FAULKNER’S “DRY SEPTEMBER”: A TALE OF LYNCHING

FAULKNER’S “DRY SEPTEMBER”: A TALE OF LYNCHING

Abstract:

Key words: lynching, dry

“Dry September” was one of William Faulkner’s (1857-1962) best short stories.  It is a tale of ‘lynching.’ The story weaves the theme of lynching, rumour, gossip, prejudice, repression, justice, hypocrisy, racial identity into an artistic piece through the killing of an innocent Negro Will Mayes by a war-veteran despot McLendon. It also takes resort to the paranoid theme of White Goddess concept of a Southern Belle. There is no question of justice or a chance of trial. In spite a few past evidences to Minnie Cooper’s susceptibility to flirtation and coquetry McLendon and his cohorts never nourish an iota of doubt. The rumour is a chance to take revenge on the black male. Will is guilty simply because Minnie Cooper has suggested that he raped her and like other black people at the time the story was written, he was considered to be at the bottom of the hierarchical system that was predominant in the South. Minnie Coopers can’t lie, as she is a Southern White woman. This prejudice is so deeply entrenched into the veins of the white Southern males that a neutral reasoning finds no avenues to their heated heads.  From the depth of the painfully raw experiences Faulkner builds this lynching story with some bare touches. And the language, rough, coarse, is attuned to the black theme in its marvelous exactitude.

The story was originally published in Scribner’s magazine in 1931, and later included in collections of his short stories. The story weaves the theme of rumour, gossip, prejudice, repression, justice, hypocrisy, racial identity into an artistic piece. The story is unfurled through an unnamed third person narrator. And it explores the paranoid theme of White Goddess “whereby the Southern male believes that a woman, particularly a white Southern woman cannot tell a lie. In essence they are to be held up on a pedestal and everything they say is to be believed, without any need for proof. It is through this concept that the story develops, Faulkner highlighting to the reader the willingness of the men of Jefferson, particularly John McLendon, to believe Minnie Cooper and form a lynch mob to kill Will Mayes.”[1]

Rumour and gossip spread like flames and burns Will Mayes, the innocent Negro man in the end by a despot McLendon. He takes the leading role, and whets others to kill Will Mayes. They are on a sacred mission to save the honour of a white woman Minnie Cooper, a typical Southern Belle. People are mad to pursue the blacks and kill them at the drop of a coin.  Henry Hawkshaw, the barber, is a sensible man who takes risk even of his life to save Will Mayes. His repetitive clarifications, ‘I don’t believe Will Mayes did it. I know Will Mayes’ fall flat to the self-proclaimed moral guardians of the purity of race, who abuses him as a ‘damn nigger-loving’. Hawkshaw reasonably argues,

Will Mayes never done it, boys…Why, you all know well as I do there ain’t any                                     town where they got better niggers than us. And you know how a lady will kind                                   of think things about men when they ain’t any reason to, and Miss Minnie any                                    way…

But he fails to convince the rowdy boys who pay no heed to his sound words. He runs after the boys. McLendon, Butch and others rummage the ‘dark bulk of the ice plant where the Negro was a night watchman,’ drag the Negro to the car, and shout ‘Kill him, kill the black son.’ The barber sweats, and is ‘sick at the stomach.’ Will Mayes is manacled and bruised, and hurled torrents of abuse. The Negro is cowered, and he knows his day will end soon. He appeals to their better sense,

“What you all going to do with me, Mr John? I ain’t done anything. White folks, captains, I ain’t done anything: I swear ‘fore God.”

There is no question of justice or a chance of trial. McLendon together with other speakers at barber’s shop takes law into their own hands, and punishes the alleged culprit. In spite a few past evidences to Minnie Cooper’s susceptibility to flirtation and coquetry McLendon and his cohorts never nourish an iota of doubt. The rumour is a chance to take revenge on the black male. And it is interesting to note that even a man who is not form Jefferson also supports McLendon’s cause: ‘I’m with him (McLendon). I don’t live here, but by God, if our mothers and wives and sisters…’ This twist adds McLendon’s cause a kind of universal dimension, and bolsters their argument in favour of racial purification. Will is guilty simply because Minnie Cooper has suggested that he raped her and like other black people at the time the story was written, he would be considered to be at the bottom of the hierarchical system that was predominant in the South.

Minnie Coopers can’t lie, as she is a Southern White woman. This biased thought is so deeply rooted in the veins of the white Southern males that clear and neutral reasoning finds no avenues to their heated heads. McManus lucidly points out Minnie’s cause of frustration,

It is also interesting that Minnie appears to suffer a breakdown while she is in the                          movie theatre. Perhaps the reality of what she has done (lied about Will Mayes)                                 has become too much for her. It would appear that Minnie’s main difficulty is that                             she is sexually repressed and by lying about Will Mayes raping her she has                                           succeeded in people showing an interest in her again, however it is at the expense                             of Will Maye’s life. It would also appear that none of Minnie’s friends really                                         believe that she has been raped. Just as Henry Hawkshaw doubted it, so too do                                   Minnie’s friends.[2]

Faulkner heavily takes resort to symbolism in the story, particularly the weather. In the first section of the story, Faulkner uses such words and phrases as  words ‘bloody September’, ‘rainless days’ ‘dry grass’ ‘dead’ ‘stale’ to set the tenor of the story. These symbols foreshadow to what will happen to Will Mayes later in the story. The opening line of the story also acts as foreshadowing to the eventual killing of Will Mayes, Faulkner using the word ‘bloody’ to describe the September twilight. Also in section three of the story Faulkner again describes the air, though this time uses the word ‘lifeless.’ He also describes the day as having ‘died in a pall of dust.’ This may be significant as Faulkner could be suggesting that the residents of Jefferson, particularly McLendon and the lynch mob are morally dead, by taking the law into their own hands.

Other notable symbolism in the story may include McLendon’s gun. It not only can be seen as a symbol of violence but it can be seen to represent violence in the past, present (possibly) and future. It is first introduced when McLendon walks into the barber shop, the reader learning that McLendon was a soldier in WWI (past violence). It is assumed the McLendon uses the gun to kill Will Mayes in section three of the story, which would suggest violence in the present and at the end of the story, McLendon puts the gun down on the table in his bedroom, which would suggest that it is to be used again, sometime in the future.

The story ends with a significant subplot subtly woven  through McLendon’s interaction with his wife, and by which  Faulkner appears to be injecting irony into the body of the story. Will Mayes has been killed by McLendon in order to preserve Minnie Cooper’s integrity and honour. However McLendon strikes out at his own wife when he returns home from the killing. Follow the attitude of the killer to his wife. After killing Will Mayes at midnight he returns home and locks it. Faulkner uses the word ‘birdcage’ to refer to his neat, clean, trim and fresh green-and-white paint house. And McLendon’s wife is a caged bird, whose wings flutter and she cannot fly.

Faulkner is a master storyteller. He with some bare words marvelously paint the scene of domestic violence toward the end of the story,

He locked the car and mounted the porch and entered. His wife rose from the                                      chair beside the reading lamp. McLendon stopped in the floor and stared at her                                  until she looked down….

“Haven’t I told you to about sitting up like this, waiting to see when I come in?”

“John” she said. She laid the magazine down. Poised on the balls of his feet, he                                      glared at her with his hot eyes, his sweating face.

“Didn’t I tell you?” he went toward her. She looked up then. He caught her                                           shoulder. She stood passive looking at him.

“Don’t John. I couldn’t sleep…The heat; something. Please, John. You’re hurting me.”

“Didn’t I tell you?”  He released her and half struck, half-flung her across the                                       chair, and she lay there…’

It would appear that there is one rule for McLendon and one for Will Mayes (and other black people). At no stage does the reader suspect that McLendon respects his wife in any way, if anything there is a sense that McLendon’s violence against his wife may be a daily occurrence. Unlike Minnie Cooper who McLendon has held up on a pedestal, even though she has lied about what has happened her, McLendon’s wife is not afforded the same luxury. In many ways McLendon, who has acted as the authority figure throughout the story, is a hypocrite par excellence.

Narrated in five parts the story has presented the picture of Jefferson life of Faulkner’s time. The race problem engulfed the South. From the depth of the raw experience he builds this lynching story with some bare touches. And the language, rough, coarse, is attuned to the black theme in its marvelous exactitude. No more, no less. No trash. The setting, the beginning paragraph, the end part, the symbolism, the bare words, repetitive use of his favourite epithets—all pave the way for his ‘doomed’ world.

[1] McManus, Dermot. “Dry September by William Faulkner.” The Sitting Bee. The Sitting Bee, 13 Aug. 2014. Web.

[2] Ibid.

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