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Go Down, Moses

William Faulkner

The Bear

The Old People

Delta Autumn

Summary

As Isaac grows older, he becomes an expert hunter and woodsman, and continues going with the hunting parties every year. The group becomes increasingly preoccupied with hunting Old Ben, a monstrous, almost immortal bear that wreaks havoc throughout the forest. Old Ben's foot was maimed in a trap, and he seems impervious to bullets. Isaac learns to track Old Ben, but it is useless to hunt him because all the hounds are afraid of him. Sam Fathers, who teaches Isaac Old Ben's ways, says that it will take an extraordinary dog to bring Old Ben down.

Isaac sees Old Ben several times. Once, they send a tiny fyce-dog with no sense of danger after him, and Isaac even has a shot at the huge bear. But instead of taking it, he runs after the fyce and dives to save him from the bear. He looks up at Old Ben looming over him and remembers the image from his dreams about the bear.

At last they find the dog capable of bringing Old Ben to bay: Lion, a huge, wild Airedale mix with extraordinary courage and savagery. Sam makes Lion semi-tame by starving him until he will allow himself to be touched; soon, Boon Hogganbeck has devoted himself to Lion and even shares a bed with him. Using Lion, they nearly catch Old Ben, but Boon Hogganbeck misses five point-blank shots. General Compson hits the bear and draws blood, but Old Ben escapes into the forest. Isaac and Boon go into Memphis to buy whisky for the men, and the next day, they go after the bear again. General Compson declares that he wants Isaac to ride Kate, the only mule who is not afraid of wild animals and, therefore, the best chance any of the men have to get close enough to the bear to kill him.

In the deep woods, near the river, Lion leaps at Old Ben and takes hold of his throat. Old Ben seizes Lion and begins shredding his stomach with his claws. Boon Hogganbeck draws his knife and throws himself on top of the bear, slitting his throat. Old Ben dies, and a few days later, Lion dies as well. Sam Fathers collapses after the fight and dies not long after Lion. Lion and Sam are buried in the same clearing.

Isaac returns to the farm near Jefferson, to the old McCaslin plantation. Time passes; eventually he is 21, and it is time for him to assume control of the plantation, which is his by inheritance. But he renounces it in favor of his cousin McCaslin Edmonds, who is practically his father. Isaac has a long argument with McCaslin in which he declares his belief that the land cannot be owned, that the curse of God's Earth is man's attempt to own the land, and that that curse has led to slavery and the destruction of the South. McCaslin tries to argue with him, but Isaac remembers looking through the old ledger books of Uncle Buck and Uncle Buddy and piecing together the story of the plantations slaves, and he refuses the inheritance. (One of Isaac's inferences is particularly appalling: Tomey, the slave who Carothers McCaslin took as a lover and the mother of Turl, may also have been Carothers McCaslin's daughter by another slave, Eunice. Eunice committed suicide shortly before Turl's birth, and from this and other factors, Isaac deducts that she must also have been Carothers McCaslin's lover.)

So, Isaac refuses the inheritance, moves to town, and becomes a carpenter, eschewing material possessions. He marries a woman who urges him to take back the plantation, but he refuses even when she tries to convince him sexually. He administers the money left to the children of Tomey's Turl and Tennie, even traveling to Arkansas to give a thousand dollars to Sophonsiba, Lucas's sister, who moved their with a scholarly negro farmer who never seems to farm. He continues to hunt and to spend all the time he can in the woods.

Once, he goes back to the hunting camp where they stalked Old Ben for so many years. Major de Spain has sold it to a logging company and the trains come closer and louder than before. Soon, it will be whittled away by the loggers. Isaac goes to the graves of Lion and Sam Fathers, then goes to find Boon Hogganbeck. Boon is in a clearing full of squirrels, trying to fix his gun. As Isaac enters, Boon shouts at him not to touch any of the squirrels: "They're mine!" he cries.

Commentary

"The Bear" is the centerpiece of Go Down, Moses, just as Isaac McCaslin is the book's central character. It is the longest story in the book, and it is Faulkner's most intense, focused, and symbolic exploration of the relationship of man and nature. Old Ben, the legendary bear, is a symbol of the power and inscrutability of nature--he is nearly immortal, nearly invulnerable, capable of overpowering virtually anything, and capable of wreaking havoc on human settlements and establishments. The men, who put their minds to work on the single purpose of hunting him, are in some way representative of man's drive to control nature. (There is some thematic ambiguity in the fact that hunting has been portrayed as a noble and respectful act, but here it becomes, in part, a symbol of man's attempt to conquer nature, to which it has previously been contrasted.) Old Ben is a virtually mythic force, and only over the course of years are the men able to bring him down. But, like the wilderness in Isaac McCaslin's lifetime, he is brought down in the end. The death of Old Ben at the hands of Boon Hogganbeck is also somewhat ambiguous--it is a moving, devastating scene, but it seems unclear whether Old Ben's death is a right or a wrong in Faulkner's eyes or something more complex than either. There is something almost wild about Boon Hogganbeck, Old Ben's killer, himself; the image that closes the story, with Boon trying desperately to fix his gun so that he can shoot the squirrels and shouting at Isaac that they are his, is certainly an unsettling metaphor for the destructiveness and possessiveness of human civilization.

Contrasted with the wild, solemn, primal forest in the story is the dry, orderly human Commissary, where Isaac reads Buck and Buddy's old ledgers and imprints a sense of the evil of land ownership and the warped thinking that justifies it. When he rejects his birthright--rejecting even the idea that it is his birthright--by refusing to inherit the plantation, he does so both because of his experiences in the wilderness and because of his sense of the evil that stems from ownership. In his argument with McCaslin Edmonds, Isaac traces the curse of ownership from Biblical parables to European history to the institution of slavery and the downfall of the South during the Civil War. He says that he will be free--and in this moment, Old Ben becomes, in memory, a symbol of a wild, fierce freedom, so keen to defend itself that it constantly threw itself into harm's way simply to accomplish the defense. In this way, Old Ben becomes a symbol both of untamed nature and of some principle of freedom and independence in the human spirit. Isaac, whose feelings form the thematic center of the novel, had earlier believed that killing the buck required him to make his life worthy of what he had taken from the animal he hunted; now the spiritual internalization of Old Ben enables him to make his life worthy of the great bear's indomitable will and of his death. In any event, Isaac remains morally committed to nature and to hunting; in his final trip to the camp, he sees a giant rattlesnake that seems to be the same kind of manifestation as the giant buck in "The Old People," and, like Sam Fathers with the buck, he calls it "grandfather." In rejecting the patrimony of Carothers McCaslin, Isaac reaffirms his acceptance of the patrimony of nature.

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Ike's inheritance

by grammar_girl94, October 09, 2014

but...Ike does take back the plantation eventually...right?

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