Literature Study GuidesGo Down MosesThe Fire And The Hearth Summary

Go Down, Moses | Study Guide

William Faulkner

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Go Down, Moses | The Fire and the Hearth | Summary

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Summary

Part 1

Lucas Beauchamp finds his illegal whiskey still in danger when George Wilkins, "a fool innocent of discretion, who sooner or later would be caught," establishes his own still on the McCaslin plantation land. Lucas Beauchamp, a 67-year-old man of mixed race, is descended from the original landowner, Carothers McCaslin and his liaison with Tomey, an enslaved woman. Lucas attempts to hide his still in an archaeological site, an "Indian mound," so he can blame Wilkins for making whiskey, thus eliminating Wilkins as both a business competitor and a suitor for Lucas's daughter, Nat. Lucas is distracted when he finds a few gold coins in the dig space and stays out all night looking for more coins, in so doing putting George Wilkins out of his mind. When he hears a noise, he knows Nat has been watching him. She turns both men in.

Lucas remembers the history of the McCaslin family and land, his life on it, and the circumstances surrounding the birth of Roth Edmonds, the current landowner. Roth's mother died during labor, and Lucas's wife, Molly, moved into the main house to care for baby Roth alongside her own infant son, Henry. Lucas suspected Molly was having an affair with Roth's father, Zack Edmonds, who had been raised alongside Lucas, as Henry and Roth were being raised. Lucas confronted Zack by entering his bedroom with a straight razor, meaning to kill Zack. The two men fought, and Molly came home.

To escape the bootlegging charges, Lucas allows George and Nat to marry. They produce a marriage certificate dated a year earlier. Since Nat can't testify against her father or husband, the men go free. Roth Edmonds remains angry at his tenants but allows them to remain on his property.

Part 2

Finding nothing else, Lucas goes home, but he becomes obsessed with finding the rest of what he believes is the fortune Buck and Buddy McCaslin allegedly buried on the McCaslin property many years ago. He pays a visit to Roth, for whom he has little respect, to persuade him to purchase a metal detecting machine to aid in the search, but Roth advises Lucas to use his own money to buy it. Instead Lucas trades one of Roth's mules for the machine. When his ruse is discovered—the mule isn't Lucas's to trade—Lucas cons the machine's salesman into selling him the machine for a share of the fortune they will discover with it. The salesman agrees, and Lucas rents the machine to the salesman while he continues the search. Lucas proudly informs Roth of his deal with the salesman, but Roth is only exasperated.

Part 3

Molly comes to talk to Roth Edmonds about Lucas spending his nights out searching for treasure on the plantation. Roth is concerned because Lucas is neglecting his fields and also feels some affection for Molly as "the only mother he, Edmonds, ever knew." He remembers growing up with Henry, in and out of Molly's home, blissfully unaware of their racial and class differences. When he got older, he became aware of these factors and following them fell victim to the "old curse of his fathers." He rejected his brotherhood with Henry and created a rift he can't ever mend.

Molly says she wants to divorce Lucas, and she needs Roth's help to do so. Roth tries to talk her out of the decision, but she remains firm. When Roth sees Lucas won't give up his treasure hunting, he relents and tells Lucas he must give Molly their house and support her financially the rest of her life. They go to court to get the divorce, but Lucas changes his mind at the last minute. He buys Molly some candy and takes her home. He gives the metal detector to Roth and tells him to destroy it. He reckons "to find that money ain't for me."

Analysis

Part 1

By distilling whiskey on the McCaslin/Edmonds property, Lucas has been engaged in a private rebellion against his parents' former masters for more than two decades. Lucas is the youngest son of Tomey's Turl and Tennie, the slaves who appear at the center of the action in "Was." If his parents' history in the bondage of slavery isn't enough to spur him to want to undermine the authority of the plantation's current owner, his experience with Zack Edmonds gives him more reason to do so. He and Zack Edmonds are the same age and essentially grew up together as brothers. The confrontation between Lucas and Zack hints at a truth that will be confirmed in "The Bear": the two men are cousins, both descended from Carothers McCaslin, both grappling with what that ancestry means.

For Lucas, his ancestry is something to resist, to "beat." He has inherited old Carothers's ruthless nature and willingness to fight for what he believes to be his. When he confronts Zack and tries to kill him, he is fighting for his wife and young son, not wanting them to be displaced by Zack and baby Roth in Molly's heart. The arrangement speaks to the entitlement the white man feels toward the black tenants on his property, even though they are technically free. Lucas makes a show of confronting Zack because in his mind their shared bloodline makes them equals in a sense. However, once it's all over, Lucas understands any equality between them is an illusion. Lucas can threaten and even kill Zack, but he can't force Molly to stay away from the main house entirely. He can't force Zack to keep his hands off Molly. And if he kills Zack, their shared bloodline won't save Lucas from execution.

Zack follows Carothers's example by carrying on an affair with Molly. At least an affair is implied by Lucas's rage at Zack, though the relationship is never directly stated in the text. The social order and family history strongly imply Zack would exercise his entitlement to Molly's body. Carothers McCaslin certainly exercised that entitlement with his slaves, creating the bloodline that produced Lucas. Lucas has no reason to believe Zack would behave more honorably.

The story's title, and an important symbol, refers to Lucas "keeping alive the fire which was to burn on the hearth until neither he nor Molly were left to feed it." That Lucas has kept the fire going since the day of their marriage represents the love and warmth he feels for his wife and his home. Her absence in the big house has wounded him deeply, and his strength and anger propel him to a confrontation. The symbol will appear later when divorce is imminent.

Lucas's treatment of George Wilkins reveals the same ruthless nature. He doesn't want George competing with him in the whiskey trade. He thinks George also poses a risk to his business because George isn't smart enough to avoid being caught. Most of all, he doesn't want George involved with his daughter. Lucas has no qualms about setting up George for arrest. Nat's machinations with the marriage certificate ruin his plan, though, and force Lucas to allow the marriage, showing another example of a powerless character manipulating scanty resources to get her way, much like her grandparents do in "Was."

Part 2

Lucas's demand for Roth to pay for the "divining machine," a portable metal detector, and his use of Roth's mule as collateral when Roth refuses, show how little Lucas respects Roth's authority. He then outsmarts the machine's salesman, charging him to use the machine to find a treasure that isn't there—at least not where Lucas directs the salesman. Lucas plants silver coins on the property to convince the salesman the treasure is out there somewhere. It's a gamble that pays off and reveals Lucas doesn't respect any white man's authority. He proudly reveals his scam to Roth because he wants Roth to recognize this rejection of the established social and racial order.

Lucas becomes obsessed with finding Buck and Buddy's legendary treasure because, even though Lucas lives in relative financial security and comfort, he dreams of some sort of equality, having the kind of wealth that would place him on a real par with the Edmonds family. Because the money comes from Buck and Buddy, and therefore their shared ancestor Carothers, Lucas feels a right to the treasure on a deeper level. He feels a right to have Roth pay for the machine instead of using the money he has stored away in the bank, his inheritance from Carothers, because what was left to him is a pittance compared with the wealth Carothers left for his white descendants.

Part 3

Molly's earlier decision to move into the main house reflects an obligation borne from the traditions of the racial and social order of plantation life. Roth considers her the only mother he has ever known, even in her old age, and he seems to regret falling victim to "the old curse" of racism that caused him to reject his black "brother" Henry and the woman who risked her own family to raise him. Roth doesn't seem to notice Molly shows no lingering maternal feelings for him, confusing him with his father and calling him "Mister Zack." To Molly, Roth is just the white man in charge now, to her interchangeable with the last white man in charge. Her current relationship with Roth raises the question of how things might have been between them had he embraced his place in Molly's family instead of rejecting it so many years ago and following "the old curse" of separation and supposed racial superiority that will always divide them no matter the feelings they may have.

The end of "The Fire and the Hearth" reveals the depth of the human love story at the heart of this plot. The flame Lucas kindled in his home with Molly has been burning, however weakly at times, for 43 years. Lucas's obsession with finding the McCaslin buried treasure, and by extension laying his hands on what he sees as his rightful legacy as a McCaslin heir, at this point overshadows his commitment to his marriage. But he comes to his senses only when Molly places them at the edge of divorce. At the court he seems finally to understand how far he has gone—perhaps just as Molly understood decades before when she moved back home from the main house—and realizes his own life and wife are more important than beating the white men who may have hidden riches on the land where they live unhappily.

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