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Go Down, Moses | Study Guide

William Faulkner

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Go Down, Moses | Themes


Past and Present

As much as the characters in Go Down, Moses attempt to escape from their individual and shared histories, the past continually collides with the present, as in the repetition of names from generation to generation. Because the past never disappears, any kind of freedom from it is an illusion in Go Down, Moses. Most notably, the descendants of Carothers McCaslin attempt in their own ways to get beyond their patriarch's misdeeds. Cass Edmonds tries to make the best of what he has inherited, running the plantation through the late 1800s with an efficiency and a respectability not readily visible in previous generations. Yet despite Cass's efforts, both his son and grandson commit acts similar to those of Old Carothers. Zack Edmonds tries to steal the wife of one of his black tenants—who also happens to be his cousin through Carothers's relationship with two of his slaves. Roth Edmonds lives up to the legacy of his namesake by actually fathering a child with the descendant of another of his slaves. Even Isaac McCaslin, the last of his surname, sees his attempts to escape from his grandfather's shadow come to nothing. Isaac abandons his claim to the family lands and fortune, such that it is. Yet he still becomes an accomplice to Roth's illicit relationship.

Carothers's black descendants fare little better in their attempts to escape the past. In "The Fire and the Hearth." Lucas Beauchamp, "the oldest living McCaslin descendant still living on the hereditary land," remains as a tenant farmer and sees Zack Edmonds attempt to steal his wife. When he confronts Zack and threatens to kill him, he realizes he has become just like the ruthless Carothers in his attempts to "beat" him. His attempt to recover the fortune allegedly buried by Carothers's sons on the property almost destroys his marriage a second time. Even after they are dead, Carothers and his sons continue to wreak havoc on Lucas's otherwise relatively peaceful life. Lucas's brother James appears to have escaped the plantation completely, disappearing into Tennessee without a trace. Even so, his granddaughter falls into Roth Edmonds's orbit decades later and has a child with him. Time and distance do little to prevent history from repeating itself. Likewise, Lucas and James's sister, Fonsiba, attempt to escape into marriage in Arkansas, but her husband's extreme poverty and disinclination to remedy that poverty force her to accept a monthly stipend Isaac sets up for her from the money Carothers left for his black descendants. She has little choice but to tie herself to the past to avoid starvation.


Every story in Go Down, Moses includes or revolves around the physical and psychological violence inflicted on black people as a legacy of slavery. On the surface "Was" may tell a somewhat funny story about a poker game and Buck McCaslin's reluctance to marry, but it is also about a couple whose love and life goals are limited by the decisions of the white men who play with their lives as stakes in a card game. In "The Fire and the Hearth," Zack Edmonds feels entitled to Lucas Beauchamp's wife, not caring about Lucas's part in the situation. Even though slavery is no longer legal when Molly and Lucas are young, Zack still views Molly as property, someone he is entitled to have in his home. Her marriage is not valid to him. The McCaslin/Edmonds family never really understands, or accepts, that the black residents on their land—whether slaves or tenant farmers—are human beings with a sense of worth.

In "Pantaloon in Black," Rider's grief for his wife drives him to impulsively kill a white man. The white sheriff's comments on Rider's situation indicate his core belief that "they" are more animal than human, incapable of self-control. Echoing the implicit attitudes of the McCaslin/Edmonds family, the sheriff neither knows nor cares about the circumstances driving Rider's violent outburst. His indifference allows him to deprive Rider of legal due process and thus to be lynched for his crime. Furthermore, Samuel Beauchamp in "Go Down, Moses" suffers a similar fate when he is executed in Chicago after his petty crimes in Jefferson led Roth Edmonds to kick him off the plantation. Both Samuel and Rider are guilty of violent crimes that merit punishment, but the punishments they receive don't necessarily represent justice for others.

Southern Women

In Go Down, Moses, white women are treated as often anonymous, or disposable, or both. The value of women in the society portrayed in the text is most clearly illustrated by Cass Edmonds's response to his cousin Isaac's desire to relinquish his share of the family lands and fortune. Cass believes Isaac's claim to the inheritance is stronger than his own because Isaac is descended along the male line, whereas Cass's claim to the land comes through his mother, Carothers McCaslin's daughter. This daughter isn't even important enough to be named. Neither is Isaac's wife. Cass's wife gets a name, Alice, mentioned once in passing in "Delta Autumn." Cass's daughter-in-law, wife of Zack and mother of Roth, is mentioned only as "the white man's wife" in "The Fire and the Hearth."

Sophonsiba Beauchamp is the only white woman who gets a story line and clear character development in "Was." She is presented as calculating and determined, trying to entrap Buck McCaslin into marriage. Whether the bedroom incident was planned or not, Buck succeeds in evading marriage in this story. However, it is safe to assume she eventually finds a way to lure him, for they are Isaac McCaslin's mother and father. Her story illustrates how white women, deprived of power in this world, must resort to whatever means are available to them in order to establish in their own lives. Much of that power comes from marriage.

If white women have little power, black women in Go Down, Moses have less. Whatever consent, if any, Eunice or her daughter Tomey might have given Carothers McCaslin was surely influenced by the power dynamic of master and slave. Carothers feels entitled to use these women's bodies however he pleases, even to the point of violating his own daughter—leading her mother to commit suicide.

Molly Beauchamp is the female character who displays the strongest sense of independent agency. Being part of the McCaslin/Beauchamp family only by marriage may account for Molly's strength of character. She leaves her husband and moves into the main plantation house briefly, an affair with Zack Edmonds strongly implied. While Molly's relationship with Zack is still influenced by a deeply unequal power dynamic, she continues to care for his son after she returns to her own home and visits the main house each day. As an older woman, she decides to end her 43-year marriage to Lucas Beauchamp when he becomes obsessed with buried treasure. She must ask Roth Edmonds, the boy she helped raise, for permission to divorce, but she is resolute in her intent, even as Roth tries to talk her out of it. In a test of will between Molly and her husband, Molly comes out on top. As a very old woman she manages to motivate the white men of Jefferson to collect money to pay for her grandson's body to be brought home for burial. Her power seems to grow, not diminish, as she ages.


Racism and gender inequality intersect in the portrayal of miscegenation in Go Down, Moses. Many of Faulkner's novels and other works, notably Absalom, Absalom! and The Sound and the Fury, address this topic as well, examining relationships and reproduction across racial lines. Most of this activity is specific to white men, usually wealthy landowners, engaging in sexual relationships with the black women over whom they wield power. In these relationships the inherent hypocrisy of Southern attitudes toward race becomes apparent. The relationships are carried out in secret, but they are carried out nonetheless. They may even include a component of love or affection, which may be the case in Zack Edmonds's relationship with Molly Beauchamp, for example.

It seems acceptable in this society to have interracial sexual relationships, even have children, as long as everything happens quietly and in private. In public, however, these same men denounce interracial relationships as a threat to the fabric of the social order, given the times and the place. If these interracial relationships were ever considered real or legal, with the children of these unions treated as legitimate sons and daughters, then white people would find it more difficult to see black people as less than human and thus more difficult to continue to oppress them.

The relationships between the white and black bloodlines of Carothers McCaslin illustrate this point. The Edmonds' descendants give little regard to their shared lineage with the Beauchamp family. Zack Edmonds may allow Lucas Beauchamp certain liberties, and when Lucas comes to kill him, Zack sees Lucas as a threat. However, Zack has no problems of conscience in trying to take Lucas's wife. Isaac McCaslin's attitudes toward his family history indicate a desire to make up for the racial exploitation that built his family fortune. However, even Isaac reverts to racial slurs and vague hostility when he meets Roth Edmonds's mixed-race lover and their infant child. Isaac thinks he wants to subvert the social order but in his old age falls short in direct confrontation on his own doorstep.

To further preserve this social order, individuals with even a drop of traceable black ancestry are considered black and treated accordingly. Sam Fathers is the son of a Chickasaw chief, and white people around Jefferson are respectful, even deferential, to Sam's Native American roots. Yet that respect and deference reach only so far because Sam's mother was 1/4 black. Although she was 3/4 white, the 1/4 is what matters to society. And because Sam is 1/8 black, socially he is treated as a black man would be, spending his early years as a slave. He is a well-regarded slave, and he attains a place of respect on the plantation, but his advancement is tightly limited.


Much of the action in Go Down, Moses takes place against the backdrop of wilderness around Jefferson. The job of the white landowners is to tame the wilderness. Carothers McCaslin and his ilk buy tracts of land from the tribes in the region and carve out farms on these plots, sometimes slowly over decades. They engage in periodic hunting expeditions into the wilderness. Over the years these expeditions become less about survival and obtaining food and more about expressing masculinity by subduing and conquering elements of the natural world—such as the huge bears that obsess them.

As the white men's domination of the landscape continues over more than the century during which the McCaslins occupy their plantation, the wilderness gives way to civilization and development. When Isaac McCaslin takes his first hunting trip, he, his cousin Cass, and the rest of their party travel about a day on foot or mule to their hunting camp. When Isaac McCaslin takes his last (or near-last) hunting trip, around 1940, his hunting party go by car into the Mississippi River delta, almost the other side of the state. Development and dominion over the wilderness have nearly eradicated it, the loss of which Isaac views as a punishment for men trying to impose unnatural laws of ownership and dominance on the natural world.

Furthermore Isaac believes as these men lose touch with nature, they lose touch with their own humanity. He sees his grandfather Carothers McCaslin's purchase of the plantation land as a kind of original sin, depriving Carothers of enough humanity to spur him to commit immoral violations of his slaves' bodies. Isaac hopes to restore his own humanity by renouncing the trappings of ownership and escaping into the natural world as frequently as possible.

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