Dry September Essay, Research Paper
William Faulkner claimed he was trying to fit the whole world between the capital letter at the beginning and the period at the end of a sentence, and that s why his sentences tended to be so long. In the very first sentence of his short story Dry September, he manages to establish the beginning of a world, its dark mood, and point the reader in the direction of the story s theme.
Through the bloody September twilight, aftermath of 62 rainless days, it had gone like a fire in dry grass – the rumor, the story, whatever it was. A specific moment is captured here: twilight, the time when daylight gives way to darkness, in September, the end of summer as winter approaches – and how that moment feels: bloody, dry. A sense of urgency is already conveyed in his image of a fire in dry grass, a sense of something out of control and moving fast. And the it that was moving so rapidly is the rumor.
Dry September studies the awful result of rumor, ignorant gossip, storytelling; at bottom it is a study of racism, plain and complex. Even our hero the barber is powerless to stop the angry flow of mob rule as the men in his shop decide to take action on the rumor themselves. Few (novels) are more charged with destiny weighing heavily over them than those of Faulkner. We have the impression of characters irretrievably choked by fate. (Pouillon, p. 79).
The mob operates on hearsay, ignoring the testimony of the barber who claims I know Will Mayes. He s a good nigger, calling the barber a nigger lover, one hell of a white man. Banter and accusations are thrown back and forth around the barber shop, the clients all lathered up, the barber poised with his razor above them, and build to a pitch of action when McClendon shows up and says, Well, are you going to sit there and let a black son rape a white woman on the streets of Jefferson? as if the rumor were fact and he s the one can prove it.
Inexorably, the characters move to enact their fates. As representatives of the time and place of the story, they act less as individuals, and more as abstractions. Critic Irving Howe has stated: Faulkner s discovery of the power of abstraction as it corrupts the dealings mean have with one another, can lead him to portray Negroes in abstract terms In an early story Dry September, this tendency toward the abstraction of character is still cleaner; like a paradigm of all lynching stories, it is populated not with men but with Murderer and Victim. (Howe, p. 127)
Even the weather is made abstract, as the sinister mood of the story is enhanced over and over by continued references to the heat, the drought, the stale air.
none of them, gathered in the barber shop on that Saturday evening where the ceiling fan stirred, without freshening it, the vitiated air, sending back upon them, in recurrent surges of stale pomade and lotion, their own stale breadth and odors, knew exactly what happened.
The barber went swiftly up the street where the sparse lights, insect-swirled, glazed in rigid and violent suspension in the lifeless air. The day had died in a ball of dust
Below the east the wan hemorrhage of the moon increased. It heaved above the ridge, silvering the air, the dust, so that they seemed to breathe, live, in a bowl of molten lead. There was no sound of nightbird nor insect, no sound save their breathing
The last two sentences paint the world these characters inhabit, still, silent, stricken : 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.
This repetition, repeated references to heat, dust, no sweat, establishes the foundation on which the action roars forward, ruthless, persistent, everywhere at once. Robert Penn Warren felt that all book-reading Southerners found dramatized in Faulkner some truth about themselves and their own Southerness that had been lying speechless in their experience. Even landscapes and objects took on a new depth of meaning (Warren, p. 1)
Faulkner creates meaning but does not attempt to impose upon his stories absolute knowledge. Alfred Kazin has faulted Faulkner, saying that good work, should spring from a conscious and procreative criticism of society from some absolute knowledge. (Kazin, p. 13) Robert Penn Warren defends the writer: Clearly, absolute knowledge is not what Faulkner s work springs from, or pretends to achieve.
It springs from shall we say, a need – not a program or even an intention or a criticism of society – to struggle with the painful incoherence and paradoxes of life, and with the contradictory and often unworthy impulse and feelings in the self, in order to achieve meaning; but to struggle, in the awareness that meaning, if achieved, will always rest in perilous balance, and that the great undergirding and overarching meaning of life is in the act of trying to create meaning through struggle. (Warren, p. 14).
The struggle in Dry September is in the attempt on the part of the reader to distinguish the truth in the midst of the rumors and ignorance. Faulkner doesn t make it easy on us by drawing a picture of a good, pious and trustworthy victim. The white woman supposedly raped by Will Mayes the Negro is described as having the scent of whiskey on her breath. Miss Minnie Cooper goes into town the Saturday evening after the lynching of will Mayes and is led from the movie theater by her friends laughing hysterically, inappropriately, on a high, sustained note. Back at home, after ministrations by the doctor, the friends whisper among themselves, Do you suppose anything really happened? they ask, their eyes darkly glitter, secret and passionate.
Faulkner s intention in the creation of this paradoxically sympathetic and pathetic character is to demonstrate the complexity of the emotions and misguided bases of lynch-mob-type behavior. If Miss Minnie Cooper were written up as a clearly mistreated woman, perhaps the reader would be more willing to go along with the actions of the mob, in trying to vindicate the victim. But, as written, it is certainly unclear as to whether a rape was committed at all, and leans in the direction of painting Will Mayes as a good man, wronged.
Faulkner clinches this point of view in the final section of the story, where McClendon the gangleader is focused upon, and shown to be a vicious violent man even in his private life when he goes home to his new house and abuses his pale strained and weary-looking wife. This act of violence, seen against the murder just committed, is equally as senseless and insidious, seeming to rise up similarly out of the dust and heat, the bloody September twilight, the result of age-old, pent-up powerlessness, ignorance and fear. And so the man beats upon the woman, as the gang beat up on the defenseless individual man, the objects of anger for no better reason other than that they happened to be there and in the way when the rage emerged and could not be denied.
Faulkner was capable, in the great complexity of his work, to render, without extenuation, the meanness and brutality of his society. (Warren, p. 269) But he believed, as he put it in one of his talks at the University of Virginia, that man can be better than he is, and that is what the writer is trying to do, is interested in – to show man as he is in conflict with his problems, with his nature, with his own heart, with his fellows and with his environment.
Faulkner, W. Dry September. In Selected Short Stories. New York: Random House, 1930, pp. 62-77.
Howe, I. William Faulkner: A Critical Study. New York: Random House, 1951.
Pouillon, J. Time and Destiny in Faulkner. In Faulkner: A Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. Robert Penn Warren. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1966, pp. 79-86.
Warren, R. P. Faulkner: Past and Present. In Faulkner: A Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. Robert Penn Warren. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1966, pp. 1-22.
Warren, R. P. Faulkner: The South, the Negro and Time, In Faulkner: A Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. Robert Penn Warren. New Jersey, Prentice Hall, 1966, pp. 251-271.