Summary and Analysis: "Dry September"
The opening paragraph of "Dry September" sets the tone of the story by focusing on the oppressive heat and the resultant, uncontrolled and heated passions of Jefferson's citizens. Sixty-two hot, rainless days have created a frustration among the townspeople and have fueled Miss Minnie's accusation that she was raped by a black man. The first sentence stresses the rapidity with which the rumor — "like a fire in dry grass" — has spread throughout the town. The dry spell also causes the twilight to appear "bloody red," which emphasizes the bloody events that are about to transpire. Already fueling people's need for violence, the alleged attack has occurred in the early morning of the day that begins the story. Faulkner establishes a major theme by linking the rumor of Miss Minnie's attack and the weather: Throughout the story, characters refer to the weather as an excuse for their behavior.
The first few paragraphs — typically Faulknerian with their long sentences of distorted but elaborate syntax — suggest another major theme, the questionable reliability of Miss Minnie's accusation. The men assembled in the barbershop are unsure about the Southern woman's claim: "Attacked, insulted, frightened: none of them . . . knew exactly what had happened," or whether anything had happened at all. We must remember the discussion of the White Goddess concept as we form opinions about these men; it should surprise none of us that many characters, although they have their private doubts about the truthfulness of Miss Minnie's claim, do nothing to question her or to stop the killing.
Appropriately, the story begins in a barbershop, a symbolic gathering place for small-town gossipers. The spokesman for quiet, calm justice is Henry Hawkshaw, one of the barbers. In his support of the accused Will Mayes, Hawkshaw is instantly on the defensive as he insists repeatedly that those men who want to act rashly should first find out the facts before they rush to judgment.
In the midst of the tension caused by the rumor, Hawkshaw is the voice of reason. His patience and persistence in wanting facts and justice represent the sane approach — in contrast to the others' irrational violence. But he is immediately trapped by the stereotype of being a "damn niggerlover." At the time of this story, if a Southern white person defended a black man, that person automatically was called a "niggerlover." To a white Southerner, the horror of being called this epithet far outweighed a need for any justice: When McLendon demands to know "Who's with me?" some of the men enthusiastically join him, while others "sat uncomfortable, not looking at one another, then one by one they rose and joined him." These holdouts eventually give in out of fear of being labeled pro-black and because of a mob mentality that punishes individuals who hesitate to join a cause-no matter how violent.
Throughout Section I, and later in Section III, Hawkshaw represents a concept of humane justice, but he proves ineffective when pitted against McLendon, who uses the Southern culture's fears and prejudices to enrage men to commit violent acts. Hawkshaw's sense of justice is no weapon against McLendon's fierce bigotry. These two men represent diametrically opposed points of view: Hawkshaw is calm, reasonable, and just; McLendon is wild, impassioned, and sadistic. Their opposition is best expressed when Hawkshaw, responding to McLendon's goading of the men to join him in capturing Will Mayes, returns McLendon's stare without flinching. Faulkner notes of the two men, "They looked like men of different races."
When someone suggests that Miss Minnie has reported imaginary stories before, McLendon, revealing his extreme sadistic and bloodthirsty nature, replies, "What the hell difference does it make? Are you going to let the black sons get away with it until one really does it?" This statement, part of the White Goddess mentality, clearly shows that even McLendon doesn't believe the rumor. But for him and other bigots like him, a white woman's word is to be taken as the absolute and unquestionable truth. If Miss Minnie says that she was molested and the white men do nothing to punish the accused, such inaction might be interpreted to mean that the whites do not care about the well-being of Southern women. Whether or not Will Mayes attacked Miss Minnie is inconsequential so long as he is killed as an example to other black men. McLendon and his bigots are not interested in justice; they are out for blood, and nothing will satisfy them until they have murdered a black man, thus preserving the prejudices of the region.
Lest we assume that the bigoted mentality displayed by these men is limited to Jefferson, Mississippi, Faulkner includes in the barbershop scene the man whom Hawkshaw is shaving. Not from Jefferson, but from the South, the man's intolerant views demonstrate the pervasive prejudice throughout the region. Note that when the man says, "I don't live here, but by God, if our mother and wives and sisters — " he, too, subscribes to the White Goddess myth. Even more telling is his earlier comment, "Do you claim that anything excuses a nigger attacking a white woman? . . . The South dont want your kind here." He acknowledges a unique justice system based on strict racial inequality rather than on the American ideal of equal justice before the law.
By the end of Section I, and before we meet Miss Minnie, many clues prove Will Mayes' innocence. Unfortunately, that Miss Minnie's reports are the result of her sexual frustrations, and that such reports have occurred before, amount to nothing in McLendon and the mob's irrational reasoning. At the very beginning, Hawkshaw says that he knows Miss Minnie, and when he maintains that nothing happened, we believe him. We rely on his opinion, especially when he points out that women like Miss Minnie tend to have fantasies and illusions about men.
Another man in the barbershop declares that the weather is so unbearable, "It's enough to make any man do anything. Even to her." This comment emphasizes Miss Minnie's failing attractiveness and society's belief — disproved by modern psychology — that physical attractiveness is a factor in rape. Although the man's comment about the weather supports the charge against Will Mayes, Miss Minnie's unattractiveness strengthens Hawkshaw's contention that she is a frustrated person who fantasizes about libidinous affairs. Likewise, we hear, "This aint the first man scare she ever had . . ." The section ends with a further note of doubt: "You reckon he really done it to her?"