Go Down, Moses is a multifaceted and highly complex examination of a number of interrelated themes: the relationship of man to nature (as embodied most specifically in the story of Isaac McCaslin and Sam Fathers), the idea of property and ownership (both of land, as in the McCaslin plantation, and of human beings, as in the McCaslin slaves), the nature of the family, the brutal racial conflict at the heart of Southern life, and the nature of inheritance (of property and of characteristics, particularly as passed down from fathers to sons). These themes are intertwined and spread out among a multitude of stories and characters, but in the end, they all emerge from the larger story of the McCaslin family and its antecedents. There are a number of rich, ambiguous symbols in the book (the bear, which stands for ideas of freedom and the awe-inspiring nature that man seeks to conquer, being the most significant). There are also a number of important motifs: familial displacement, whereby characters assume other character's family roles that are not naturally theirs (McCaslin Edmonds is brought up by his uncles; Isaac is brought up by McCaslin, his cousin; Carothers Edmonds is brought up by Molly; and so on); the betrayal of sons by their fathers (Tomey's Turl's bequest from Carothers McCaslin arriving only after Carothers dies, Ikkemotubbe selling Sam Fathers into slavery); and the slow dilution of quality from the family tree (characters' power and vitality is always directly proportional to their generational closeness to Carothers McCaslin).
Structurally, Go Down, Moses is one of Faulkner's most fascinating books. Not quite unified enough to be a proper novel but much more cohesive than most books of short stories, the book gradually delineates the family relationships and complex history of the McCaslin dynasty in Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi, from the Civil War era to the early years of World War II in Europe. The histories emerge slowly from clues and passages left in succeeding stories, so that the stories themselves--whose plots are quite independent from one another--recede into the larger story, which becomes clear non-chronologically and without linear development. This technique enables Faulkner to explore themes, such as slavery and man's relationship to nature, from a variety of different perspectives and in a variety of different historical periods, all while unifying the ambiguities and complexities of this thematic approach in the service of the larger history of the McCaslin family.