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Go Down, Moses

William Faulkner

Study Questions

Analysis

Quiz

One of the most confusing aspects of the complicated family tree of Go Down, Moses is the tendency of male children to be named after their ancestors or to be given their mother's maiden name as a first name. These traditions lead to a number of characters with similar names: Carothers McCaslin, McCaslin Edmonds, and Carothers Edmonds, for instance. What effect does this have on the novel, thematically, stylistically, or both?

One effect this has on the book is simply to slow down the reader's comprehension of the McCaslin family tree. It takes some time to puzzle out the fact that McCaslin Edmonds's grandmother was Isaac McCaslin's aunt, for instance, especially since the book is silent on the whereabouts or fates of McCaslin Edmonds's parents and grandparents. As the facts of the history slowly emerge from the muddle of similar names, the main effect that the names have is to reinforce the novel's idea of continuity through the generations--the idea that sons inherit certain characteristics from their fathers and certain characteristics from their mothers (the latter is especially true of the Edmonds, the "female" branch of the three-part family tree).

Think about Isaac's long argument with McCaslin Edmonds about inheriting the plantation in "The Bear"? What does Isaac believe about man's relationship to nature? How does he think the concept of land ownership has affected the South?

Isaac believes (and his belief is the closest the novel comes to a thematic center) that no man can own the land, that ownership of nature is contrary to the will of God, and that the idea that man can own nature is a curse that has blighted the human race, and specifically the white race. He traces this idea in his argument with McCaslin Edmonds through European history and into the South, where he blames the horrible conceit of slavery on the curse of land ownership. The idea that man can control nature, therefore, led directly to the Civil War and to the downfall of the South. (As Isaac grows older, he adopts a more optimistic view of humanity: in "Delta Autumn," he is no longer concerned with geopolitical history, saying simply that most people are a little better than their circumstances give them a chance to be.)

One of the main characteristics of Faulkner's South--and of his fiction--was the ugly, violent racial divide that had not healed since the Civil War. How does Faulkner explore this divide in Go Down, Moses? How does he connect it to the idea of patrimony and property? What is the significance of the revelation in "Delta Autumn" that Carothers Edmonds's lover is Tennie's Jim's granddaughter?

Faulkner's major technique for exploring the racial divide in Go Down, Moses is literally to integrate it into the family tree at the center of the novel. Because of Carothers McCaslin's affair with the slave Tomey, his ancestors are divided into two branches, the "white" branch and the "black" branch (and, of course, the white branch is divided into the "male" McCaslins and the "female" Edmonds). By exploring the different stations and fates of each branch, Faulkner is able to provide a look at the divide as it functioned in the South as a whole. At the end of the book, the two branches are reunited, as Carothers Edmonds (Carothers McCaslin's great-great-great-grandson) has a child with Tennie's Jim's granddaughter (Carothers McCaslin's great-great-granddaughter). Isaac seems to believe that history is not yet ready for the branches to be united, but united they are, and, with the death of Samuel Beauchamp in the last story of the novel, it is the child of Carothers Edmonds and his lover who seems designated to carry the family into the future. (This is somewhat similar to the conclusion of Absalom, Absalom!, in which the mixed-race Jim Bond is the sole surviving member of the Sutpen family, and Shreve comments that "the Jim Bonds...will conquer the earth.")

Go Down, Moses is very concerned with the idea of inheritance, specifically patrimony--the tradition of sons inheriting from their fathers. How does this idea manifest itself in terms of property throughout the novel? How does it manifest itself in terms of personality traits and temperament? Isaac McCaslin exempts himself from the first kind of patrimony; is he exempt from the second kind, as well?

How does Faulkner handle the novel's important symbols--the fire in Lucas's hearth in "The Fire in the Hearth," Old Ben in "The Bear"? Do these symbols have fixed meanings in the novel or are they more ambiguous? Thinking especially about "The Bear," what might the important symbols represent?

Think about the character of Rider. Why is he uniquely unable to handle his grief? How does the story of Rider, which does not relate to the McCaslin family except in that Rider rents a house from Carothers Edmonds, fit in to the work as a whole?

Go Down, Moses is not quite a novel, and it is not quite a book of short stories. How would you classify the book? Why? Does it remind you of any other books?

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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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