Go Down, Moses | Study Guide

William Faulkner

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Go Down, Moses | Was | Summary

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Summary

In his old age Isaac McCaslin remembers a story from 1859 his cousin Cass Edmonds related to him. Tomey's Turl, a slave on the McCaslin plantation, has escaped to see the woman he loves, Tennie, a slave on the nearby Beauchamp plantation. Turl runs away a few times each year for this purpose, but neither the McCaslins nor the Beauchamps have been able to negotiate a solution for the problem.

When Turl escapes, nine-year-old Cass accompanies his Uncle Buck to Warwick, the Beauchamp plantation, to retrieve Turl. Buck is anxious about the visit because he knows Sophonsiba Beauchamp has designs on marrying him. Buck's brother, Buddy, is also aware of her plans and tells Cass, "The minute anything begins to look wrong, you ride to hell back here and get me. You hear?"

Sophonsiba and her brother Hubert greet Buck and Cass warmly and share their mid-day meal with them. Buck is eager to retrieve Turl and head home, but their search proves fruitless, despite Buck's confidence. While the men take an afternoon nap, Turl appears and speaks with Cass, who tells him the men will set the dogs on him if he can't be found. Turl, however, cryptically assures him the women will take care of everything.

Not having found Turl, Buck and Cass must stay the night at the Beauchamp plantation. They aren't assigned a bedroom, so they make their best guess to choose a room that won't disturb Sophonsiba. They choose wrong, and Buck accidentally climbs into bed with Sophonsiba, who raises an alarm through the house. Buck believes he will have to marry her. He and Hubert decide to settle the situation with a game of cards.

Cass rides back home and fetches Buddy, a skilled card player, who travels to the plantation to clean up his brother's situation. Buddy and Hubert play cards to resolve the Tennie and Turl situation as well as the Sophonsiba and Buck problem. As Buddy raises the stakes, Hubert raises his lantern and discovers Turl, a white shirt over his arms, is dealing the cards. He folds. Buck dodges marriage, and he and Buddy return home with Tomey's Turl and Tennie.

Analysis

On the surface "Was" contains many of the elements of a classic comedy. The men of the story appear like comedic stock characters. Turl is the crafty servant who consistently outsmarts those who outrank him socially. Buck's irritation at having to leave his rustic home, his brother, and his hunting dogs play for comic effect, as does his outsized—and thwarted—confidence in his ability to track and apprehend Turl. Cass is the innocent child sent to help keep his uncle out of trouble. Hubert is drunk and buffoonish but ultimately well meaning. Buddy is the exasperated, "responsible" sibling who saves the day. Every man in the story seems to assume a role assigned to him from comic traditions.

However, Sophonsiba's portrayal is more complicated than a role as a stock character. Far from appearing as the stereotypical southern belle on the grand plantation, the text presents a woman with a visible dead tooth, inching dangerously close to permanent spinsterhood, living in a neglected plantation house with rotting floorboards. Sophonsiba tries to cover these realities by dressing in her finest and insisting everyone call the Beauchamp plantation Warwick, in alleged homage to her family's ancestral estate in England (which may or may not exist). The contrast between reality and Sophonsiba's hopeful version of it makes rather a joke of Sophonsiba, reinforcing another Southern stereotype that women are to be manipulated by men.

Indeed Sophonsiba's portrayal shows "Was" isn't really comedy at all. While it may be funny to picture Sophonsiba waking up and screaming when the hapless Buck crawls into her bed, the scene looks different when the reader considers Sophonsiba may be in that bed on purpose. She wants Buck to marry her. She doesn't seem to care that he doesn't want to "inflict himself" on a wife, because if she doesn't marry someone, she will be a failure as a woman in this society. Her only hope of exercising any power for herself is instead to manipulate the social rules in her favor. Therefore she sets up Buck, knowing he will be branded a scoundrel who violated her if he doesn't marry her. Her intentions are clear, even if her action in staging the event is not.

"Was" is about individuals kept powerless so they can be used even as stakes in a card game. These individuals must manipulate the system and get the upper hand on those who wield all the power, who gamble with their lives. Tomey's Turl aligns himself with Tennie, who uses Sophonsiba's desire to marry Buck to her own advantage. Turl and Tennie, as slaves, have less power than Sophonsiba, but they use their opportunities wisely. Turl manages to outsmart and evade Buck, the experienced tracker, for two days. He even escapes when cornered. Whether Tennie and Sophonsiba are active co-conspirators isn't fully clear, but Turl does imply they might be when he tells young Cass the womenfolk are working on his dilemma. If she isn't directly in league with Sophonsiba, Tennie is smart enough to predict Sophonsiba's moves as well as Buck's countermoves. She predicts Buddy will arrive and how the card game will go, so she positions Turl as the card dealer to ensure the outcome they want.

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