The third of seven stories composing William Faulkner’s Go Down, Moses (1942), “Pantaloon in Black” is the tragic and poignant story of Rider, a black sawmill worker who is made a widower when his young bride, Mannie, dies only six months into their marriage. In his grief, Rider appears to seek his own death, first by undertaking superhuman risks at the sawmill and finally by challenging the white night watchman, Birdsong, who runs a crooked dice game at the mill. When his cheating is discovered, Birdsong tries to pull his gun, but Rider is quicker with his own razor and cuts Birdsong’s throat. Not long after, Rider is lynched by Birdsong’s relatives.
Like many of the stories in Go Down, Moses, “Pantaloon in Black” is most significant for its concern with race. In this story Faulkner explores the racial dynamics through varying the narrative point of view. The first section of the story is told in the third person, but Rider’s thoughts and feelings are at the narrative center. Such a point of view allows Faulkner to humanize Rider, showing him as a bereaved husband who was very much in love with his young bride and who is beside himself at the loss. This story is perhaps most important because Faulkner focuses on Rider’s humanity more than anything else, even his race.
To make sure we understand his point, Faulkner adds a second section to this story. The point of view shifts from Rider to a white sheriff’s deputy, who had taken Rider into custody after the murder and is now recounting the events of the last few days to his wife. This conversation, on the day after Rider’s lynching, clearly demonstrates Faulkner’s efforts to put a human face on Rider, for the deputy completely misunderstands his behavior. At Mannie’s funeral, Rider seized the shovel from the undertaker and covered the coffin himself; later, driven by grief and a probable death wish, he decided to show up at work early the very next day, snatching up 10-foot cypress logs by himself and throwing them around like matches. Rider’s seeming lack of concern convinces the deputy that Rider and blacks in general are incapable of human emotion: “They look like a man,” he tells his wife, “and they can walk on their hind legs like a man. . . . But when it comes to the normal human feelings and sentiments of human beings, they might just as well be a damn herd of wild buffaloes” (156, 154). By juxtaposing Rider’s poignant grief with the deputy’s blind and reductive interpretation of his actions, Faulkner demonstrates the distance between blacks and whites in the South, a distance he seeks to describe and even bridge in much of his fiction.
Faulkner, William, Go Down, Moses (1942). Reissue edition. New York: Vintage Books, 1991.
Davis, Thadious M. Faulkner’s “Negro”: Art and the Southern Context. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1983.