Go Down, Moses | Study Guide

William Faulkner

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Go Down, Moses | Delta Autumn | Summary

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Summary

In his old age Isaac accompanies Cass Edmonds's grandson Roth, now owner of the McCaslin plantation, on a November hunting trip. They travel to the Mississippi River delta because no wilderness is left near Jefferson. Isaac observes the development of the land as they travel in the car with Roth's friend Legate and two other men. Legate jokes about Roth hunting a "doe" the year before, "Pretty light-colored, too. The one he was after them nights last fall when he said he was coon-hunting, Uncle Ike." Roth says "this will be the last of it." The men talk about the approach of World War II. Confident of victory against Hitler, Isaac believes the United States "is a little mite stronger than any one man or group of men, outside of it or even inside it either."

When they arrive at the camp, Isaac rests while the others set up tents and camp beds. The men eat dinner and talk about how there isn't much game left in the area. As Isaac falls asleep, he remembers the old hunting camp and past hunting trips. Then he thinks about the small house he owns in Jefferson and the wife he lost years before she died. He lives in the house with his wife's niece and her children, but he lives for the November hunting trips.

The next morning Roth and the other men go hunting while Isaac remains in his bed in camp, resting from the long trip. Roth tells Isaac someone will come to the camp looking for him (Roth), and he tells Isaac to tell the messenger he said "No." Isaac understands the woman Legate talked about in the car is coming. Isaac asks, "What did you promise her that you haven't the courage to face her and retract?" Roth says he promised her nothing, but he leaves an envelope with Isaac.

The woman arrives carrying a bundle in her arms. She recognizes him as "Uncle Isaac." She explains she has been intimate with Roth off and on for the past year, including a six-week trip to New Mexico. Then she relates the Edmonds and McCaslin family history to him, including the card game in which Buddy won Tennie. She observes of Roth, "I would have made a man out of him ... You spoiled him. You, and Uncle Lucas, and Aunt Mollie. But mostly you." Then the woman reveals her own background, living in Vicksburg with her aunt who "took in washing." Isaac then is shocked to learn she is black, although she appears more Caucasian. The woman says yes and adds James Beauchamp was her grandfather. Roth doesn't know about their family relationship, and now she plans to move North. Isaac tells her to go and to take the money, but she says she doesn't need it. Before she leaves, he convinces her to take Roth's hunting horn, left to Isaac by General Compson. He urges her to marry a man "in [her] own race" when she gets to the North and to forget all about Roth and the McCaslin family. She leaves.

Legate returns to the camp looking for Roth's knife because Roth killed a deer. Isaac asks what kind of deer, but Legate says it was just a deer. After he leaves, Isaac says to himself, "It was a doe."

Analysis

On Nature

Most notable about the car-trip to the hunting location is its length. Isaac sees what human dominance over the land has brought to his world. Highways, towns, houses, development have taken them far away from nature, both literally and figuratively. Dominance of the land creates more alienation from it, distancing these men from their sense of humanity. They don't understand the cost of destroying nature for profit, an idea that leads Isaac to conclude the domination of the land is an act of men punishing themselves.

Underscoring this sense of violence in general, the men in the car talk about Adolf Hitler and the war in Europe likely to involve the United States any day now. For a man like Isaac, with his strong beliefs against even personal ownership of land, Hitler's ideas about world domination can serve as another proof of man's blindness.

Isaac's comments on the coming war also indicate his belief in the strength of the United States, expressed in a way that show his old-fashioned background. He says, "My pappy and some other better men than any of them you named tried once to tear it in two with a war, and they failed." He is referring, of course, to the Civil War in which his family and old friends—such as General Compson and Major de Spain—fought unsuccessfully to separate themselves from the union. He believes they were better men likely than those trying to dominate Europe at the time of the story, and his black and white view of the world shows another indication of his own struggle to understand the ways of men involved as they are in a continual battle for supremacy. The inclusion of political conversation is an infrequent example of contemporary relevance in stories that seem outside of real time.

On Race

Throughout the previous story, Isaac McCaslin is portrayed as an enlightened, even progressive, thinker in terms of race and the South's history. His reflection on his life shows his aversion to the old traditions. In "Delta Autumn," however, readers learn the limits of Isaac's "progressive" mindset. Although he expresses his disapproval of Roth's behavior, he reserves stronger disapproval for the young woman who arrives with a baby bundled in her arms. He throws Roth's money at her and demands she go away. He seems ambivalent about the way she has been treated by his cousin. He seems weak, impotent, confused, and outraged, yet gives her a present and treats her also with a measure of respect. All the contradictions of his family's tortured history with nonwhites come back to torment him when he realizes what Edmonds has done and his own involvement in it in terms of his having to give the envelope with the money in it. He is angry and disgusted at the waste of life and resources, angrier at delta life than at the young woman with the baby who is part of his own lifeblood, too.

More unsettling is Isaac's reaction when the young woman reveals her racial background, which Isaac doesn't discern from her appearance, indicating she has enough white ancestry to appear white. When he learns the truth, he blurts out, "You're a nigger." A loaded word in any time period or context, it is used casually by other white characters in other stories to indicate their sense of racial superiority. Isaac normally doesn't use this word, and the beliefs he has espoused to this point indicate it as a word he wouldn't use. It is the language of the dominance he has tried to avoid his whole life. Yet when this woman stands in front of him with his cousin's baby in her arms, Isaac proves he has not altogether avoided the "curse" of his ancestors.

Isaac seems to understand his own hypocrisy when he learns the woman's ancestors are also his own. Upon learning this Isaac's attitude toward the woman softens a bit, and he urges her to make a better life for herself and her child. He sees how Roth has unwittingly repeated the patterns of his namesake, Carothers McCaslin. Isaac may urge the woman to go because he doesn't want to deal with the shame of Roth's actions, but he is also urging her to escape from a family he has already described in "The Bear" as "cursed." He expresses his regret at Roth's actions and the whole situation in his conviction that Roth has killed a doe (a female deer) at the end of the story, a reference to Roth's dishonorable actions against this young woman.

For her part, the woman blames Isaac for Roth's immature behavior, accusing Isaac of having "spoiled him. You, and Uncle Lucas and Aunt Mollie. But mostly you." The woman makes familiar references to relatives she has never met but reserves most of her blame for Isaac since as she sees it, Roth has been spoiled and corrupted by the privilege and wealth he inherited when Isaac gave up his inheritance to him. By trying to do what he believed the right thing by renouncing his inheritance, Isaac has not really avoided the curse of his ancestors. Instead he has played a role in perpetuating that curse. Isaac sought to absolve himself of the family's legacy, but he doesn't think about the role he might still play in perpetuating that legacy. Isaac realizes, as if he did not before, how complicated, tangled, and unavoidable are the structures of his family in their long history. And by extension, the whole delta, the whole South, the whole of humanity.

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