"Honor" and "Dignity":
The Framework of The Patriarchal Narrative and Black Resistance
in Go Down, Moses



We will begin by adopting the definition used by Kevin Railey (6-7) and focusing attention on the conflict between two opposing ideologies--paternalism and liberalism--in the South during most of the 19th and early 20th centuries. According to Railey, paternalists assume an inherent inequality of men, stress each individual's acceptance of his or her place in a stable, stratified social order, and aim to establish the extended, patriarchal family. As a model citizen, they hold a sense of honor in their dealings with others and feel a sense of responsibility toward their society. Liberalists, on the other hand, advance under the slogan of democracy the idea that all men are created equal; they permit the fluidity of the class order within a society which promotes equal opportunity. They give a first priority to pursuit of profit in the marketplace and tend to have the private, nuclear family. When Faulkner was born in 1897, paternalism had already become a residual ideology and liberalism was rising to dominance.
    With this historical context in mind, I will see Faulkner's treatment of black characters in Go Down, Moses. The purpose of this paper is, in short, to examine how the black characters are depicted by Faulkner in the context of the two myths: one myth of the Old South plantation which was formed in the framework of the patriarchal narrative based on paternalism, and the other myth of the black beast which was formed in conjunction with shakiness of the patriarchal system at the end of the 19th century. Chiefly, the stories of the four main black characters will be discussed: Lucas who imitates the honorable aristocrats in the Old South the myth of which was popularized at national level after Reconstruction, Mollie who seems to duplicate the faithful and patient Mammy in the plantation myth, and finally Rider and Butch who are violently pushed into the other myth of the black beast.

First of all, I will examine how Faulkner, whose interest seems to be more in paternalism than in liberalism, is using in Go Down, Moses Southern paternalism's major components such as "honor," "pride," "courage," and "responsibility." Second, I will distinguish the idea of "honor" from that of "dignity." My primary concern here is to shed light on the relationship between the idea of "honor" which has so far been positively and heroically interpreted by many critics and that of "dignity" which can be bestowed on the black characters. What can be seen from there is frailty and weakness of white men, which is mirrored by the black characters' dignified presence.
    In the South the importance of "honor" cannot be overemphasized. As Edward L. Ayers notes, "many Southern men recognized the dictates of honor: a system of values within which you have exactly as much worth as others confer upon you. Women, children, and slaves had no honor; only adult white males had a right to honor. . . ."(13) In this culture of "honor," white men had to fight a duel if their "honor" was hurt. The duel was, according to Wyatt-Brown, introduced to America by British and French aristocrats serving in America during the Revolution, and later became a social custom as a means to demonstrate status and manliness among those calling themselves gentlemen (354-5). White men's "honor" could be vindicated only by fighting such a duel. In other words, after winning "honor" and taking "pride" in themselves, white men had to muster "courage" for the preservation of "honor." To "honor," "pride," and "courage" are, furthermore, added a social "responsibility" toward women, children, and blacks. The significance of these components is shown in Faulkner's frequent use of the terms such as "honor," "pride," and "courage" in Issac's and Roth's stories in Go Down, Moses. It is also shown in the use of the term "responsibility" in Faulkner's portrayal of old Cass: "[H]e possessed the land and its benefits and responsibilities."(emphasis added, 44)
    Nevertheless, there appears in this novel a black man who tries to embody "honor," "pride," "courage," and "responsibility." His name is Lucas Beauchamp. He enters Zack's bedroom with a naked razor in his hand and challenges the plantation master to a duel, because he feels that Zack "had" his wife Mollie at the big house as a nurse for half a year and hurt his "honor." There is, of course, no referee between them in this scene, but it is obvious that Lucas is trying to fight a duel without regard to Zack's will, as Lucas says to Zack: "I give you your chance. . . . Then you laid here asleep with your door unlocked and give me mine. Then I throwed the razor away and give it back. And then you throwed it back at me. That's right, aint it?" (55) Here by means of a social custom recognized among almost all of the white men, Lucas tries to perform an antisocial act of rebelling against a white man, yet Lucas is never insistent on his "honor" without betraying himself to be a comic figure.
    Faulkner, however, bestows "dignity" on Lucas. It seems that Faulkner wants humor and "dignity" to offset each other. In fact, according to the concordance to Go Down, Moses, the terms related to "dignity" appear three times in the novel. Faulkner uses the noun "dignity" two times when depicting Lucas and Sam Fathers (77, 164); he also uses the adjective "dignified" when depicting Lucas (126). Thus, it should not be overlooked that while "honor," "pride," "courage," and "responsibility" are mostly used for Faulkner's white male characters, "dignity" is exclusively used for his black male characters. Indeed, it seems possible to suggest that the idea of "dignity" is presented to the reader as opposed to that of "honor."
    Before turning to the further examination of the relationship between the opposing ideas in Go Down, Moses, let me briefly explain historical changes of the term "honor." As Yoshie Kawade states (115), the idea of "honor" is believed to have been formed in the classical meaning in the 16th century. For example, the idea of honos in Latin in the ancient Rome Empire was a public approval or reward for virtue, an approval or reward given by the fellow citizens. More importantly, honos was a means to attain a higher goal--dignitas ("dignity"). When a man keeps on receiving honos, the memory of his excellence is impressed again and again, and if he wins such a continuing popularity, he is most probably given dignitas, the fame of a substantial status. A few centuries later, however, historically and geographically transformed, the idea of "honor" was transplanted into America, where it was redefined as opposed to the idea of "dignity." "[B]y the mid-nineteenth century," Ayers contends, "the Northern United States had generated the core of a culture antagonistic to honor. This Northern culture celebrated "dignity"-the conviction that each individual at birth possessed an intrinsic value at least theoretically equal to that of every other person"(19). In this culture of "dignity," self-discipline, self-control, and self-government are stressed, and so the opinions of others are considered less important than one's own value judgment. This is the culture where one's judgment rules one's existence, where once a man falls into the state of self-questioning, the energy or power to maintain his "dignity" is spent in fighting against himself, not against others. Take Sam for example; he made "himself his own battleground, the scene of his own vanquishment and the mausoleum of his defeat"(162). Curiously enough, we should be reminded of the fact that the North has witnessed much more suicides than has the South since at least 1860 (Ayers 25).
    Now, I would like to hazard a conjecture that through some personae such as Issac, Roth, and Stevens, Faulkner tried to articulate by the term "dignity" what was strange and unsettling to him, what was not quite understandable in his southern logic of "honor," when he watched unfathomable blacks as the Other. If my conjecture is correct, all of the white man's confusion, amazement, and awe must be put into the term when he saw with his own eyes stubborn resistance of unarmed blacks in the South. Therefore, it is no accident that the value system of blacks which is not understandable in the South overlaps, in Faulkner's description, with that of the North which is not understandable either.
    This leads to the conclusion that Lucas's story is not identical with white aristocrats' narrative in the myth of the Old South. The reason is that although Lucas comically embodies "honor," "pride," "courage," and "responsibility," his fundamental strength of personality comes not from the value system of the South but from that of "dignity." When using Lucas as a tool for the myth of the Old South, Faulkner was probably afraid of making Lucas buried in the nostalgic narrative of the white community; it must be remembered that the myth of the Old South was completely a product of the white imagination and, to borrow Oakes' phrase, "served the purposes of proslavery ideologues" (51), because from the viewpoint of black people, the symbolic space of the Old South is not a pastoral utopia but a scene of cruel slavery. That is why Faulkner had to have trouble cutting Lucas from the MacCaslin bloodline at a certain point, and at the same time making him continue a connection with the family's male line somehow or other. As a consequence, Lucas' self-generative power to draw a line between the Southern family heritage and himself--such an act of drawing a line is symbolized by the act of changing his name from Lucius to Lucas (270)--is stressed in the novel. So is his self-containment.
    Although he had enough money to depart forever at any time after his 21st birthday, Lucas made up his mind to stay physically in the McCaslin plantation, and to stay mentally in the myth of the white community. The purpose of his stay is no doubt to resist racial discrimination as "a man"(47) of "dignity." Accordingly, Lucas, who is ubiquitous in the plantation, keeps on running a thorn into the heart of his master Roth, who cannot help feeling frailty and weakness of his "honor" in the face of Lucas' "dignity."

    Next, I will examine the stories of two young blacks, Rider and Butch. The point to observe is that Faulkner does not let them narrate their own stories in the novel. Instead, by means of the framework narrative, he lets the deputy and Stevens take charge of them: the deputy regards Rider as one of "wild buffaloes"(150) and Stevens defines Butch as "a murderer" (359) or "[a] bad son of a bad father"(359). What is deeply involved in each of the deputy's and Steven's summaries is discourse at the height of racial discrimination: the deputy describes the black by the use of an animal metaphor and Stevens explains on the grounds of biological knowledge that the black should be inferior to the white. Although the topic of rape is missing in the narrators' minds, the image of the black beast is vividly created. In this way, the complex and subtle stories of both Rider and Butch are rewritten by the two whites judging the two blacks only by the outside, and are made identified with the myth of the black beast in the South around the turn of the century.
    Here, examining the two black images from the viewpoints of the two whites, we should not disregard the class difference between the deputy and Stevens. It is obvious that the deputy is classified as a poor white who attempts a social ascent and that Stevens who longs for social stability belongs to the upper, aristocratic class. In fact, such a difference decides the way they narrate. The deputy narrates in the logic of exclusion of and separation from the black people; as far as he is concerned, they are nothing but stepping-stones for advancing his own interests, that is, for gathering as many votes as possible. Stevens, however, narrates from a different angle; he feels responsible toward the black people and tries to actively participate in their stories. Thus, it is not altogether groundless to read a liberalistic character into the deputy's behavior and to read a paternalistic one in Stevens'. Obviously, the deputy and Stevens have nothing in common with each other, except that either of them cannot understand his black story aright, making himself an object of our derision.
    Then, one may wonder what individual stories of Rider and Butch really are. Although time setting of their stories is from 1940 to 1941, 24-year-old Rider and 26-year-old Butch remind us of what is called the "New Negroes." Usually, this term has been associated with the black intellectuals and artists during the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s, but in the present context it means those who grew up at the end of the nineteenth century. Different from the blacks in the older generation, they were of the new type: they disliked to play Sambo and did not hesitate to counterattack whites in certain circumstances. When the deepening agricultural depression of the late 1880s and on through the 1890s drove them off the farm land into the city, they pursued their freedom and identity in the underworld, enjoying dice, whisky, and women greatly. These young men, who may be called "Nobody's Negro[es]" (57-61) by Joel Williamson from the viewpoint of whites, were considered to be very dangerous, because they were loose from the white rulers. On the other hand, Eric J. Sandquist from the viewpoint of blacks argues that "the positive concept of the New Negro had to counter the negative meanings with which it was loaded in the discourse of racism"(336). Elaborating on the proliferation of the phrase "New Negro" in the socioeconomic field during the 1890s, Sandquist stresses the fact that many black leaders including Booker T. Washington so often used it in their writings (335). Thus, over the issue of the "New Negro," the racial conflict between whites and blacks around the turn of the century became more and more intensified.
    Now, aside from a story of Butch's lifelong engagement in the underworld, we will look more carefully into Rider's story, a part of which seems to be affirmatively written by Faulkner as a young black man's struggle for success in the modernizing South. After his marriage with Mannie, Rider renounces a shiftless life once and for all and devotes himself to work in the mill; and with the help of Mannie, he is willing to practice the old virtues of industry and thrift. Money in Edmond's safe seems to promise them an earthly paradise to come; but with Mannie's unexpected death, he loses the chance to realize it.
    Ostensibly, Rider's grief is caused not only by the loss of his beloved wife but also by the deprivation of his chance for making an ideal family on the Victorian model. Such deprivation was, needless to say, not unfamiliar to the blacks who felt baffled and despaired in the face of the Jim Crow system--the reason for their bafflement and despair is that its gradual expanse after Reconstruction deprived them of any possibility of integration. Clearly, their story is tragic because they were deprived of the civil rights to get involved in the mainstream society. As John T. Matthews points out, Mannie's role in "Pantaloon in Black" is to haunt Rider as "the phantom of unrealized social and economic entitlement"(29), representing "a life for southern blacks first deferred and then denied"(29). Going through the loss of his wife which entails the deprivation of his successful life, Rider changes back into his former self, turning to dice and whisky again.
    The grief-stricken Rider, however, cannot let his wrath--his wrath and his despair are two sides of the same coin--flame at others, because the so-called others that prevented him from enjoying the happy future are in this case God, Destiny, and the Jim Crow system. Indeed, they are faceless opponents, and so he cannot challenge them to a duel, even if he wants to. Neither can he preserve his honor. As a consequence, he is forced to give up fighting with them and let his wrath flame at himself instead. For example, when Faulkner writes that Rider is "like someone engaged without arms in prolonged single combat"(138), we cannot help imaging that his own body--"the blood and bones and flesh too strong, invincible for life" (136) and "the strong and indomitable beating of his heart"(136)--has become his opponents. Yet he cannot easily vanquish them by himself, simply because they are too "strong." This is perhaps why he kills a white man in charge of the sawmill's night watch; the motive for his killing must be the desire of his suicide. If that is the case, Rider's behavior which eventually provokes his lynching can upset the whites' understanding of blacks, the common understanding that blacks never commit suicide because they are unintelligent beasts. It is thus concluded that Faulkner gets Rider to feel unspeakable sadness, to fight with his own body, and finally to kill himself. By so doing, he tries to show Rider's humanity or "dignity." In "Pantaloon in Black," nevertheless, the duty of reading the meanings of Rider's story is entirely entrusted to the deputy; then the entrustment implies that there appear no paternalistic white men, none of Faulkner's personae, who can read "dignity" in Rider's behavior.

    Before examining the final character Mollie, I will consider the social and cultural roles that the so-called "Mammy" played in the postbellum South. The old black mammies loved, nurtured, and protected the white children; at the whites' houses they taught the children good manners of ladyhood and gentlemanship, manners which were a reflection of the values implicit in the Old South. As Grace Elizabeth Hale puts it, "Mammy embodied the fiction of continuity between the Old South and the new southern world, anchoring the emerging white middle class within a romanticized conception of the antebellum plantation elite" (101). What is important here is that mammies are in fact a product of the white culture, a response from the whites considerably nostalgic for the antebellum South.
    For example, even a mammy in the Falkners, Caroline Barr, is not immune to this kind of white nostalgia. As Thadious M. Davis sees Faulkner's dedication to Barr written down at the opening of the novel and lays him open to ridicule, saying that "the key words are fidelity, devotion, and love"(242), his dedication seems to be another conventional white southern mammy worship. That is because such terms as "fidelity, devotion, and love"--along with "endurance" which Faulkner liked to use in his works--are what whites have applied as a virtue to black women, usually domestic servants, in the history of the South. These terms strikingly contrast with those of "honor," "pride," "courage," and "responsibility" which are historically applied to the white male in the South. Taking into consideration what his dedication means, therefore, we can easily imagine that Barr was in Faulkner's mind an indispensable link to the tradition of the Old South.
    We should not, however, identify Mollie with Barr, who is believed to be a life model for her. It is certainly true that the values of "fidelity, devotion, and love" are applied to Mollie, but it is also true that the quality of "dignity" inheres in her. For example, Diane Roberts explains that her "dignity" derives from Faulkner's insistence that "the black mother is the authentic mother" (54). Another example comes from Minrose Gwin who writes: "Her determined movement within both material and narrative space . . . lend[s] to her actions and person a dignity and resonance that are unmistakably powerful and that make it difficult to dismiss her as a stereotypical mammy" (93). Especially, her story leaving a deep impression of "dignity" on the reader is observed in the scene of "Go Down, Moses" where she begins her chant with her brother Hump, and Stevens feels suffocated when he hears it. The act of escape which Stevens performs at this moment is indicative that her story represented in their chant cannot be contained in the patriarchal framework of the white man's narrative. This scene also serves the evidence that Mollie is by no means a canvas depicted nostalgically by a white male writer.
    So far, I have contrasted the idea of "dignity" with that of "honor," and considered the stories of black characters such as Lucas, Rider, and Mollie against the myths of the white community. In addition to them, there are other black characters who should be briefly mentioned here: Fonsiba who says "I'm free"(269) against Issac's patriarchal administration, and Eunice who drowns herself of her own will when she realizes that her "dignity" is never maintained. It is without doubt that Faulkner bestows "dignity" on these black characters, as well.
    Yet there is one exceptional black character: Issac's mulatto kinswoman in "Delta Autumn." The reason is that she seems to acknowledge Roth's "honor" and its value system in the South, although she expresses her criticism and irony when she says to Issac as follows:
I knew what I was doing. I knew that to begin with, long before honor I imagine he called it told him the time had come to tell me in so many words what his code I suppose he would call it would forbid him forever to do. And we agreed. (emphasis added, 343)
Nevertheless, we have to read a positive meaning into her bold behavior, her intrusion into the white male space of the hunting tent. The matter at issue in this scene is the conventional behavior of a white man who never tries to fight a duel with a black or a woman. It is certain that this mulatto woman wanted a fight with Roth; but he ran away from her. In other words, he escaped so that she could not have a chance to confront him--a chance that Lucas could have when he intruded into Zack's bedroom. Here we can recognize what is behind his "honor"--his frailty and weakness.
    When Issac asks her to receive Roth's money, she says, "I don't need it. He gave me money last winter. Besides the money he sent to Vicksburg. Provided. Honor and code too"(emphasis added, 346), but their racial and gendered transaction will not be easily closed in terms of the southern "honor and code," because his "honor and code" are closely connected with the logic of a racist and masculinist social order in the South. When she reluctantly accepts what his "honor and code" require Roth to do in their love affair and explains her victimization to Issac, the idea of "honor" is obviously criticized by Faulkner. Few would deny that his critique of the southern "honor" is the most corrosive here in this particular scene. Viewed as a whole, however, Faulkner's critique of "honor" in Go Down, Moses is undoubtedly developed and shown to the reader by various stories of other black characters who never fail to possess human "dignity."


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Copyright (c)2001 Motomura Koji