the Sutpens, and it is left up to the reader to decide what is true.