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Go Down, Moses | Study Guide

William Faulkner

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Go Down, Moses | The Bear | Summary



Section 1

Now 16, Isaac accompanies the hunters on the annual November hunt. Since his early trips to the wilderness, Isaac has been fascinated by Old Ben, the "tremendous bear with one trap-ruined foot which, in an area almost a hundred miles deep, had earned itself a name, a definite designation like a living man." Isaac caught a glimpse of the bear in his first year. Sam says Old Ben comes to the camp each year "to see who's here ... whether he can shoot or not, can stay or not. Whether we got the dog that can bay and hold him." Isaac becomes aware that Old Ben has perhaps come to the camp to assess him, too. The men have been trying for six years to catch Old Ben but always fail.

Section 2

By the time Isaac is 13, he knows the wilderness around the hunting camp well and can track all kinds of game. He knows "the old bear's footprint better than he [does] his own, and not only the crooked one." Sam and Isaac track Old Ben with a fyce, a small mixed-breed dog, and catch up to him, but neither takes the shot when he has the chance. Sam says, "Somebody is going to, someday," and Isaac decides, "It must be one of us."

After something kills one of Major de Spain's colts—causing Major de Spain to blame Old Ben—Sam and Isaac track the culprit into the wilderness. Sam returns with a huge wild dog, part mastiff, part Airedale, and "something of a dozen other strains." He names the dog Lion and declares, "It's the dog," meaning this is the dog that will help them best Old Ben.

Sam keeps Lion at the camp, alternately feeding and starving him, making the animal only partially tame to control him. Later Boon becomes Lion's primary caretaker. The dog sleeps in Boon's bed. One night before a hunt Major de Spain makes Boon put Lion outside, worrying Boon's personal odor will corrupt Lion's sense of smell. Before the night ends, the dog is back in Boon's bed. Isaac knows that somehow he and Boon and Lion will all come to play a part in this hunt.

Section 3

The hunting party pursues Old Ben periodically with Lion for two years and still has no success. In the third year the party remains at the camp into December. They send Boon and Isaac into Jackson, Tennessee, to restock their liquor supplies, Isaac to ensure the supplies return mostly intact. On the trip a drunken Boon tells all who will listen about Lion and his greatness. He promises to bring Lion to the zoo in Jackson to pit him against the coddled bears there.

When they return, Boon is convinced Lion will take down Old Ben the next morning. While the party readies their horses and mules for the hunt in the morning, Lion goes into the forest, crying out his pursuit of Old Ben while the party is still in camp. When the men catch up, they find Lion clinging to Old Ben in a struggle to the death. The bear claws at Lion's belly, spurring Boon to leap onto the bear's back. Boon kills Old Ben with his knife.

The men carry the wounded Lion to camp, and on the way Sam Fathers falls off his mule, facedown into the mud. Major de Spain sends James Beauchamp, known here as Tennie's Jim, to get a doctor. When the doctor arrives, he puts Lion's organs back inside him and sews his abdomen shut. He declares Sam suffers from "Exhaustion ... Shock maybe." But Isaac knows Sam is going to die.

The next day, Thursday, Boon insists on bringing Lion, lying on a pallet bed, outside because the dog "never did want to stay in the house." The doctor checks on Sam and says, "He's all right. He didn't even catch cold. He just quit." He speculates death may be near for the old man. Lion dies at sundown, and Boon carries him to the forest to bury him. The other men come along, but Boon won't let them touch the dog. When they return to camp, they find Cass and Major de Spain preparing to leave. Isaac refuses to leave Sam. General Compson convinces Cass to let Isaac stay until Sunday. On Saturday Tennie's Jim goes to town to fetch Cass.

Cass finds Boon sitting near Lion's grave and a "platform of freshly cut saplings ... and the blanket-wrapped bundle on the platform." Brandishing a rifle, Boon tells Cass to stay back: "By God, you won't touch him." He adds, "This is the way he wanted it ... And by God, you ain't going to move him." Cass replies by asking, "Did you kill him, Boon?" Boon says no, and urges Cass to "leave him alone."

Section 4

When Isaac turns 21 he is meant to inherit the plantation Cass Edmonds has been running as custodian since the death of Isaac's father, Buck. Isaac explains at length that he doesn't want it. Cass tries to explain Isaac's claim to the land is stronger than his because as Buck's son Isaac is heir through the male line, whereas Cass is heir through his mother, Buck and Buddy's sister. Isaac remains unmoved.

Isaac maintains ownership of the land is an illusion because God created it and owns it. Ikkemotubbe sold Carothers McCaslin land that wasn't his to sell, and the family has no rightful claim to the land either. No one does. Isaac believes the land is cursed by the blood of the slaves who have worked the property. He and Cass engage in a long dialogue, with Cass trying to convince Isaac of his duty to the family's legacy and Isaac holding firm to his position.

Isaac has reviewed the ledgers of plantation business, the births and deaths, the buying and selling of slaves. He infers correctly his grandfather Carothers McCaslin's sexual relationship with the enslaved woman Eunice, which produced the child Tomasina, known as Tomey. Later Carothers also incestuously has a child named Terrel, called Turl, with Tomey, and Eunice drowns herself.

In later years Isaac will learn Carothers left money to Turl's descendants: James, Lucas, and Sophonsiba, called Fonsiba and named for Isaac's mother. He tracks James to Tennessee but can't find him, and returns with James's share of the inheritance intact. Fonsiba married a man who claimed to own a farm in Arkansas, and Isaac tracks her there, finding her in a freezing shack with no food supplies and no fire in the hearth. Isaac arranges with a local banker to send her an allowance from the inheritance: three dollars a month to keep her and her husband from starvation. Lucas lives in a house on the plantation and comes to claim his share of the inheritance when he turns 21.

Having rejected his inheritance, Isaac lives in a boarding house in Jefferson, and McCaslin puts money in his bank account each month. Isaac spends as much time as he can hunting in the wilderness that remains around town. When he marries, Isaac's wife tries to convince him to claim the plantation from Cass, even using sex to persuade him. Yet Isaac does not reclaim the plantation, and he and his wife never have children.

Section 5

Isaac returns to the hunting camp years later, "one more time before the lumber company moved in and began to cut the timber." After Sam Fathers and Lion died, General Compson, Walter Ewell, and Major de Spain decided to lease the camp, and then Major de Spain sold the timber rights to the land. Boon takes a job as town marshal at Hoke's, the town near the timber company's mill.

Isaac remembers the hunting trips and thinks about the logging trains that passed far away in those days. Now they will pass closer. He finds Boon Hogganbeck in a clearing near the spot where Lion and Sam are buried. He has disassembled his gun and sits near trees full of squirrels. Boon yells at Isaac, "Don't touch a one of them! They're mine!"


Section 1

"The Bear" begins as a deceptively simple story centered on the age-old man-versus-nature conflict between a hunting party and a seemingly invincible bear. The bear is the focus of the first three parts of the story. Beginning with Isaac's first trip to the hunting camp, presented in some detail in "The Old People," Old Ben comes to camp seemingly to assess the new, young foe accompanying the men. The bear's survival of injuries and many previous encounters with men connects him to the enduring quality of nature and the land. Isaac's fascination with the bear mirrors his deep ties with nature and the land and his respect for both.

Section 2

The first hunting trip in Section 1 provides Isaac's entry into manhood, and in the few years that follow he grows his expertise in tracking animals and wilderness survival. Isaac's connection to the land and his comfort in the wilderness grow quickly, as if the forest, not the plantation he renounces, is his truer birthright.

Sam and Isaac understand instinctively Old Ben's days may be numbered. Old Ben is a legendary creature, known around Jefferson among all hunters, so someone will eventually find the key to bringing him to bay. Isaac believes it must be "one of us" to end Old Ben's life because they respect the bear and are worthy of taking him. Other hunters are not worthy because Isaac doesn't believe they appreciate the magnitude of the task.

The first indication Lion is worthy of joining the party to hunt Old Ben appears when Major de Spain confuses Lion with Old Ben himself in the killing of the colt. Major de Spain reveals a certain misunderstanding of nature when he expects wild creatures to follow the rules he has set forth. When Sam tracks the dog, he reveals Old Ben may indeed play by some set of rules of natural honor, but this dog doesn't. Indeed his refusal to do so is what makes him valuable. Lion's ambiguous bloodlines also indicate his separation from rules. Symbolically his mixed breed separates Lion from a society that places inordinate stock in human bloodlines. The hunters know they can't best Old Ben by following traditional rules of engagement, and they need a dog sufficiently wild and fearless to neglect whatever rules may exist.

Because Sam doesn't want to train the wildness out of Lion once he takes in the dog, he treats the animal arbitrarily, giving him enough food to inspire some loyalty but not enough to make him tame. Lion does sleep indoors with Boon, but it's not a substantial improvement over living outdoors if the description of Boon's unwashed rancid stench is accurate. The dog's return to Boon's bed after he has been sent outside reveals neither he nor Boon is particularly interested in doing as they're told and are really outside the norms. In that sense, they are the ones who will bring down The Bear.

Section 3

Boon clearly forges a close bond with the dog. Like Lion, Boon is only partially tame. He can't be trusted to buy liquor for the hunting group without drinking the entire stock before he returns. He imposes himself on strangers along the journey, and his pride in Lion indicates his deep affection for the semi-wild dog. Although the strangers don't want to hear a drunken man raving about a dog they've never seen, Boon, with the "mind of a child [and] the heart of a horse" doesn't concern himself with rules of polite society.

As the person in the group most closely associated with Lion, Boon is the most likely to join the dog in the actual kill of Old Ben. In an earlier scene Boon takes several shots at the bear with his gun and misses each of them, but his place in this scene makes for a more honorable and personal death for Old Ben. He doesn't kill Old Ben for sport or bragging rights. Boon is instead trying to save the life of this semi-wild dog he loves. He displays bravery by leaping onto Old Ben's back—it's hard to picture any of the other men in the group taking such action. The killing is raw and primitive. He uses a basic blade, not a gun. It's a nod to Boon's own Native American heritage when he defeats Old Ben in a true fight, using the tool of his ancestors instead of the white man's weapons.

In "The Old People" Cass Edmonds inadvertently hints at Sam's connection to Old Ben and to Lion when he compares Sam to a "bear or lion in a cage." Cass doesn't know the significance of this comparison when he speaks these words because he doesn't yet know about the hunt for Old Ben and its outcome, in hindsight they seem to foreshadow the connection between Sam and the bear. Sam's collapse after Old Ben is killed and Lion is mortally wounded seems like a natural event. These three wild creatures are bound together in life and in death, and they are bound by Boon's devotion to them. Nothing is physically that wrong with Sam, but with Old Ben and Lion out of the world, he feels no need to linger.

Boon's devotion to Lion and Sam is rivaled only by Isaac's. The boy refuses to leave Sam while he is dying, and he remains. The text makes Lion's death explicit, but only implies Sam has died. Cass returns to the camp a day early. Boon sits at Lion's grave and the bier they have built for Sam's body nearby when Cass finds him, but the body is described only as a "blanket-wrapped bundle." These references to Sam's death, rather than an explicit statement, create greater dramatic effect and preserve the mystique that has surrounded Sam's life.

When Cass asks Boon whether he killed Sam, Boon denies it, but he adds, "This is the way he wanted it." Boon has no reason to confess to Cass if he did kill Sam, but the text has made clear Sam has given up on living. If Boon did end Sam's life, it would have been because Sam asked him to do so. Boon also knows Sam wanted to be buried in the wilderness near Lion, and he is adamant about following Sam's wishes.

Section 4

"The Old People" sets up Cass and Sam as father figures for Isaac as he grows up on the McCaslin plantation. Cass represents one possible path for Isaac: assuming responsibility for the family's fortunes and accepting his birthright by inheriting and running the plantation. Cass speaks to Isaac with the voice of tradition and history, of obligation. However, Sam represents the path Isaac ultimately chooses. The family history Sam gives Isaac shapes his viewpoint opposing ownership of land, believing such ownership to be illusory and invalid. Sam represents Isaac's more primitive, outcast connection to the land itself, his comfort in the wilderness, and his understanding of wild nature.

Isaac's choice between these paths is already evident when the 16-year-old refuses to return to the plantation with Cass after the hunt for Old Ben. He doesn't want to return to school and civilization, leaving Sam alone on his deathbed. He wants to be present to pay his respects to Sam at the end of his life. This early resistance of social rules and convention parallels Isaac's much more significant rejection of social convention and tradition when he chooses to reject his inheritance. Cass still tries to dissuade Isaac. He invokes Isaac's legitimacy as the heir through the dominant male line—another reminder of the value women hold in this society. The rules are intricate, but Cass places high value on them and the traditions established by his white ancestors. In this respect he stands in direct opposition to Old Ben, Lion, Sam, Boon, and now Isaac.

If Cass believes Isaac's review of the family history found in the ledgers, "scrawled in fading ink" will impress upon Isaac his obligation to the family's legacy, the story shows he is mistaken. Isaac carefully reviews the history of ownership to find his grandfather Carothers McCaslin's abuses of power and raging physical appetites that led him to commit incest with his illegitimate daughter. If Isaac didn't believe the plantation was cursed by the evils of the past before he read the ledgers, he certainly does after. These revelations only solidify Isaac's resolve to wash his hands of it all. He doesn't want to contribute to the further corruption of the land and the lives of the people who live there.

Instead Isaac leaves the plantation. He attempts to right the wrongs of the past in some small way by delivering the small inheritance Carothers left for his black descendants. He fails to find James, locates Fonsiba in squalor but arranges for her to be supported by the money that is hers, and gives the rest to Lucas when Lucas requests it.

Isaac's wife does not support his decision to renounce the plantation and attempts to convince Isaac to reconsider. She offers her body to him—the only time in their marriage she allows him to see her completely naked—and hopes they might conceive a son. In the moment Isaac agrees to her wishes but never reclaims the farm. Nor do they have a son, or any children at all. The absence of children represents Isaac's refusal to perpetuate the flaws of his ancestors. Within the marriage Isaac's wife rejects him for not going through with reclaiming the plantation. His chance to have a family and continue the bloodline is lost.

Section 5

Isaac's place on the plantation and in the McCaslin bloodline is lost, as is the wilderness he embraces in his youth. The timber trains and sawmill activity come closer to the hunting camp. It is as if the true connection between the hunting party and the wilderness is severed with Sam's death and the defeat of Old Ben. The men stop going out to the camp to hunt. Major de Spain decides to sell the property. Because it was shared equally among the hunting companions, it is easy to forget Major de Spain is the property's legal owner all along. When the men are in full communion with one another, notions of ownership fade, as Isaac would consider ideal.

As he makes his way through the forest, Isaac narrowly misses stepping on a large snake, described as "the old one, the ancient and accursed about the earth." In literature, snakes are often used as symbols of malice or evil, and the description of this one indicates it represents the deep and ancient dangers or nature. As the snake slithers harmlessly away, Isaac recognizes his good fortune at dodging the creature, but he also remembers the day Sam Fathers took him into the forest to see the giant stag Sam greeted as "Chief ... Grandfather." Like the stag, the snake represents the unknowable and eternal wilderness that cannot—and should not—be tamed or owned, which provides a sharp contrast with the scene he encounters Boon Hogganbeck a few minutes later.

When Isaac finds Boon in the forest, Boon is half-crazed, but even he has been overtaken and corrupted by the concept of ownership. The scene echoes Boon's confrontation with Cass when he forbids Cass from moving Sam's body in Section 3. Boon's response in that moment is about preserving Sam's wishes and ensuring Sam is united in death with the land he has called his home. In his last meeting with Isaac, Boon seems manically concerned with possession of the trees and the squirrels in them. His last words to Isaac are a simple declaration of ownership, even though the squirrels and trees are impossible to own. His ambiguous use of the pronoun in his declaration "They're mine!" may indicate an attempt to establish ownership over something greater and more abstract than the squirrels and the trees, but equally unownable. The concept of ownership is impossible to evade, and connecting this attempt at ownership with Boon's madness emphasizes the illusory nature of both. Whatever is going on in Boon's fevered mind isn't real, and neither is the concept of ownership.

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