Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 724
The story is set on the eve of the 1940 presidential election. As Isaac McCaslin and his fellow hunters drive the two hundred miles it takes to get to the wilderness, he reflects on his sixty years of hunting and of how the land has been radically changed by human habitation. His life seems to draw inward as the wilderness itself draws inward in retreat from human progress.
The first half of the story is told almost exclusively from Isaac’s point of view. He seems noble, selfless, and magnanimous—even in the face of the fact that his beloved wilderness has been virtually destroyed. The other hunters, especially Roth, are extremely cynical about the present. Roth, who is in a foul temper over an affair that is ending badly, taunts Isaac and tries to get him to say that better men hunted the land in the old days. Isaac, however, is serene in his faith in humankind, that human beings are only a little better than their circumstances usually allow them to be.
Isaac’s values have, in fact, isolated him. Although the hunters respect him for his bond with nature, he is as outmoded as the wilderness with which he seems to be coeval. This becomes apparent when he has trouble keeping up with the conversation in which one of the hunters, Legate, taunts Roth about the “doe,” the woman he has been seeing during their hunting trips. Roth seems disgusted with the whole human race, not only with Legate’s barbs, when he scorns Isaac’s romantic view of the congress between men and women as close to God-like. “Then there are some Gods in this world I wouldn’t want to touch, and with a damn long stick,” he retorts.
The point of Roth’s remarks is apparent in the second half of the story. The men have left for the first day’s hunting. In the past few years, Isaac has not joined them immediately, and Roth, taking advantage of Isaac’s position, asks him to give an envelope to a woman who may visit the camp. Isaac chides Roth for not having the courage to face the woman himself. When she arrives, Isaac is hard with her. In spite of his criticism of Roth, he is sure the woman has been given ample warning. Indeed, she admits Roth has been true to his “code.”
As the woman begins to explain about her family, about her mother taking in washing, Isaac suddenly realizes that she is a “nigger.” The harshness of the word, especially after his eloquent evocation of the wilderness and of the love between men and women, is shocking. He, in turn, is shocked to learn not only that the woman is a “Negress” but also that she is related to his family.
Suddenly a flood of details about the woman, details he has observed but not registered, make him realize that an unsuspecting Roth has loved a woman who is the descendant of a black woman by whom his grandfather had a son he would not acknowledge. Isaac compounds this family sin by advising the woman to go North, to marry a man of her race. In a frenzy of condemnation, Isaac thinks of “this land which man has deswamped and denuded and derivered in two generations so that white men can own plantations and commute every night to Memphis and black men own plantations and ride in jim crow cars to Chicago to live in millionaires’ mansions on Lakeshore Drive.” Isaac has preserved for himself a kind of purity in his reverence for the wilderness, and his isolation has kept him from the messiness of affairs such as Roth’s, but his noble repudiation of plantation immorality has also led to his misunderstanding the modern world of which Roth, at least, is a part.
To the baby boy the woman has had by Roth, Isaac offers, as a weak reconciling gesture, a hunting horn, the symbol of all the good he has learned in his years in the wilderness. At the very end of the story, hearing that a deer has been killed, Isaac says to himself that it is the very doe, the principle of womanhood that he defended against Roth’s bitterness but that he himself has defiled in his confrontation with the “Negress.”
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