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Go Down, Moses | Study Guide

William Faulkner

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Go Down, Moses | Symbols


Fire and Hearth

In "The Fire and the Hearth" Lucas Beauchamp builds a fire in the fireplace of his home on his and Molly's wedding night. The fire is meant to burn day and night throughout their marriage, as a physical representation of their love and commitment to one another. Through the various problem periods of their marriage—when Molly moves into the main house with Zack Edmonds and when Lucas becomes obsessed with finding buried treasure—the fire wanes almost to ashes, but it doesn't die. When the two are comfortably united, the fire is stoked to full strength. These ebbs and resurgences in the flames mirror the ups and downs of their long lives together.

However, a hearth without a fire is described in the house Lucas's sister Fonsiba shares with her husband in Arkansas when Isaac finds her in "The Bear." This marriage is based on the false representation Fonsiba's husband made when he came to court her, claiming he had a farm in Arkansas where he would make his wife comfortable and happy. His farm is little more than a shack in the woods, and the absence of a fire in the hearth symbolizes the weakness and unhappiness of this union in which husband and wife linger in cold, on the edge of starvation.


Go Down, Moses can be confusing because of repeated names, which are handed down through the McCaslin family as representation of each successive generation's inherited personal history. The repetition of names over generations symbolizes a connection between past and present. McCaslin Edmonds takes the family's surname as his first name, indicating his part of this legacy. His grandson is given the first name of the family patriarch, Carothers, and the young Carothers—called Roth—repeats his namesake's behavior. Old Carothers sires a daughter, Tomey, with a slave woman and then sires a son, Tomey's Turl, with the same daughter—either not believing or not caring she is his child as well. Decades later Roth fathers a child with the great-granddaughter of Tomey's Turl, repeating Old Carothers's patterns of interracial relationships and family entanglements. The repetition of names reflects the repetition of behavior and the inescapability of the past.

Names have some significance for Carothers McCaslin's black descendants, most notably, Lucas Beauchamp, who is given Carothers McCaslin's full first name, Lucius Quintus, at birth. Lucas attempts to resist the McCaslin legacy by choosing to change the spelling and pronunciation of his first name. Although other characters observe Lucas is more like Old Carothers in personality and temperament than any of the rest of them, the cosmetic change of name does not erase the inheritance of Lucas's legacy. As with the white descendants, Lucas's birth name provides a tangible link between past and present. Even though Lucas changes his birth name, repeated names represent a kind of destiny for the characters who bear them.


The bear in "The Bear" is Old Ben, a creature of indeterminate age who has survived multiple attempts on his life and continues to roam the countryside freely. His injuries and his survival are evident in a foot deformed by a trap that serves as the calling card in his tracks. Representing the enduring and adversarial power of nature, Old Ben "loomed and towered" in young Isaac McCaslin's dreams. Like nature Old Ben is to be feared and respected, but the men in the hunting party feel a strong drive to conquer the bear, just as humanity will eventually conquer nature.


Isaac McCaslin discovers the unsavory truths about his family's history by reading ledgers detailing births and deaths with detailed, if often poorly spelled, accuracy. These ledgers provide an official history of the property and the family, as well as enough detail for a careful reader such as Isaac to infer the scandals hiding behind the handwriting. They, along with the rest of the property, are a physical representation of the wrongs of the past. They are also a physical representation of the ownership—of land and of people—Isaac so desperately wants to avoid. They represent the way Carothers McCaslin and his descendants have dominated the land and casually traded in human lives, officially and unofficially, for more than a century.


Most of the stories in Go Down, Moses feature a house, and most of the houses are in some form of disrepair. Carothers McCaslin's white sons, Buck and Buddy, move out of the incomplete main plantation house into a cabin, which represents at least a token rejection of their father's way of life. Only when Buck marries Sophonsiba Beauchamp does he return to the big house and put the place in order. Sophonsiba's own family home, for which she insists on using the rather grand title Warwick, is in a state of extreme disrepair, with loose floorboards and a decaying porch. These "big houses" and their disrepair represent the gulf inherent in the way the families view themselves as respectable and noble entities, hiding the rot and damage beneath the surface.

By contrast more modest homes, closer to nature, appear in better repair. Lucas Beauchamp's small house is located in the farmland of the plantation, and he keeps his home in good repair. Its condition reflects the state of his personal integrity. Similarly, the hunting cabin in the wilderness is in good condition, protected by its proximity to the wilderness. Unlike the "big houses," the hunting camp is not a pretense of something it isn't, just as its occupants are able to put aside the airs and conventions of society and simply be themselves.

Questions for Symbols

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