Go Down, Moses | Study Guide

William Faulkner

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Go Down, Moses | Go Down, Moses | Summary

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Summary

Section 1

Near Chicago Samuel Worsham Beauchamp, age 26, gives his real name to a census taker before he is executed. Having lived under another name in Chicago, he tells the census taker, "It was another guy killed the cop." He was raised by his grandmother, Mollie (spelled Molly elsewhere in the book) Worsham Beauchamp, on Carothers Edmonds's farm near Jefferson, Mississippi. When the census taker asks Samuel how he can expect to get home if none of his relatives know where he is, Samuel asks, "What will that matter to me?" The census taker leaves, and Samuel is led to his execution.

Section 2

In his law office in Jefferson, Gavin Stevens receives a visitor: a very old black woman who has "come to find my boy." She identifies herself as Mollie Beauchamp. Having left Roth Edmonds's plantation, she is staying with her brother Hamp Worsham. After she leaves, Stevens looks up the record for Butch Beauchamp, the woman's grandson whom she raised after his mother died in childbirth and his father, now in prison for manslaughter, deserted him. Butch left town five years ago, breaking out of jail after an arrest for assaulting a police officer who caught him breaking into a store.

Stevens contacts the local newspaper editor, Mr. Wilmoth, and they track Butch, also known as Samuel, to a news item from Joliet, Illinois. He is to be executed for murdering a Chicago police officer.

As Stevens returns to his office from the newspaper, he meets Mollie's close relative, Miss Worsham, who has come to see him about Mollie. He tells her the execution is scheduled for that night, and there is nothing to be done for Samuel. Stevens has already asked Mr. Wilmoth to keep the news out of the local papers to protect Mollie. Miss Worsham says, "He must come home," and Stevens agrees to help bring Samuel's body back. Miss Worsham insists on a real coffin. He tells her "ten or twelve dollars will cover it." She gives him 25 dollars.

Miss Worsham agrees to tell Mollie Samuel is dead, and Stevens agrees to pay his respects in the afternoon. After she leaves, he calls Mr. Wilmoth and tells him they need to raise about 200 dollars to cover transport, coffin, and burial expenses for Samuel's body to come home, for the money Miss Worsham left him is "just exactly four times what she can afford to pay."

The men make the arrangements by raising money in the town, and Stevens goes to see Mollie, who repeats the same lines about Samuel: "Pharaoh got him." She says, "Roth Edmonds sold my Benjamin ... Sold him to Pharaoh and now he dead." Stevens doesn't know how to respond and hurries out, apologizing.

A few days later the body arrives, and the funeral takes place with a full procession around the town square. When it's over, Mollie asks the editor if he will put Samuel's story in the paper. She insists on printing "all of hit." Mr. Wilmoth thinks she would want the story printed even if she knew all the details. Stevens realizes she doesn't care about the story—she just wanted Samuel's body to come home "right."

Analysis

Section 1

"Go Down, Moses" gains particular significance as the final story and title of the book. The eventual triumph of Moses over the Egyptian Pharaoh who held his people in bondage is meant to inspire enslaved people and their descendants to thirst for freedom. Even after slavery was legally abolished in the American South, the descendants of the freed slaves struggled against racism and a social order that perpetually kept them at a disadvantage. In this sense Faulkner seems to use the reference in the title to indicate the great difficulty and ambivalence of true freedom.

Like many other black people from the South in the 20th century, Samuel Beauchamp moved north to escape from the old ways of racism and oppression. However, as Section 2 reveals, escape is an illusion for him. He ends up in Chicago because Roth Edmonds kicked him off the plantation for his bad behavior. Samuel ran afoul of the law in Jefferson, escaped again, and repeated these patterns in Chicago. Only on the eve of his execution does Samuel claim his real name, wanting to be known as Samuel instead of Butch on the official record. When he says another man killed the police officer, he seems to mean this metaphorically. His indifference to his family finding him reflects the finality of death and contrasts sharply with how much bringing the body home does indeed matter to them.

Samuel's criminal history reflects the lack of economic opportunity available to black men in the early to mid-20th century. They can continue to follow the rules of the plantation, as Lucas does, or they can turn themselves to other enterprises, many of which are illegal. The legal options aren't open to Samuel. In "The Fire and the Hearth" Lucas resorts to breaking the law and distilling whiskey to supplement his income. Samuel in "Go Down, Moses" responds to oppression by breaking other laws that lead to his expulsion from his home and his eventual death.

Section 2

Race relations in Jefferson may seem somewhat improved in this story, at least according to characters' actions. Gavin Stevens and Mr. Wilmoth afford Mollie a level of respect not seen in earlier stories and in earlier times. In "The Fire and the Hearth," Zack Edmonds feels entitled to the younger Mollie's body. In that same story, Roth Edmonds rejects the only mother and brother he has ever known because their races are different. Even in Mollie's old age, Roth breaks her heart by expelling Samuel from the plantation instead of offering him assistance—echoing the misunderstanding between white men and black men visible in "Pantaloon in Black." It's easy to imagine Roth Edmonds offering Samuel the same absence of empathy the sheriff's deputy offers Rider in the earlier story. In the only way she can understand what has happened, Roth Edmonds's actions cause Molly to blame him, individually, not the Chicago police, for Samuel's death. Referring to the hymn "Go Down, Moses," she chants, "Roth Edmonds sold my Benjamin. Sold him in Egypt. Pharaoh got him."

Gavin Stevens, in contrast, goes to extraordinary lengths to help Mollie in her time of need, lying about the cost of the funeral because he knows her family can't afford the send-off they want for Samuel. Nor does he sit in judgment of Samuel's crimes. On the contrary he concerns himself only with keeping the truth from Mollie about Samuel's crimes and execution. He doesn't even know Mollie, but he wants to spare her unnecessary pain if he can. Although his actions may be considered paternalistic, they are nonetheless very well meaning. Once Samuel has received in death the respect he never got in life, Mollie feels no shame or pain about his past. She seems to know the details aren't good but doesn't care once Samuel is home. For his part Stevens instinctively understands Mollie's desire to honor her grandson. Whatever opinions he has about Samuel, Stevens never speaks of them in detail, even in private. The changes coming to Jefferson's society are small and slow, but Stevens's and Wilmoth's actions represent evidence of evolution in progress, a small redemption of the curse Isaac McCaslin refers to in "The Bear."

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