Identity as Unity of Go Down, Moses by David Becker

By David Becker

The question as to whether or not Faulkner’s Go Down, Moses is a novel or a collection of short stories continues to inspire debate. Even though the author forced his publisher to remove the subtitle “and Other Stories,” attached to the first edition without his knowing, critics continue to interpret the text as such. The hinge on which both sides of the argument swings is the section entitled “Pantaloon in Black.” The story of Rider, his grief over his recently dead wife, and his murder of a white man seems wholly out of place from the rest of the novel or collection (depending on one’s view). Most critics, like Stanley Tick who I will engage in this paper, believe “Pantaloon in Black” should essentially be ignored in order to view the text as a novel. I argue that “Pantaloon in Black” is integral to the structure of the novel as a complete narrative.            

The main argument Tick puts forth in his article “The Unity of Go Down, Moses,” is that the “central and unifying theme in the six sections of Go Down, Moses is the fate of McCaslin blood, the fortunes of the McCaslin lineage” (69). I do agree that the issue of the McCaslin bloodline and fortunes are of immense importance to the novel and its structure. All sections of the novel except “Pantaloon” deal directly with the McCaslin bloodline and its progression through time, whether it is the McCaslin or Beauchamp family. Nevertheless, notice Tick’s unwillingness to even acknowledge “Pantaloon” as a section of the novel, ignoring its presence until the section suits his argument. He goes as far as to claim that the section “must be considered the unintegrated and therefore non-essential part of the structure” (69). Another critic, whom Tick engages in his article, Olga Vickery, claims “Pantaloon” is a part of the novel due to the common theme of ritual hunting.            

The ritual hunting theme is a common thread throughout the novel. In “Was,” two hunts are taking place: the hunt for Tomey’s Turl and the dogs hunting the fox. In “The Fire in the Hearth,” Lucas Beauchamp is hunting for gold he believes is buried on the McCaslin land. “The Old People,” “The Bear,” and “Delta Autumn” are all literal hunting stories of Ike McCaslin and family friends hunting in the wilderness. Both “Pantaloon in Black” and “Go Down, Moses” seem to not involve hunting at all. One could argue, as Vickery does, that the hunt in “Pantaloon in Black” is the hunt for Rider after he commits murder. In “Go Down, Moses” the hunting metaphor seems to lose its weight. As Tick points out, the act of hunting is inverted in this last section of the novel since Samuel Beauchamp has already been brought to jail, executed, and brought home to Jefferson in a coffin (72-3). In a sense, it seems “Go Down, Moses” symbolizes the end of any hunt: the prey is killed and brought home.            

Yet how could we connect the theme of ritual hunting to “Pantaloon in Black”? I believe the object of the hunt would have to be broadened to encompass more than just a physical being. While at the end of “Pantaloon” Rider is hunted down and killed, presumably by the family of the white man he kills, there is another more abstract hunt occurring: the hunt for recognition—more specifically the hunt for human identity by the African American characters. Rider is overwhelmed by the seemingly sudden death of his wife and responds in a manner unheard of by both white and Black members of the community. Rider digs the grave himself, refusing help from a friend: “He released one hand midstroke and flung it backward, striking the other across the chest . . . and restored the hand to the moving shovel” (Faulkner 131).  After the funeral, he continues to go to work at the sawmill, unheeding to anyone’s concerns (138-40). At one point, Rider seems to have lost his purpose for life due to his wife’s death. Once the mill opens up again he would “stop needing to invent to himself reasons for his breathing” (141).

Throughout “Pantaloon” Rider is depicted as inhuman and animal-like in nature. As Rider is digging his wife’s grave, Faulkner describes his large stature (131). When we see him working at the sawmill, he has a superhuman or animalistic strength to pick up logs which normally require two men (138-41). After he kills the white man for cheating him in a dice game, Rider is found hanged presumably by friends and family of the white man he kills, invoking the image of a deer carcass hanging to drain after being gutted (149). Even the image of Rider breaking out of his prison cell gives him an sense of super- or non-human strength. In being described this way by Faulkner, and viewed as such by the white townsfolk, Rider loses his humanness. In other words, he becomes unknowable, without identity. Retaining a human identity, and the recognition of such by others, is a (if not the) central theme of Go Down, Moses.

Just as Rider is hunting for his purpose, his identity/humanness after his wife’s death, others throughout the novel are hunting for the same. Lucas Beauchamp is obsessed with the idea of this McCaslin blood being more real or valid due to its coming from a male McCaslin, while Roth’s blood is from a female line. Sam Fathers seems quietly at war with his mixing bloodlines, until he decides to live in the forest, making a symbolic move back to his Native American roots. Ike McCaslin’s identity is tied up with his decision to repudiate the land which is his inheritance, but not his in Ike’s view because “the man who bought it bought nothing” (246). Yet the hunt performed by the African American characters in the novel seems to be the most encompassing of all the hunts: that for the recognition of their humanity by others.

This hunt for human identity also occurs in “Go Down, Moses.” As I mentioned earlier, the physical hunt for Samuel Beauchamp has already occurred off-screen, if you will, and he is brought home like the carcass of hunted prey. At the beginning of the section, Mollie is in Gavin Stevens’s office, searching for Samuel because she feels he is in trouble, comparing Roth to Pharaoh and Samuel to Benjamin (353). While the present time of the narrative of “Go Down, Moses” is 1940-41, Mollie still associates Samuel’s, and possibly her own, identity as that of a slave by alluding to the biblical Benjamin. This reduces Samuel to those featured in the McCaslin ledger, to the level of livestock. Mollie is pointing to the fact that African Americans are still not considered fully human during this time period. More importantly, she replaces Samuel’s identity with that of Benjamin, ridding Samuel of his self.

When Samuel is found, Gavin accommodates the family in getting him home, in a proper manner as well. It seems that Gavin Stevens is the only person in Jefferson who truly cares about Mollie and Samuel, about the Black community in general. The people of Jefferson are kind enough to donate some money, here and there, and stand and watch the procession of Samuel’s casket circle the Confederate statue in town (360, 363-65). Yet when Mollie asks the reporter if he’s going to print the story of Samuel’s return home, he acts as if she’s asked the most ridiculous question she could ask. Although Gavin Stevens understands why and recognizes the importance of both bringing Samuel home and printing the story, he recognizes their humanity: “She just wanted him home, but she wanted him to come home right. She wanted that casket and those flowers and the hearse and she wanted to ride through town behind it in a car” (365).            

Tick argues that Gavin represents the “new southerner,” one that promises hope for race relations in the South (72). This I agree with and would like to expand upon. Gavin is a “new southerner” and is so because he recognizes and affirms the human identity of Mollie and the African American community in general. He even views Samuel as human; even though Samuel was a murderer, he was still human. These acts of recognition and the unwillingness to recognize the humanity of the Black man and woman is what draws this book together as a novel. Yes the McCaslins are quite central to the novel, but it is also the evil perpetrated by families such as the McCaslins in the South which brings about and continues the status of the African American as non-human. Therefore, “Pantaloon in Black” not only fits into the narrative of Go Down, Moses, it makes the novel whole by offering up an identity which refuses to be recognized until “Go Down, Moses.”    

Works Cited

Faulkner, William. Go Down, Moses. New York: Vintage International, 1990. Print.

Tick, Stanley. “The Unity of Go Down, Moses.” Twentieth Century Literature 8.2 (1962): 67-73. JSTOR. Web. 29 Jan. 2013.

Kent Library 406
Mailing Address
One University Plaza, MS 4600
Cape Girardeau, MO 63701