Literature Study GuidesGo Down MosesPantaloon In Black Summary

Go Down, Moses | Study Guide

William Faulkner

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Go Down, Moses | Pantaloon in Black | Summary

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Summary

Section 1

After the funeral for his wife, Mannie, Rider takes over shoveling soil into her grave. When he finishes, his aunt, who raised him, tries to convince him to come home with her and rest, saying Mannie "be wawkin' yit." Rider rejects the offer and returns to the house he rents from Roth Edmonds. Married for less than six months, Rider gave up drinking and gambling when he met Mannie.

Rider finds his dog waiting in the yard. He takes the dog into the house and goes to the kitchen to find food for them. Seeing an image of Mannie standing in the kitchen door, Rider says, "Wait ... Den lemme go wid you" as her image fades. When she is gone, Rider spoons out cold "pease" for himself and the dog, but neither eats much.

Setting out from home, with the dog following, Rider wanders through the woods as night falls, sleeping in the rough before reporting for work at the sawmill in the morning. Rider works through the morning, lifting and moving whole trees as if they were nothing. At noon his aunt's husband brings him a peach pie. Rider sends him away, refusing to go home with him, and continues working at a furious pace.

After leaving the mill Rider tries to buy a gallon jug of whiskey. When the bootlegger won't sell him the jug, Rider takes it and drinks from it as if it were water. At some point he loses track of the dog. Rider's aunt's husband catches up with him again and finally convinces Rider to go home with him. Rider's aunt urges him to ask God for help, but Rider leaves her house, taking the jug with him.

Rider goes back to the mill where Birdsong, the night watchman, whom Rider calls "boss-man," runs a dice game. The night watchman doesn't want Rider there because he's so drunk. Rider sees Birdsong is cheating and confronts him. Birdsong takes out his pistol, and just as he fires, Rider slits the white man's throat.

Section 2

The following evening the sheriff's deputy tells his wife about a prisoner found "hanging from the bell rope in a negro school house." He says the prisoner seemed to have no feeling about his wife's recent death, burying her quickly with his own hands and returning to work at the mill the next day. He describes how the man got a gallon of whiskey and returned to the mill where "Birdsong has been running crooked dice ... for fifteen years" and cut Birdsong's throat.

The deputy and sheriff had thought they'd have to pursue the suspect to Tennessee, but they found him asleep in the backyard of his house with a large dog nearby and an empty pot of "field pease" on the stove inside. As they took the man into custody, his aunt arrived, so they took her along to the jail to keep the prisoner calm. In lockup the prisoner pulled the cell door off its hinges and swore he wasn't trying to escape. The sheriff ordered the chain-gang prisoners to subdue the prisoner. They piled on, but the prisoner flung them away. It took several minutes for them to bring him to the ground.

The deputy's wife only tells her husband to hurry and eat his supper before she clears the table.

Analysis

Section 1

Like the jug of whiskey Rider pours down his throat, Rider's grief for Mannie seems bottomless. The reader learns little about Mannie's death from the text, which reveals Rider lived a rootless and wild life, spending his pay recklessly, drinking, gambling, and womanizing. Whatever else Mannie may have been, Rider recognized she was worth changing his whole life, and the two lived happily and productively for their brief married life, doing their jobs and fixing up their rented house.

Even though they were married for only six months, Rider has no idea what to do with himself after she dies. His only companion is the loyal dog that follows him, off and on, until he is taken to jail, but that is limited consolation. He tries to find comfort, or at least escape, in manual labor, first at the burial and then at the mill. He can't accept the comfort offered by his aunt or her husband. He rejects his aunt's advice to let God help him, because this is the same God who took Mannie from him in the first place. Rider doesn't want to return to his old life, yet he sees no alternative. Thus he drinks a gallon of whiskey and goes to a dice game he knows is crooked.

Rider's actions in the two days after Mannie's burial become clearer in light of his exchange with, or his vision of, her spirit in the kitchen doorway. His aunt advises him not to return to their house because Mannie's spirit is still walking, which first reads as an expression of her superstition. When Mannie does seem to appear to Rider, what first may seem superstition becomes an expression of reality. Whether Mannie's actual soul is still walking the earth or walking only in Rider's stricken mind, she's walking. As she disappears, Rider begs her to take him with her. Every other action he takes in the story seems an attempt to join his wife. He works recklessly at the mill, possibly hoping to be crushed by one of the trees he throws around like toothpicks. Then he tries to drink himself to oblivion. When that doesn't work, he kills a white man and, as the second part reveals, goes home to await his fate.

The word pantaloon in the story's title references a buffoonish stock character in Italian commedia dell'arte and pantomimes. The character is sometimes a widower, which seems to be a context that applies in the title. However, the pantaloon character is portrayed as physically weak and mentally foolish. Rider is not physically weak, and while the deputy in the second section of the story interprets Rider's actions as foolish, Rider's true motivations indicate complexity and depth of feeling behind his impulsive actions. This opposition between the traditional meaning of pantaloon and Rider's characterization implies the title uses the term pantaloon ironically, highlighting the difference between the deputy's perception and Rider's reality.

Section 2

The division of "Pantaloon in Black" into two sections reflects the sharp divide between the experiences of white and black people in Southern society and focuses on the lynching as one of the most vicious of racist acts—to which white law enforcement is indifferent. The sheriff's deputy recounts each event from Rider's life from the first part of the story, but his perspective and interpretation of these events are completely different from Rider's own. He doesn't even know Rider's name, or if he does, the name doesn't matter.

Nothing about Rider's life or death matters to this deputy or his wife other than votes. Where Rider takes up the shovel at Mannie's burial to find some respite from his grief through manual labor, the deputy sees a man indifferent, even hostile, toward his dead wife. He believes "we" are so different from "them," the deputy doesn't consider Rider's string of self-destructive actions following the funeral might be an expression of soul-crushing grief. While he is puzzled by Rider's actions, he opens the story by saying "they ain't human ... when it comes to the normal human feelings and sentiments of human beings they might as well be a damn herd of wild buffaloes." This introduction indicates the sharp division between black and white people and the absence of understanding, or real attempts at understanding, on both sides of the divide.

Similarly the deputy looks at Birdsong's murder as a senseless crime. The use of Birdsong's name further underscores the division between the worlds of white and black people. The deputy doesn't use Rider's name, and Rider doesn't use Birdsong's name, calling him "boss-man." The deputy doesn't understand why Rider has been cheated in his dice game for years and suddenly snaps. He doesn't understand why Rider patiently waits at home with a full stomach of "pease" for either arrest or capture by the "Birdsong boys." Rider is unable to eat the pease, which likely refers to field peas, before he kills Birdsong, but to a reader who knows Rider's state of mind, he seems to have relaxed enough to eat now that he knows his end is near.

While the deputy is deeply entrenched in the town's social and political structures regarding race, his telling of the story to his wife appears to be an attempt to make sense of Rider's actions. He concludes his story by asking his wife, "And what do you think of that?" His words read as a plea for a second opinion, an explanation or interpretation of events that make no sense to him. The deputy's wife, totally indifferent to Rider's suffering or her husband's desire for understanding, cuts off the story with an impatient admonition for the deputy to eat his dinner before she clears the table and goes out to a movie without him. Her dismissal of the deputy's story and impatience to get away from him contrasts sharply with Rider and Mannie's devotion to one another, revealing the irony of the deputy's belief that black people lack "normal human feelings." The deputy and his wife appear to miss some "normal human feelings" themselves.

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