Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 975
One of America’s greatest fiction writers, William Faulkner was awarded the 1949 Nobel Prize in Literature, receiving the award in 1950. Go Down, Moses addresses an important theme in American literature—the relationships between blacks and whites in the South through several generations. The novel narrates events between 1859 and 1941 and also presents in retrospect events dealing with the McCaslin plantation from its founding by Lucius Quintus Carothers McCaslin near the beginning of the nineteenth century. The seven stories that compose the novel are linked geographically and thematically. All the events take place on or near the McCaslin land in Mississippi and all but one deal with members of the McCaslin family. The family includes the McCaslins, descendants from the male line; the Edmondses, descendants from the female line; and the Beauchamps, descendants through Lucius Quintus Carothers McCaslin’s relations with his slaves. Themes that link the stories are family, love, and race relationships and the ritual of the hunt. Stylistic devices such as repetition with variations and a complicated chronology also link the stories. By repeating with variations many events of the novel, Faulkner provides for multiple views and voices. By avoiding a strict chronology of events and by reiterating events already narrated, Faulkner leaves the impression of oral history, of a family history being recovered or discovered by different members at different times.
Each of the seven stories includes a hunt, but the type of hunt and its connotations vary widely. Treated humorously are Sophonsiba’s husband-hunting in “Was” and Lucas’s hunt for buried treasure in “The Fire and the Hearth.” Most of the hunts in the novel are more serious. Manhunts occur in “Was,” “Pantaloon in Black,” and “Go Down, Moses.” “Was” treats the pursuit of Turl humorously, but the reader discovers in “The Bear” that Buck is hunting his half brother. “Pantaloon in Black” relates Rider’s death by a white lynch mob, and “Go Down, Moses” shows Gavin Stevens’s search for Samuel Worsham Beauchamp, who has already been hunted down by the law and sentenced to be executed. These manhunts suggest both repetition and variation. Turl is hunted down and brought back to the McCaslin plantation in 1859, while about eighty years later the same is done to his great-grandson. Turl returns with his goal, Tennie, and together they raise a family on the McCaslin land. Samuel returns only as a corpse. “The Old People,” “The Bear,” and “Delta Autumn,” appearing side by side in the novel, focus around the annual November trips to the woods to hunt game and participate in male comradeship and mentoring. Even in these wilderness stories, Faulkner presents repetition with a difference. The action in “Delta Autumn,” unlike in the other two stories, takes place in the new South, that of 1940, when the men drive in cars instead of riding in a wagon to travel to woods that are two hundred miles away instead of thirty. The land for hunting is more scarce; train tracks now appear where once were bear tracks. Faulkner foreshadows the dwindling of the wilderness in the last section of “The Bear,” as Isaac goes to hunt at General Compson’s camp one more time before the lumber company takes over.
Family, love, and race relationships permeate the novel. Similarities and differences between characters and generations are emphasized by the stylistic devices of repetition with variation and a complicated chronology. The successful marriages in Go Down, Moses are those between Lucas and Mollie and between Rider and Mannie. In fact, Rider patterns his marriage after Lucas’s by placing a fire in his hearth as Lucas did in his to symbolize the warmth and continuity of the marriage. Lucas and Mollie’s union lasts forty-five years, but Rider loses Mannie to death after only six months. The only marriage of significant length depicted on the Edmonds or McCaslin branch is the unsuccessful, barren marriage of Isaac McCaslin. The McCaslin and Edmonds families wear out as Isaac, the last one to bear the McCaslin name, leaves no children. Roth, the last member of the Edmonds family, a bachelor at forty, refuses to recognize his infant son. Roth’s child by James Beauchamp’s granddaughter repeats the legally unrecognized births of Tomasina and Turl, both fathered by the founder of the McCaslin dynasty. Of the three branches, the Beauchamp branch is the most fruitful. As the novel ends, the McCaslin name belongs to a man near eighty who is a “father to no one” and the Edmonds name belongs to a bachelor of forty who refuses to give it to his son. The Beauchamp family has the infant who will not bear Roth’s name and another child expected in the next spring, a grandchild of Lucas.
Other repetitions with variations deal with inheritances, spiritual or material. A family ritual enacted through generations is the recognition, first by Zack and then a generation later by his son Roth, that, as white males, they see themselves as superior to the black children they have been living with almost as brothers. A more uplifting parallel is the vision both Isaac and Cass have after shooting their first deer; Sam Fathers leads them both to an understanding of the ideal buck, a kind of God of the wilderness. The McCaslin blood provokes conflicting feelings: Lucas is proud of his McCaslin blood and, upon reaching twenty-one, demands not only his inheritance but also that portion not collected by his brother James. Isaac is devastated by his heritage and relinquishes his inheritance, leaving the Edmonds family to accept it. Isaac’s relinquishment, key to the novel, prompts many comments. Isaac, his wife, Cass, Lucas, and General Compson all hold different views concerning Isaac’s refusal to accept the McCaslin land. All the variations and variety of voices work to develop Faulkner’s subject—the complicated history of the South.
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