Go Down, Moses | Study Guide

William Faulkner

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Go Down, Moses | The Old People | Summary

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Summary

Section 1

At age 10, Isaac McCaslin joins his cousin Cass Edmonds for his annual deer hunting trip in November. Other members of the party include two pillars of Jefferson's community, Major de Spain and General Compson, as well as experienced outdoorsman Walter Ewell and two guides of Chickasaw descent, Sam Fathers and Boon Hogganbeck. Sam Fathers guides Isaac through the hunt for his first deer, just as he has taught the boy to hunt smaller game around the McCaslin plantation. He talks Isaac through taking his shot at a buck and marks Isaac's face, now "marked forever" with the blood from this first big kill.

Sam also tells Isaac about his own father, the Chickasaw chief Ikkemotubbe who spent some of his youth in New Orleans before returning to the plantation near Jefferson with a "quadroon slave woman" and taking the land from his brother. Ikkemotubbe married off the slave woman, now pregnant with his child, to one of his slaves. Thus, on the plantation Sam is known as "Sam Two-Fathers," which has evolved into his current name.

Cass compares Sam, born into slavery, with "an old lion or bear in a cage" that periodically becomes aware of the cage. Although Isaac has urged Cass to set Sam free, Cass maintains the cage is not the McCaslins but Sam's own blood. In fact Cass—like Buck and Buddy before him—demands little of Sam in terms of work or obedience. Sam doesn't rent or farm on the plantation as the other former slaves do. Eventually Sam decides to move to the hunting camp year-round, and Cass arranges it with Major de Spain, who owns the camp cabin.

Section 2

On the return from the hunting camp, Isaac travels with Boon, Sam, Walter Ewell, Major de Spain, and General Compson. Suddenly Boon urges them, "Get the dogs! Get the dogs!" He thinks he has spotted a 14-point buck near the road, but Sam says the dogs will only spook the deer. The men of the party leave to explore the surrounding woods to find the buck. Isaac and Sam almost get a clear shot, but the buck disappears. Walter Ewell shoots something in the distance and sounds the horn summoning the party back to the wagons.

Sam remains with Isaac in the woods, where a giant buck approaches them fearlessly. Sam greets the animal, saying, "Oleh, Chief. Grandfather." When Isaac and Sam rejoin the others, Walter has killed a small buck, barely adult. Walter says the buck's track indicates a much larger animal, adding, "If there were any more tracks here ... I would swear there was another buck here that I never saw."

Section 3

Isaac tells Cass the story of the great buck after they return to Jefferson, where they stay for the night at Major de Spain's. Walter declares of the alleged big deer, "I don't even believe Boon saw it." Isaac is convinced Cass doesn't believe what he saw in the woods with Sam, but Cass reflects on how much history, blood, and spirit have absorbed into the land. Then Cass reveals Sam took him to see the great buck after he killed his first deer too.

Analysis

Section 1

The story of Sam's parentage explains the literal meaning of his name, but his name also symbolizes Sam's relationship with young Isaac. In other stories and other parts of this story, the text refers to Cass as Isaac's father figure because Buck, Isaac's old biological father, died when Isaac was very young. Cass then stepped in as the official patriarch of the McCaslin/Edmonds family. The keeper of Isaac's material inheritance, Cass teaches Isaac about his family history and heritage. However, Sam Fathers provides Isaac's spiritual inheritance. He is the one who accompanies the boy through his rite of passage into manhood, hunting and shooting his first deer. Sam uses the Native American ritual of marking Isaac with the blood of the kill to symbolize this passage. Isaac absorbs Sam's stories of his youth and family, tied to the McCaslins through the transfer of the land they occupy. These stories will ultimately influence Isaac's decision to give up his claim to the plantation when he comes of age.

Sam's history also reveals the desire for ownership and domination is not exclusive to white men. Ikkemotubbe buys and sells people and land with a caprice that echoes the way Buck and Buddy literally gamble with human lives in "Was." Ikkemotubbe is described as a powerful man who wields that power for his own benefit, even if it means selling his child and the child's mother into slavery. Cass draws a parallel between Sam and "an old lion or bear [trapped] in a cage," indicating how the social structures of racism and domination keep Sam in bondage even after he and all other formerly enslaved persons are legally free. The comparison foreshadows the connection between Sam and the bear, Old Ben, in the next story, "The Bear."

Section 2

The second part of "The Old People" turns around two plot lines. In the first plot line, Boon Hogganbeck, whom the other members of the group consider mildly incompetent, spots a 14-point buck by the road, a male deer whose horns have 14 spikes, or points. The number means the deer has lived long enough to generate such large horns. Nobody else in the group really believes Boon has spotted such a large animal, but they stop anyway. The end of the story provides the expected twist, as Walter kills a far smaller deer, which he assumes is the only deer out there and the same one Boon spotted.

Walter doesn't know about the second plot line, which centers around the scene in the woods and the encounter with the much larger deer Sam greets as "grandfather." In fact there are two deer in the forest—or possibly one deer in two forms, given the supernatural implications of Sam and Isaac's meeting with the large buck revealed in Section 3. Sam greets the animal in familial terms, indicating his connection to the animal and his respect for the land. The title's meaning comes into focus, as "The Old People" is a traditional reference to the revered Native American ancestors who periodically visit their descendants, creating a connection between the past and present. Neither he nor Isaac even considers taking a shot at the deer. Some things are too valuable and too sacred to be dominated.

Section 3

Isaac's experience with the giant deer in the forest and his subsequent conversation with Cass prove a defining moment in Isaac's life. When Cass tells Isaac that Sam took him into the forest to see the giant deer after his first kill, the moment is framed as an element of Isaac's passage into manhood. Isaac begins to understand the value of land and the history land contains. In poetic terms, Cass explains to Isaac all of life the land has absorbed in blood "hot and strong," and in experience. Land and nature are described as timeless, possessing elements humans can't fully understand. Sam accompanies Isaac through the hunt itself, but Cass's interpretation allows Isaac to make sense of what the hunt means to him as part of his progression to manhood. In a sense Isaac, like Sam, has two fathers who bring him into manhood in this story and shape the person he will become.

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