Go Down, Moses

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Go Down Moses

“He was talking about truth. Truth is one. It doesn't change. It covers all things which touch the heart -- honor and pride and pity and justice and courage and love”


Truth is Stranger Than Fiction

Go Down Moses is a southern gothic novel written by William Faulkner in 1942 it consists of seven short interrelated stories that deal with the changing social conditions in the post Civil War South. Utilizing the intensity of stream of consciousness writing, Faulkner deeply engages the historical connections between race and slavery, man and nature, and how each influences man's self identification. Faulkner traces each story through a variety of characters, but the unifying voice within each experience is the voice of Isaac McCaslin. Isaac's perspective guides most of the stories, and it is his discovery of a grim truth regarding the race relations within his family that acts as the secret in this Gothic novel.

Connective Perspective History

William Faulkner takes up two main aspects of history in his epic novel Go Down, Moses. The novel's narrative format acts as a commentary on history when defined as a continual, connective process. The novel's plot, a conversational recollection of the past, adds to the idea that history is often told through oral traditions. Oral traditions along with written sources relate history as an official record of the past, which is the second definition taken up by Faulkner. By creating a conflict between the history passed down by word of mouth and the history kept in written 'official' documents, Faulkner elicits a critique on what truth really is. He goes even further by demonstrating the ways in which different people react to the truth. In Go Down Moses, William Faulkner argues that history, pleasant or disturbing, is always occurring and the truth behind history is elusive; and he demonstrates that the past has longstanding effects on the present.

Go Down Moses's style of plot is defined as stream of consciousness where events of past, present, and future overlap. It is a format that reflects the human memory. Humans do not remember history chronologically, the mind interweaves related events that are important into a bigger idea or story. Faulkner exemplifies this very human perception of history through his choice of format. Faulkner's style of writing also lends itself to the fact that human memory is not the most objective method of record keeping. The fact that some stories, such as the Pantaloon in Black are written in a more traditional manner, while others such as The Bear dwell on single moments for multiple pages lends credence to this assertion. The Bear's reliance on stream of consciousness writing exposes the reader to Isaac McCaslin's internal monologue, offering the possibility to analyze how his past experiences relate to his current actions. In contrast, Rider, the main character of Pantaloon in Black seems significantly less "fleshed out" than Isaac's character.

Slave Population 1860

Faulkner juxtaposes oral and written history to expose the conflicted relation of history, biased by perspective. History is official only when you designate a certain perspective to be right. Faulkner uses Issac McCaslin to demonstrate this effect. The common knowledge, 'official history,' of the McCaslin plantation is what Issac has been told all his life by family oral traditions. Until checking the official ledgers, Issac did not doubt the authenticity of this history or the reliability of its source. When he reads through the plantation's written records of the slaves, he discovers an alternate truth that makes him question everything he has ever known. He discovers that the founder of the plantation, Carothers McCaslin, his grandfather, used the power he had over his slaves to violate them twice. First, Carothers has a child with a slave then committs incest with that child, fathering a child by her. Second, he denied his black children their rights as patrilineal descendants and kept them as slaves. As a result of this horrific discovery, Isaac begins to question how he defines himself. He reacts to the guilt he feels over the true history of his family by retreating to another town and givng up his rights to the plantation. Isaac "would never need to look at the ledgers again nor did he; the yellow pages in their fading and implacable succession were as much a part of his consciousness and would remain so forever..." (259), haunting him and continually influencing the choices he makes.

Molly Beauchamp, a slave on the McCaslin Plantation reacts to bad truth in a different way. Molly discovers that her grandson shot a police officer and had been given the death penalty. Upon learning of her grandson's unfortunate fate, she demands that his story be published, "since it had to be and she couldn't stop it, and now that it's all over and done and finished, she doesn't care how he died. She just wanted him home" (365). Molly instead sees truth and history as something everyone should know, damaging as it may be. While Molly's presentation of history is more reliable and more objective, it is still difficult to contend with on other levels. The forward and unabashed presentation of history through publication also raises the question of how to manage and treat such history in the present: Is it something to just be accepted and to learn from, or is it something to accept and attempt to account for?

History Within the Family Tree

The Truth won't Be Told By The Few Who Know.

The completed McCaslin family tree. Red lines indicate incest.

One of the quintessential aspects of history taken up by Faulkner in Go Down Moses is the relationship of the characters in the McCaslin family tree. Faulkner exposes the reader to the mystery behind each character's relationship within the family tree very slowly, and often times very cryptically, as is typical in southern gothic novels. Faulkner utilizes his stream of consciousness writing, and fragmented storyline to allow the reader to derive their own opinions on truth and history.

Quite possibly, the most important theory of truth depicted throughout the novel is the truth that discovered not told. Truth is the story the individual believes to be right and is felt in the heart Cass Edmonds, the older cousin of our main character Isaac McCaslin, tries to reveal this to Isaac in the chapter The Bear when he recites the Ode on a Grecian Urn to Isaac after his encounter with Old Ben.

Cass "was talking about truth. Truth is one. It doesn't change. It covers all things which touch the heart -- honor and pride and pity and justice and courage and love”

“That if truth is one thing to me and another thing to you, how will we choose which is truth? You don't need to choose. The heart already knows. He didn't have His Book written to be read by what must elect and choose, but by the heart...”

Faulkner invokes this very same lesson throughout Go Down Moses by presenting the McCaslin family tree in such an enigmatic manner. He deliberately challenges the reader to piece through each branch of McCaslin's lineage in order to discover their own truths throughout the text. By doing so, Faulkner prompts the reader to come to their own conclusions, and to become closely aware and connected to the story when the realization of the dark truths of the McCaslin family tree come to light. By documenting the degradation, rape, and incest within the McCaslin's family, the prejudices of the former McCaslins still reflective in Roth Edmonds, and the denial of Lucas' patrilineal right to the land, Faulkner invites his readers to analyze how the truth of history should be dealt with and shows that the present is still deeply rooted within the injustices of the past.

Additional Resources

Faulkner's Map of Yoknapatawpha/Jefferson County
William Faulkner

Hope you enjoyed our page and remember, there's always time for a story with uncle Billy. Here is a list of other novels he has written:

Soldiers' Pay (1926)

Mosquitoes (1927)

Sartoris/Flags in the Dust (1929/1973)

The Sound and the Fury (1929)

As I Lay Dying (1930)

Sanctuary (1931)

Light in August (1932)

Pylon (1935)

Absalom, Absalom! (1936)

The Unvanquished (1938)

If I Forget Thee Jerusalem (The Wild Palms/Old Man) (1939)

The Hamlet (1940)

Intruder in the Dust (1948)

Requiem for a Nun (1951)

A Fable (1954)

The Town (1957)

The Mansion (1959)

The Reivers (1962)


Faulkner Visits University of Virginia

Faulkner Nobel Prize Speech

Go Down, Moses Sung by Paul Robeson