Dry September Summary and Analysis by William Faulkner
An Introduction to Dry September:
As a Southern writer, Faulkner draws upon the mores and prejudices of his own regional culture to create unforgettable characters and settings for his novels and short stories.“Dry September” clearly shows the horrible miscarriages of justice that prejudice can cause. Although the story revolves around the killing of Will Mayes, the actual act of killing is omitted in order to keep our attention focused on the causes of the violence, and on the mental and physical atmospheres that breed such senseless and random acts of cruelty.
First published in the January 1931 edition of Scribner’s Magazine, “Dry September” was reprinted in Faulkner’s Collected Stories (1950) and in the Selected Short Stories of William Faulkner (1961). This powerful study of a cultural mentality that promotes rash, swift killings of black men is based on the Southern White Goddess concept.
A Summary of Dry September :
It has not rained for sixty-two days, and a rumor has spread “through join him in an as-yet unspecified plan of action, even as one client wonders aloud whether anything happened at all — after all, Minnie has had a “man scare” before. McLendon promptly dismisses this, insisting it doesn’t make a difference, they can’t let black men “get away with it until one really does it.” Hawkshaw continues to defend Mayes’s innocence and suggests that they gather evidence and go to the authorities, but nearly all of the men choose to leave with McLendon. As they go, McLendon’s gun peeks out from his waistband. Hawkshaw suddenly decides to join the men and rushes after them, commenting
the bloody September twilight … like fire in dry grass.” Men gathered in a barber shop in the air stale – discuss the rumor, linking a local white woman, Minnie Cooper, with a black man named Will Mayes. The barber, Henry Hawkshaw, does not believe that Mayes was involved, insisting that he is “a good nigger.” Minnie is an unmarried woman of “about forty,” furthering Hawkshaw’s doubts. Other men in the shop angrily accuse Hawkshaw of being a “nigger lover,” but Hawkshaw insists that likely nothing happened at all; the others are aghast that he’d privilege a black man’s word over a white woman’s. Another client suggests that the “weather [is] enough to make a man do anything” — even to an unmarried older woman like Minnie. Hawkshaw holds his ground and urges the other men to get the facts before doing anything, but the clients insist he must not stand for this as a white man and further tell him to “go back North” (despite Hawkshaw having been born in this town). John McLendon, a decorated war hero, then enters the barber shop, immediately asking the patrons, “are you going to let a black son rape a white woman on the streets of Jefferson?” McLendon invites the men to that “I can’t let…” The air outside, meanwhile, is “flat and dead.” Back in the shop, the two remaining barbers wonder aloud if “he really done it to her.”
Minnie Cooper is 38 or 39 years old and single, living in a small house with her aging mother and aunt. Her days are routine and uniform: she wakes at 10:00 a.m., spends the morning swinging on her porch, naps, and then dresses up and goes downtown with her friends. Both she and her clothing are “faintly haggard,” and she is “still on the slender side of ordinary looking.” As a pretty young woman, Minnie was invited to social events for a while, until her social group became more aware of class differences and their importance in society. Minnie soon began to lose ground and while her friends married, she did not find anyone to settle down with. Children began to call her “aunty,” and her friends recalled how popular she had been in her youth. Minnie began to ride around town with an older widower who worked as a cashier at the bank. He had the first automobile in Jefferson, “a red runabout,” and Minnie wore the first motoring bonnet and veil. The details of their relationship are not clear, but when the bank cashier left for a new job in Memphis, Minnie was not invited to accompany him. He has returned to Jefferson every Christmas for a party at the hunting club, but she is never invited. Many years have passed since that romance, and people in town have begun to notice that Minnie started drinking whiskey during the daytime. She gets the alcohol from the soda fountain clerk, a boy who takes pity on her and decides that “she’s entitled to a little fun.”
As the day “die[s] in a pall of dust,” Henry Hawkshaw catches up to John McLendon and the other men, who are driving out to the ice factory to find Will Mayes at work. Hawkshaw attempts to explain that since Mayes has not yet fled, that means he is innocent; the other men ignore him and discuss in vague terms what they plan to do with Mayes. Mayes, who works as the night watchman, comes out of the ice factory at McLendon’s insistence. Under the “wan hemorrhage of the moon,” the men rush at him, then handcuff and beat him. Hawkshaw stands and watches, feeling sick to his stomach. While some of the men want to kill Mayes right there, in the parking lot next to the factory, McLendon has them put the man in the car. In the meantime, Mayes proclaims his innocence and begs for an explanation. The men give him none, and they all drive off — Mayes inside of the car with four white men, with another man riding on the side board. In the car, Mayes is sandwiched in the back seat next to Hawkshaw, pulling his arms and legs in to keep from touching anyone. As they speed out of town and towards an old abandoned kiln, Mayes continues to ask for an explanation and for help, while Hawkshaw begins to feel sick and asks to stop the car. McLendon refuses to do so, telling Hawkshaw that he will need to jump and calling him, once again, a “nigger-lover.” Hawkshaw jumps out of the moving car, rolling into the ditch along the side of the road, choking and retching in the dry grass. He gets up and limps along the road back towards town. As he is walking, he sees McLendon’s car pass again in the other direction, holding only four men and no one on the side board. The moon has finally risen into the night sky, but the dust clings to everything, including Hawkshaw.
On the same night as Will Mayes’s abduction, Minnie Cooper dresses to go out. She is trembling, feverish and nervous, and her friends come to help her prepare. As they watch her put on her new dress to go out, they want to know more about what happened with Mayes. They ask about “what he said and did; everything.” Minnie says nothing and they all go out to the square, under the oppressive heat of the evening. As the women walk down the street, Minnie is at the center of the group, and has to breathe deeply to control her trembling. They walk slowly, which gives the people in town a chance to notice her and to discuss the rumor, as well as the new rumor that Mayes “went on a little trip.” At the same time, Minnie’s friends note that there are no black men on the square. Minnie and her friends enter the movie theater and take their seats. The theater is “like a miniature fairyland with its lighted lobby and colored lithographs,” and this gives Minnie hope that she will be able to calm down and control herself. She attempts to suppress a fit of laughter but is unable to; she is so loud that her friends have to escort her out of the theater. Minnie’s friends bring her home in a taxi, fan her, rub ice on her to calm her down, and call the doctor. The ice works briefly but does not stay fresh and cold for long in this heat, and as soon as the ice begins to melt, Minnie’s fit of laughter returns.
John McLendon returns to his neat, new home at around midnight, and upon entering, notices that his wife is still awake. He confronts her, scolding her for staying up and waiting for him. She denies waiting up for him, noting that the heat kept her awake, but McLendon doesn’t believe her and grabs her shoulder, hurting her. He then strikes her, leaving her crumpled across the chair as he exits the room. Walking into the screened porch he uses as a bedroom, McLendon mops the sweat off of himself, undresses and takes his gun from his waistband and leaves it on the bedside table. By the time he is undressed, he is sweating all over again and must use his clothes to re-dry himself. He stands at the dusty screen, panting in the heat. The night is silent, “stricken beneath the cold moon and lidless stars.”
“Dry September” is a problematic story to read and interpret, not because of its violent subject matter and the traumatic situations it describes nor because it is a story about which do critics disagree openly and directly. The problem is rather that the text seems to bring forth entrenched attitudes and prejudices in its readers, so that we shall have to be extremely cautious in studying Faulkner’s handling of the narrative and the rhetoric of this text. The text distributes sympathies and antipathies fairly obviously, even if the justness and fairness of this may be questioned or undercut through small ironies in the text. Yet even if we discover that the text “sides with” Minnie and sees her as a victim, it is still possible to see McLendon as a victim as well; and in both cases we still have to face the question of the causes and forces which shape the lives of these people. Our readings would differ almost completely if, on the one hand, we read it in terms of individual psychology, with an emphasis on female sexuality and hysteria, or on the other hand, we read it in terms of sociology or social psychology, looking at the role given to women of Minnie’s class and background in the particular time and place Faulkner describes.
A Critical Analysis of Dry September:
“Dry September” opens on a description of drought, violence, and death that is summed up in the words “the bloody September twilight,” through which “the rumor, the story, whatever it was” about Miss Minnie Cooper and a Negro, has spread. The dry weather has lasted for sixty-two days and seems to have created an unrest bordering on despair. So when the rumor reaches the audiences in the barbershop, it is like fire being set to the grass. None of the men in the barbershop “knew exactly what happened”, but they are nevertheless “attacked, insulted, frightened.” The men seem more than willing to accept the rumor as true, although the text clearly informs us that it is only a rumor or a story and indeed not much to rely on. The men in the barbershop are’ so ready and willing to accept the story that their readiness must somehow be related to the season of drought, o an unease an a tension that has been building up for a long time; but the real basis of the immediate reactions of the most active of the customers is obviously their racial prejudices, their absolute conviction that the Negro is inferior, or at least that the social order they have created and maintained takes “a white woman’s words before a nigger’s”. The psycho-sexual basis of racial bigotry is abundantly demonstrated in the text, although Faulkner’s analysis goes in many directions, linking the readiness to act with “this durn weather” and also showing that one strong man alone can end all talk about right and wrong and persuade people to follow him. It is clear that there is a basic level beneath all actions here. At this level we have a collective fantasy that is taken to be truer than factual evidence, even if someone bothers to look for evidence. John Matthews (1992) thinks that it is only natural and reasonable that “the community grants greater authority to the rumor, the story, whatever it was’ as an image that now must be entertained than to the particular history of any individual”.
As readers, we are allowed to listen in to the ensuing conversation in the barbershop, given in direct speech but organized so that the narration almost resembles a series of stage directions. Faulkner has set the scene with deliberate consideration, arranging it so that the focus is on a barber (as if he were the only barber in the shop), described as a “man of middle age; a thin, sand-colored man with a mild face” but not named until later on. His first comment seems to be in response to a question from a customer to whom he is giving a shave. This is a client from out of town, who has good reason to ask questions, being a stranger. It is important to notice that even if McLendon is the most active in the vigilante band of men from the barbershop in Jefferson; he arrives in the shop only later, having heard the rumor somewhere else. There is no indication before he arrives that the men in the shop would have gone from verbal expressions of their facial hatred to actually doing anything. Some of them are eager, others are willing to wait for the sheriff and the facts, but the “drummer and stranger” in the chair is never in doubt as to what must be done. He even claims to speak on behalf of the South-presumably in defense of all white Southern womanhood-but his aim is clearly get the “hulking youth in a sweat-stained silk shirt” to act upon beliefs he is not even capable of finding words for.
We learn details regarding the rumor- the Negro’s name, Will Mayes, is mentioned. The barber, whose name is Hawkshaw, knows Will and knows that he is a good person. He knows Minnie as well, and on the basis of what may be understood either as intimate knowledge of and a genuine interest in his fellow men and women of Jefferson or his intimate knowledge of male gossip around the barbershop, he knows that she is around forty, has never been married. In accordance with a simple understanding of what this means, he observes, “I leave it to you fellows if them ladies that get old without getting married don’t have notions that a man cant-“. This is not only prejudice and simplemindedness, however; other men in the shop know that this is “not the first man scare she ever had …”. There is thus reason, even if based only on hearsay, not to take Minnie’s words for truth. But facts are of little interest to the stranger, the youth, and most of the others. They do not listen reason; simply to think of the possibility that a white woman could be lying, or to ask about facts, means that one is “a hell of a white man” or simply a traitor.
At one point in the conversation .it looks as if one of the men understands the role of the weather, the dryness, and the heat in what has allegedly happened. But ironically he brings up the weather only as a misogynistic explanation for why someone would be compelled to attack Minnie. We could not ask for a niore direct indication of male bigotry in addition to racism, but it is important to notice that even if Minnie has become a laughingstock for these men, they are eager to “defend her,” to the point of killing an innocent Negro. So whom do they defend? They do not take Minnie seriously: the whole town laughs at her behind her back, and they are not all capable of seeing her as an individual, a human being with her own problems.
As we read the realistic but almost unbelievable conversation in the bar bershop we pause, because some of the characterizations of the speakers come as a surprise in the explicit, albeit indirect, judgment of the speakers. His face covered with shaving foam, the drummer from out of the town looks “like a desert rat in the moving pictures”, and the youth, whose name is Butch, has “a strained, baffled gaze, as if he was trying to remember what it was he wanted to say or do.” McLendon is revealed to us in what we understand as probably a destructive masculinity, perhaps also modeled on the moving pictures to which we have already had reference in the story. His white shirt is open at the throat, he wears a felt hat, he is poised on the balls of his feet, his glance is bold and hot. He puts an end to all discussion about whether something happened or not in a memorable assertion which makes clear that arguments and reason, facts and truth, and even justice do not matter at all: “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?”
So the men in the barbershop join McLendon, some of them eagerly, others reluctantly and slowly, but one by one they get up and leave with him. Hawkshaw can do nothing and leaves right after the others. Two other barbers are left behind in the shop, and a brief exchange between them ends the first part of the story, adding to our impression of McLendon as a violent man: “I’d just as life be Will Mayes as Hawk,, if he gets McLendon riled”.
Behind the rumor that has set this all in motion is Minnie Cooper, who has experienced a spiritual and sexual drought for a long time now and who has reached her own dry September. Her situation has altered over the years; once she rode “upon the crest of the town’s social life”. How empty her days have become can be seen from the following description:
She was thirty-eight or thirty-nine. She lived in a small frame house with her invalid mother and a thin, sallow, unflagging aunt, where each morning between ten and eleven she would appear on the porch in a lace-trimmed boudoir cap, to sit swinging in the porch swing until noon. After dinner she lay down for a while, until the afternoon began to cool. Then, in one of the three or four new voile dresses which she had each summer, she would go downtown to spend the afternoon in the stores with the other ladies, where they would handle the goods and haggle over the prices in cold, immediate voices, without any intention of buying.
Miss Minnie is the female character in Faulkner’s short fiction that most resembles Miss Emily Grierson of “A Rose for Emily.” They are both presented in retrospective capsule stories which emphasize family background, social life, sexual experience, and position in the town. The portraits are not identical but are similar enough to indicate the emptiness, waste, futility, and despair that unavoidably seen to be the lot of women not allowed to do anything because of their upbringing.
Minnie has had one love affair, with a bank cashier, and has consequently been reduced to the status of an adulteress in the eyes of the town. No man cares to watch her on the streets anymore. She is filled with unrest and despair so that to her, as to the men in the barbershop, something must happen. When nothing happens to change her situation, she is compelled to do something herself. Her fantasies, even the tragic one about rape if indeed it begins with her, are created by her own understanding of what people expect; that is, she tries to live up to the expectations she believes the town has of her, even though she is not really a member of the community, not being allowed to contribute at all, being forced to lead a meaningless life of boredom and idleness. Having been born and reared to her position, she is also unable to get out of the trap, because the town would not understand if she tried, and she would not know how to live in a “real” world. Minnie is perhaps not really an anachronism, but she should have been. The secluded, protected, but ultimately worthless life she leads is not limited to her. The text shows that other ladies in Jefferson, even married ones, have to fill their days with meaningless activities. Minnie’s situation is both a result of her social position and of the rigid and stereotyped role of a woman is supposed to fill and is prepared for through her upbringing. Minnie sees life pass her without her participation, and she is not yet ready to accept the role that her mother and aunt seem to find sufficient. She has turned to drinking whisky, putting on a new dress each afternoon, and going out to the moving pictures. Minnie’s empty days “had a quality of furious unreality” against the background of a mother who does not leave her room and a gaunt aunt who runs the house. No wonder if Minnie in description does something to prove that she is alive, postpone the descent of final darkness.
The first two sections of the story are told from a variety of perspectives. The narrator is in complete control of his narrative,, even though he is hardly noticeable. He shifts easily between the speakers in the barbershop and his own descriptions of them and then moves on to a capsule story of Minnie’s life, his treatment of her varying from cold objectivity, seeing her at a distance and from the perspectives of others, to close-range observations that evoke pity and compassion. The narrator’s sympathy for Minnie is obvious, and his criticism of a system which makes life unbearable for women is as evident. Before returning to a close reading of the text and following it to its conclusion, let us consider the narrator’s function in “Dry September” a little further.
The third-person omniscient narrator changes point of view and manner of narration freely. Thus the reader is allowed to follow more than one string of events as they unfold, always in chronological order. By this narrative strategy, the author leaves one chain of events for more urgent incidents elsewhere, to return at a later point in time. The technique allows him to avoid a direct description of the murder, because the story is at that point with Hawkshaw after he jumps out of the car. Allusions and metaphors leave no doubt about Will’s fate, however, and the separate strings of events are closely related so that what happens on one level bears upon the events on other levels. More importantly, the tone and the setting of the story are powerfully symbolic of the ensuing action. The confident use of third-person narration to control the distance and distribute sympathy combines with the use of metaphors of dust and drought to create a stale, barren landscape. The metaphors suggest that the drought also applies to human beings and their interrelationships. There are even indications of a casual connection between climate, landscape, and social conditions and terror and death that follow. It may thus be that terror and death, sensation at any cost, are not only given metaphorical emphasis by the nature imagery but are results of the complete drought in the lives of the characters involved. At any rate, Faulkner’s narrative strategy in this story functions exceptionally well. Although close scrutiny ay reveal how rigidly controlled the story is, the execution of its master plan is hardly noticeable. As Joseph Reed puts it, here the narrative control moves “beyond simple question of where to stand or emphatic attachment into a combination of almost Aeschylean artistry, involving distance, control, compulsion, dissective objectivity”.
The story picks up its line of action on a particular Saturday night in Jefferson,, and we follow Hawkshaw as he hastens up the streets to find McLendon and company in a final attempt to stop them from going after Will. He walks through dimly lit streets, and images of drought, dust, and death dominate the text: “The day had died in a pall of dust; above the darkened square, shrouded by the spent dust, the sky was as clear as the inside of a brass bell. Below the east was a rumor of the twice-waxed moon.” A little later, just before the men find Will and drag him to the car, the moon is again described: “Below the east the wan hemorrhage of the moon increased.” The image of the moon may be interpreted in different ways, but in this context it seems to be used to cast a pallid light over the events of the story, making the dust into silver shroud. Under the moon the men “seemed to breathe, live, in a bowl of molten lead.” The description of the men out at the ice plant,, calling the name of an innocent man of an inferior race so that they may kill him, while themselves only wanting to get out of there, away from the dust and heat and the moonlit night, are similar to those Faulkner employs in the war stories in which active combat is included, “Crevasse” and “Victory”. The descriptions of the world as a wasteland are as powerful in “Dry September” as in the war stories, and it is significant that two ex-soldiers are active in the vigilante group. The drought has created a world of dust and despair; the imagery in the story not only describes nature but also the spiritual malaise and violence which seem to be the only things growing and thriving under such circumstances.
This section of the story is fast-moving and filled with action such as cars speeding along dark, dusty roads. Hawkshaw joins McLendon and company in the first car, and after Will is picked up, manacled and dragged into the car, he is placed in the backseat between Hawkshaw and the soldier, with Butch on the running board. No one listens to Will’s prayers,, and when in despair he strikes random blows ad hits the barber on the mouth, even Hawkshaw strikes back. He probably knows that he cannot help Will; perhaps scared by his own reaction, he suddenly wants to get out. Since McLendon is not going to stop the car, Hawkshaw jumps out while traveling at high speed just after the car has turned into a road leading to an abandoned brick kiln with bottomless vats. He limps back towards town, and we do not see or hear the others until they pass him on their way back. Realism and rich imagery evoke a feeling of horror beyond repair, not in a handful of dust, but in a world filled with it:
The moon was higher, riding high and clear of the dust at last, and after a while the town began to glare beneath the dust. He went on, limping. Presently he heard cars and the glow of them grew in the dust behind him and he left the road and crouched again in the weeds until they passed. McLendon’s car came last now. There were four people in it and Butch was not on the running board.
They went on; the dust swallowed them; the glare and the sound died away. The dust of them hung for a while, but soon the eternal dust absorbed it again. The barber climbed back onto the road and limped on toward home.
Faulkner lets the most violent action take place away from the narrative, almost as in the tragedies of ancient times, but he does not do it for reasons of decorum. There is no doubt that Will Mayes is left behind, as the passing references to the number of people in McLendon’s car indicates. The precise information about the bottomless vats a little earlier is all we need to know what it means for Will to have “gone on a little trip.” In this story Faulkner is much more interested in the creation of atmospheric detail to portray a landscape, a climate, and a community in a season of drought and a lifeless stasis that threaten to destroy life and all life-giving impulses. Direct description of mutilation and killing would not have served his purpose here as they do,
however, in Light in August, a novel which shares much with “Dry September.”
The only further reference to Will Mayes and the lynching party is in the whispered conversation of people in town as Minnie and her friends walk through the streets on their way to the picture show. We are told that there are no black people on the square, and we are given the dialogue of “coatless drummers in chairs along the curb:. The question “What did they do with the nigger? Did they-?” gets an ambiguous answer: “Sure. He’s all right”; “Sure, He went on a little trip”. If this is meant to be representative of the town’s reaction and how much white people in general care, it is problematic to individualize guilt and responsibility. McLendon and a few of his like are responsible for the actual killing,, but they have met no resistance and have in fact acted on behalf of the town, contributing to the upholding of the collective fantasy. The two chief hangmen, McLendon and Butch, are more than willing to take a white woman’s word before a black man’s. One should be careful not to charge only a few racists in the town with the slaying of Will, since nobody, with the exception of Hawkshaw, does anything to prevent the murder.
The tragic actions all begins with Minnie and the rumor she has started. Why, then, does she tell her lie about the rape? The reference to the weather and to Minnie’s own “dry September,” meaning that her fertility and sexuality are coming to an end, is not a satisfactory explanation. Minnie may well feel that something must happen to make life bearable, but she is also prone to react rather arbitrarily. Idleness, boredom, and no meaningful activity except resting, dressing, walking, chatting, lie ahead. But there is more to Minnie’s fantasies than the obvious and simple explanation indicated by Hawkshaw and others, that she is unmarried and getting old. Minnie’s fantasies are also influenced by the dream factory in Hollywood. The life she seems to miss is not the life of marriage, children, duties, and responsibilities. Rather, it appears to be the glamorous and exciting life portrayed by Hollywood myth-makers . Late Saturday night, just after the town hears about the killing of Will, Minnie goes to a picture show:
The lights flicked away; the screen glowed silver, and soon life began to unfold, beautiful and passionatė and sad, while still the young men and girls entered, scented and sibilant in the half dark, their paired backs in silhouette delicate and sleek, their slim, quick bodies awkward, divinely young, while beyond them the silver dream accumulated, inevitably on and on. She began to laugh. In trying to suppress it, it made more noise than ever; heads began to turn. Still laughing, her friends raised her and led her out, and she stood at the curb, laughing on a high, sustained note, until the taxi came up and they helped her in
Minnie obviously experiences a fit of hysteria, and her friends speculate whether the rape had taken place at all. They do not understand Minnie’s sexual pathology and are completely unaware of the possible causes behind it. Behind Minnie’s desperate laughter and high screams is not only her failure to fit in to the social life of the small town, or her belief in Hollywood’s impossible dreamland, but most significantly her strong sense of failure because she is single. Minnie would not have despaired of being single if couples were not the accepted, institutionalized practice; she would not have despaired of growing old and losing her hold on men if being young, popular, and admired was not the social standard.
The focus in the section that ends with Minnie being taken care of by her friends, who administer ice and fan her, shifts from the observers of the street to the outside comments by the narrator but remains most of the time close to Minnie, almost intimately close as we see her put on her “sheerest underthings and stockings” or follow her fight to suppress her laughter before entering the picture show. We know what she has done and still are drawn close to Minnie, feeling compassion and perhaps even anger on behalf of her. This is indicative of Faulkner’s mastery in handling narrative perspective and manipulating narrative distance.
The last section of “Dry September” has not received much comment, perhaps rightly so. It gives an additional view of McLendon, whose wife is sitting up waiting for him when he arrives home. McLendon, who killed to defend the honour of a white woman who everybody thinks probably lied about being sexually attacked, brutally beats his wife for still being awake. Our impression of him is confirmed, if confirmation was indeed needed. Thus we are faced with an important question: Why did Faulkner choose to conclude the story with this glimpse of McLendon? The concluding paragraph, which depicts the sweating McLendon pressed against the dusty screen, panting in the heat, is perfect, a final return to the land of dust and drought summarizing everything that has happened in course of the story: “There was no movement, no sound, not even an insect. The dark world seemed to lie stricken beneath the cold moon and the lidless stars.” Perhaps by concentrating on McLendon, the final section encapsulates the basic tension of the story: the violence of the men, the passivity and fear of the women, the wasted qualities of the world they live in. Yet Faulkner could have achieved the same effect, even enhanced it, if he had chosen a community point of view or returned to Hawkshaw while keeping cosmic perspective. By choosing this ending Faulkner clearly signals the centrality of the role of women in this story and adds to his criticism of male brutality and stupidity. McLendon seems to be one of all the dead soldiers, accustomed to violence and action but now leading an inconsequential life in a small town where nothing happens. This does not, however, excuse him of anything: the text clearly condemns McLendon and the likes of him.
From the first to the last sentence of “Dry September”, the reader is forced to react to the recurrent, almost insistent use of certain images. “Dust” is everywhere in the story, as a word, a part of the world it evokes, and a pervasive part of the dry, dark, and lifeless social space it creates. The dust is a leitmotif (a recurrent theme throughout a musical or literary composition, associated with a particular person, idea, or situation), but its significance may change from situation to situation. The repetitions of the word, often in alliterative combinations, give the language an almost magical, compelling force, so that the reader establishes connections on the basis of sound and rhythm, as much as on the basis of syntagmatic (of or denoting the relationship between two or more linguistic units used sequentially to make well-formed structures) structures.
But there are, as our reading has shown, many things beneath both the dust of “Dry September” and beneath the cold moon and the lidless stars. Because of, or perhaps even in spite of, the barrenness of the environment, people live, love, despair, and do foolish things alive, but they are deceived into believing in false dreams and subscribing to collective fantasies supported by the dreams on the silver screen. Of al the characters we meet in the story, only Hawkshaw seems considerate and interested in other people’s lives in any real sense. A strong sympathy for Minnie is created in the text, but it is in part established because we as readers see that no one really cares about her at all, with the possible exception of her friends, who help her but also seem a little too eager to know what really happened.
Our reading of the story has emphasized the unfortunate lot of women. There are other important aspects of the story, both concrete and more abstract, yet they all seem to converge on the question of the role of women in society at a given time and place. One way of reading Minnie in “Dry September” is to emphasize elements she has in common with other female characters in Faulkner’s stories, particularly Miss Emily Grierson.
We sympathize with Minnie, yet we remain critical of her behaviour general and of her role in the rumor in particular. Minnie clearly misuses her social position-which taught her not to pay attention to other people or to show plain and ordinary respect for those “below” her status level- and exploits the violent racism she recognizes in the men her community. The rumor itself is an example of how social position can be used with devastating effect, Minnie can expect the respect which any white woman of a certain quality deserves, and she can rely on the racial hatred alive in the community to achieve the effect she wants. She reveals no concern whatever about the consequences of her lies; to her it is only important to prove her value and for a final time have someone react to her femininity. This female power, which is assigned to most women in the better social layers of these traditional communities without any reservation, is misused time and again- often simply because it is misunderstood by the women themselves.
There is a clear relation between the image of the cinema and the the dust. Minnie’s and McLendon’s delusions, the artificial constructions through which they manipulate reality, have the same origin. They are the outcome of the main manifestation of the character’s alienation from reality: their refusal to accept reality as it is and their will to modify it according to their personal desires as well as their need to satisfy them. What we are not given to know is to what extent this process is conscious. The instincts of violence harboured by Jefferson’s white community do not manifest themselves just in the attitude of tacit complicity held by people towards Will Mayes’ murderers. Such instincts also underlie the behaviour of the women surrounding Minnie. Since in the past they have been less popular than her, and since they have learned “the pleasure of […] retaliation”, the other women tend to underline the negative character of Minnie’s condition of unmarried woman and, indirectly, to favor her gradual descent into her personal hell. Moreover, when in reaction to the pressures she suffers Minnie says she had been scared by Will Mayes, her friends pander to her and encourage her to lie even though they doubt the veracity of her words. The women’s behaviour clearly demonstrates that the hell described in the short story is not just ‘personal. It has a collective dimension as well . “Dry September”‘s hell is the fruit of a long and articulate chain where cruelty and selfishness engender suffering that, in turn, engenders new cruelty, selfishness, and suffering, thereby nourishing a potentially infinite process. The moon shining above this infernal world is a faraway and ambiguous presence: “Below the east was a rumor of the twice-waxed moon. When its light becomes more intense, it takes the form of a “wan hemorrhage” that is filtered by the dust in the air and gives it a silvery colour, turning the atmosphere into a sort of “bowl of molten·lead”. Even when the moon rises high in the sky, shedding light on the entire town, its light reaches the planet only through the dust: “The moon was higher, riding high and clear of the dust at last, and after a while the town began to glare beneath the dust”. This makes the celestial body appear very far and indifferent, as the closing sentence clearly states: “The dark world seemed to image of lie stricken beneath the cold moon and the lidless stars” (338). The image of the moon probably alludes to the possible existence of another reality that transcends the suffering, the hate, and the divisions dominating the fallen world described in the story. Still, this reality proves to be totally alien to the characters’ lives. Meant as a symbol of love and reunification – both felt to be unreachable ideals – the moon might evoke the figure of Christ, twice fleetingly mentioned in the story. His name resounds in the exclamation “Jees Christ, Jees Christ” whispered by one of the barbers in the beginning of the first section and is again pronounced by an undefined voice in the middle of the third section, the section of the murder: “Christ! – A voice said”. Will Mayes is the only character in the story who is somehow remindful of the figure of Christ, both for his role of a sacrificed innocent and because, as a watchman at an ice plant, he is the only person to escape the oppressive heat of September. Nevertheless, he is the victim of a sacrifice that implies no resurrection or redemption. Indeed he curses his killers: “The others stuck him with random blows […] and he whirled and cursed them”. If any hope is suggested in the story, it probably lies in Hawkshaw’s good intentions. Even though ineffective, they express the author’s confidence in the possibility of a moral redemption for the human being.
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Dry September Summary and Analysis by William Faulkner
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