The Fire and the Hearth
Arthur F. Kinney, University of Massachusetts at Amherst
Faulkner's most extended narrative of black life in Yoknapatawpha is remarkable for its tones and tensions, ranging from the ingenuity and hilarity of trickster tales to an examination of family and racial relationships that is powerfully wrenching. A chapter of Go Down, Moses, "The Fire and the Hearth" draws on two previous short stories, "A Point of Law" and "Gold Is Not Always" and, in its final, amalgamated form is essential to understanding Faulkner because it is his first serious exploration of African American life in the American South through history: the legacy of enslavement of blacks; their hunger for the liberty of an emancipation they are ill trained to manage; and their various attempts to forge a new life and lineage of purpose and dignity. The work's protagonist Lucas Beauchamp, the mulatto grandson of the great white plantation owner Lucius Quintus Carothers McCaslin, whose name he takes and corrupts, is loosely based on Faulkner's own loyal family servant Ned Barnett. But in Faulkner's attempt to record the public view of blacks alongside the urgent desire to understand them despite his limited but compassionate white perspective, Faulkner exposes the pressing needs and fierce limitations of man's need to know and the artist's imagination to reveal. Faulkner's solution as in the contemporary novel If I Forget Thee Jerusalem (The Wild Palms)- is to work in counterpoint, moving from prejudicial racial stereotypes (such as the cunning charlatan) to the individual family tragedy (where merged bloodlines complicate ancestry). By proposing that each perspective holds some truth and cannot be ignored, he accumulates a kind of double consciousness in the reader that forces each of us to come to our own understanding of the assorted but necessary materials he provides.
"First, in order to take care of George Wilkins once and for all, [Lucas] had to hide his own still" and expose George's as a decoy (33): "The Fire and the Hearth" begins with a light hearted competition that will grow grim, a competition based in cunning and deceit, dismantling tricks in the dark of night. Lucas is "the oldest living person on the Edmonds plantation, the oldest McCaslin descendant even though in the world's eye he descended not from McCaslin but from McCaslin slaves" (36). He tells himself he is not worried about George, "a fool living on the same place he lived on" (35), but of his cousin Edmonds a white man on the distaff side of the family and overseer of the McCaslin land. Lucas was born in 1874 and now, at 67, exhausted farming cotton by day and moonshining at night: by day a hard field worker and by night an entrepreneurial scalawag. He embodies two views of the black man, both of them stereotypical which it will be the job of this narrative to personalize and comprehend. In his nighttime maneuvers, he is first outwitted by his daughter Natalie whose surveillance of his plot to trick her boyfriend George causes George to outrick the trickster. When, through Nat, Edmonds discovers their nighttime trade, Nat protects George by bribing Lucas. She reveals a hidden marriage document behind the bricks of the fireplace the first narrative (but not chronological) indication that the hearth stands for the possibility of family and home. Nat requires in return for silence a cook stove, a new back porch, and a well. But then George outricks both Nat and Lucas by using the money to buy a new still with a more reliable worm for more constant moonshine. One trick only prepares the way for another in a farce like atmosphere, it would seem, where the white man is victimized by clever if foolish black men.
Faulkner plays to public stereotypes, however, as mere surfaces of what is really going on. In the course of hiding his still from Edmonds and the law, Lucas finds a buried gold coin. But there is only one. It is important that Lucas sees it as potentially many more. Both his avarice and his limited authority are exposed when he goes to the white man's house for aid the house of his own cousin. It is a dark hint in a comic tale the beginning of counterpoint and on his journey Lucas recalls the last time he went to the house of the overseer. It was after Edmonds' birth when Lucas's wife Molly had moved there to suckle Zack Edmonds' white child along with her own newborn son Henry. The association is telling: the robber of gold is reminded of the theft of his wife: "'I wants my wife. I needs her at home’” (46). Suddenly what is at stake and may have always been at stake is not quick riches but the need for self esteem. "’I'm a nigger,' Lucas said. 'But I'm a man too. I'm more than just a man. The same thing made my pappy that made your grandmaw. I'm going to take her back’” (46 4'7). Unity of ancestry has been fractured along racial lines, and his demand is for equality where unity is not possible. We can argue, then, that Lucas' aching for self respect is what makes the gold so appealing. As a precursor to Nat removing the marriage certificate from the fireplace her sole means to improve her lot he recalls going to the fireplace at that earlier time where "the fire had burned constantly above it" (50) and uncovering his badge of authority, "a small metal dispatch box which his white grandfather, Carothers McCaslin himself, had owned almost a hundred years ago" (51) in which he has stored a "knotted rag tight and solid with . . . coins" (51), the precursor to the possible gold hidden in the culvert. He leaves it with Molly as his inheritance before facing down the white man Zack Edmonds for stealing Molly from him. Their struggle ends in a physical draw: in this racial divide, there are no winners and no losers. Just as there is no resolution, either: "This time he spoke aloud: 'How to God,' he said, 'can a black man ask a white man to please not lay down with his black wife? And even if he could ask it, how to God can the white man promise he wont?’” (58).
Placing this highly charged scene at the center of Chapter One and surrounding it with a fool's search for gold, Faulkner demonstrates the consequences of a racial history that comes in between. Trickery is a debased form of survival. What publicly seems so comic is at the same time the private wages of conflicted racial and family relations at once fixed and fragile. "The Fire and the Hearth" is meant to reveal such a situation, but it may also mean to hint at progress through accommodation: Lucas compensating for his ill fortune can give Edmonds an opportunity, in behavior, to respond to the disregard of his father Zack in taking Molly from the Beauchamp cabin to his own homestead. "The Fire and the Hearth" may put Edmonds as much on trial as Lucas or George or Nat. Challenged, Zack and Lucas end their duel in an impasse (58). What replaces it in the present is a scheme more elaborate, more secretive, more demeaning and more blasphemous. It is, we are told, a divining machine, a twentieth century contraption of lights and needles and buttons that Lucas thinks will make him oracular: "'I just happened to think how rich I'd be if I just knowed what hit knows’” (88). For Lucas it is a technological means to the power and knowledge of God that Molly realizes is dangerous and destructive: "'he's sick in the mind now. Bad sick. He dont even get up to go to church on Sunday no more. He's bad sick, marster. He's doing a thing the Lord aint meant for folks to do. And I'm afraid’” (99), she tells Edmonds. The competing registers of their objections one religious, the other economic may hint at racial characteristics as they are presented in this story, but the violation of a sacred Indian burial ground for stolen money raises the ante: three cultures are in play and the initial rape of Eunice that resulted in Lucas' birth now leads to a rape of sacred territory, both actions the result of thoughtless and disrespectful self pleasure. Molly's own spiritual sense of place, purpose, and limits allows her to teach even Edmonds, who mistakenly thinks the danger is that Lucas will waste his life finding nothing. The real danger, Molly says, is that he will find it. "'Because God say, 'What's rendered to My earth, it belongs to Me unto I resurrect it. And let him or her touch it, and beware.’ And I'm afraid. I got to go. I got to be free of him’” (99). Being free; letting go. Liberty for Molly is the fullness of the spirit of God in the human soul and it provides a stern measure and a whole new dimension to the forces at play in "The Fire and the Hearth."
When Edmonds discovers Lucas, George, and the salesman, he has what seems to be an epiphany. "He stopped dead in his tracks. He whirled. He was not only about to perceive the whole situation in its complete and instantaneous entirety, as when the photographer's bulb explodes, but he knew now that he had seen it all the while and had refused to believe it purely and simply because he knew that when he did accept it [that the digging for gold had continued with the divining machine], his brain would burst" (83). His sudden immersion in the cunning and obsession of Lucas is no epiphany of God's purpose, as Molly presents it, but instead a reunion of thought and activity with those whose avarice has been at fault all along. But it is also a cultural white epiphany, for it allows Edmonds to understand Lucas' foolish determination, George's essential unreliability, and (most important of all to the materialist Edmonds) the disappearance of Alice Blue Bolt, his mule. Lucas' activity consumes Edmonds. It sickens Molly. This is a critical point in Faulkner's narrative, because Edmonds solitary and aging like Lucas had tried to reconstitute his family through Molly. She is "the negro woman who had been the only mother he ever knew, who had not only delivered him on that night of rain and flood [the reference is to the flood of Noah when the whole world begins anew] when her husband had very nearly lost his life fetching the doctor who arrived too late" (97), when literally Edmonds was brought to the Beauchamp cabin in due course and the family was temporarily unified. Now he is making the most tentative gesture toward that restoration: "regularly once a month he would get down and tie the mare to the fence and enter the house with a tin of tobacco and a small sack of the soft cheap candy which she loved, and visit with her for a half hour" (96). But his epiphany suggests this is more form than substance: his head, at least, is not where his heart is. When Molly risks her life stealing the machine from Lucas and parodying his search while preventing any further involvement of Lucas or George or Nat, her heart joins her mind. For Lucas, it is a winning combination: "'We aint gonter have no contest or no voce neither,' he said" (124). Instead of looking for money now, he spends it. "He was carrying a small sack obviously candy, a nickel's worth. He put it into Molly's hand" (125). This too is a precursive act. With Edmonds he lets go of the divining machine itself. Letting go, he becomes free; letting go, he reinstitutes his marriage. Being free for Lucas, as for Molly, is being free with. Freedom for Edmonds is being free alone.
In this, "The Fire and the Hearth" ends on a note of mutual recognition and respect. But it does so with a society that has not essentially changed and a family that is still in many ways divided. The central events of the story have concluded but the story remains, fundamentally, in media res, as the endings of many of Faulkner's narratives do. We must determine if the "little fire" at the end, in the overseer's house (125) will illumine and heat the future or if the final portrait, of Edmonds alone, suggests that no significant cultural forces or circumstances have been transformed or even alleviated. The challenge for the reader of "The Fire and the Hearth" is whether its details hold any valid hope for change. To put it another way: how to God can a white man hope to understand a black man, and if he can, how can a black man know it?
References are to William Faulkner, Go Down, Moses, Vintage International, 1970.
Brooks, Cleanth. William Faulkner: The Yoknapatawpha Country. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1963, ch. 12.
Creighton, Joanne V. William Faulkner's Craft of Revision. Detroit: Wayne State
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Davis, Thadious M. Faulkner's "Negro": Art and the Southern Context. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1983, ch. VI.
Holmes, Edward M. Faulkner's Twice Told Tales. The Hague: Mouton and Co., 1966, ch. V.
Jenkins, Lee. Faulkner and Black White Relations. New York, Columbia University
Press, 1981, ch. V.
Kinney, Arthur F. "Go Down, Moses": The Miscegenation of Time. New York: Twayne/
Prentice Hall, 1996, ch. 6., ed. Faulkner's Families: The McCaslin Family. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1990.
Matthews, John T. The Play of Faulkner's Language. Ithaca: Cornell University
Press, 1982, ch. 5.
Snead, James A. Figures of Division: William Faulkner's Major Novels. New York:
Metheun, 1986, ch. 7.
Taylor, Walter. Faulkner's Search for a South. Urbana: University of Illinois
Press, 1983, ch. 9.
Zender, Karl F. Faulkner and the Politics of Reading. Baton Rouge: Louisiana
State University Press, 2002, ch. 4.
---. The Crossing of the Ways: William Faulkner, the South, and the Modern World.
New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1989, ch. Three.
Arthur F. Kinney has taught and published on Faulkner for four decades. His first work was Bear, Man, and God, co edited for Random House with Francis Lee Utley and Lynn Z. Bloom; his first book was Faulkner's Narrative Poetics: Style as Vision. He has published a number of essays and books since, including a four volume set on Faulkner's Families; his most recent contribution is Approaches to Teaching Faulkner's "The Sound and the Fury" co edited with Stephen Hahn for MLA.