Analysis of William Faulkner's 'Dry September'

Sentenced to Death by a Rumor

Red, white, and blue barber pole.
Image courtesy of Matthew Morris.

"Dry September" by American writer William Faulkner (1897 - 1962) was first published in Scribner's magazine in 1931. In the story, a rumor about an unmarried white woman and an African-American man spreads like wildfire through a small Southern town. No one knows what -- if anything -- really happened between the two, but the assumption is that the man has harmed the woman in some way. In a vengeful frenzy, a group of white men kidnap and murder the African-American man, and it is clear that they will never be punished for it.

The Rumor

In the first paragraph, the narrator refers to "the rumor, the story, whatever it was." If even the shape of the rumor is hard to pin down, it's hard to have much faith in its supposed content. And the narrator makes it clear that no one in the barber shop "knew exactly what had happened."

The only thing that everyone seems to be able to agree on is the race of the two people involved. I would argue, then, that Will Mayes is murdered for being African-American. It's the only thing anyone knows for certain, and it's enough to merit death in the eyes of McLendon and his followers.

In the end, when Minnie's friends exult that "[t]here's not a negro on the square. Not one," the reader can gather that it's because the African-Americans in town understand that their race is considered a crime, but that murdering them is not.

Conversely, Minnie Cooper's whiteness is enough to prove to the mob that she's telling the truth -- even though no one knows what she said or whether she said anything at all.

The "youth" in the barber shop talks about the importance of taking "a white woman's word" before that of an African-American man, and he is offended that Hawkshaw, the barber, would "accuse a white woman of lying," as if race, gender, and truthfulness are inextricably linked.

Later, Minnie's friends tell her:

"When you have had time to get over the shock, you must tell us what happened. What he said and did; everything."

This further suggests -- to the reader, at least -- that no specific accusations have been made. At most, something must have been hinted at.

But for many of the men in the barber shop, a hint is enough. When someone asks McLendon whether a rape really happened, he answers:

"Happen? What the hell difference does it make? Are you going to let the black sons get away with it until one really does it?"

The logic here is so convoluted it leaves me speechless. The only people getting away with anything are the white murderers.

The Power of Violence

Only three characters in the story seem truly eager for violence: McLendon, the "youth," and the drummer.

These are people on the periphery. McLendon seeks violence everywhere, as evidenced by the way he treats his wife at the end of the story. The youth's thirst for revenge is out of sync with the older, wiser speakers who counsel finding out the truth, considering Minnie Cooper's history of similar "scares," and getting the sheriff to "do this thing right." The drummer is a stranger from out of town, so he really has no stake in events there.

Yet these are the people who end up dictating the outcome of events. They can't be reasoned with, and they can't be physically stopped.

The force of their violence draws in people who have been inclined to resist it. In the barber shop, the ex-soldier urges everyone to find out what really happened, but he ends up joining the murderers. Oddly, he continues to urge caution, only this time it involves keeping their voices down and parking far away so they can move in secret.

Even Hawkshaw, who intended to stop the violence, gets caught up in it. When the mob starts beating Will Mayes and he "swings his manacled hands across their faces," he hits Hawkshaw, and Hawkshaw hits back. In the end, the most Hawkshaw can do is remove himself by jumping out of the car, even as Will Mayes calls his name, hoping for him to help.

Structure

The story is told in five parts. Parts I and III focus on Hawkshaw, the barber who tries to convince the mob not to hurt Mayes. Parts II & IV focus on the white woman, Minnie Cooper. Part V focuses on McLendon. Together, the five sections attempt to explain the roots of the extraordinary violence depicted in the story.

You'll notice that no section is devoted to Will Mayes, the victim. I think it's because he has no role in creating the violence. Knowing his point of view can't shed light on the origins of the violence; it can only emphasize how wrong the violence is -- which I hope we already know.