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Dry September

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Dry September

"Dry September" (1931) is a short story by celebrated American author William Faulkner. The story takes place in the fictional town of Jefferson, Mississippi, shortly after World War I. It follows the gathering of a lynch mob after rumors spread of a Black man sexually assaulting a white woman. Keep reading to learn more about the character, themes, and more.

Dry September, author portrait William Faulkner, StudySmarterFig. 1 - William Faulkner wrote about marginalized people in the South, such as descendants of enslaved people and poor whites.

"Dry September" Summary

Oppressive dry summer heat beats down the town of Jefferson. It hasn't rained for two months, and everything is dusty and stale. Several men in a barbershop discuss a rumor of a supposed sexual assault on a white woman by a black man. None of them know what has actually happened. They debate among themselves the details of the suspect and the victim. Will Mayes is a Black man that works at the ice factory as a watchman. Minnie Cooper is an unmarried white woman in her late thirties.

The barber Henry Hawkshaw leads the discussion until John McLendon enters the barbershop. He's already decided that Will Mayes is guilty of rape and wants to lynch him. He accuses the other men of being idle loafers. Furthermore, he has no patience for details or discussion. He quickly draws a line by declaring that they are all either with him or against him, and most show this by joining him. One by one, the men get up and follow McLendon out the door. Once they all leave, Hawkshaw trails off with "I can't let…" as he rushes after them.

The story then introduces Minnie Cooper. She's in her late thirties and lives with her disabled mother and aging aunt. Every morning she sits on a porch swing until the afternoon cools, then goes downtown with friends to go shopping but never buys anything. She used to be seen as pretty and desirable in her youth. As she became older, she watched all her friends get married. For a brief period, she was courted by a local cashier and widower who had brought the first car into town. He left for a better job in Memphis, only to return for an annual bachelors club party during Christmas. The other women tell her about his visits; in the evening, a young clerk at the soda fountain buys her whiskey out of pity. Minnie continues to spend her evenings downtown, where most people no longer pay attention to her.

Dry September, soda fountain parlor, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Soda fountain parlors were popular leisure spots in the 1920s.

Hawkshaw catches up to the other men. They wait for another car, then McLendon leads the two cars driving out of town. Hawkshaw pleads with the other men not to be rash. They ignore him and drive up to the ice factory, where Will Mayes works as the night watchman. They park the cars and search for Mayes in the dark night.

McLendon finds and brings Mayes as the rest approach. They drag him to the car. Mayes asks why they are here and pleads his innocence. They handcuff him, beat him, and push him into the car. They all drive farther away from town. Hawkshaw jumps out of the moving car into a ditch. He waits for a while in the brush for the returning cars to pass him, noting that there's now one less person. He limps back to town.

The story returns to Minnie getting dressed for the evening and feeling a bit feverish. Her friends ask her for details of the rumored incident. She feels unwell but still walks with her friends downtown. Now Minnie receives watchful attention from passersby, and men doff their hats. They reach the town square and note there aren't any Black men. They enter the movie theater; once the film starts, Minnie has a bewildering laughing fit. Her friends escort her out and take her home. They undress her, put her to bed, and apply ice to her head while they call for a doctor.

Dry Septemeber, colt automatic pistol, StudySmarterFig. 3 - McLendon carried a pistol much like this Colt automatic above, first manufactured in 1908.

McLendon returns home at midnight. His wife is waiting for him, to his dismay. He verbally reprimands her and pushes her into her seat. He goes to the bedroom and undresses, placing his pistol on the nightstand next to the bed. He stands panting and sweating against the door screen, wiping sweat with his shirt in the silent and empty night.

"Dry September" Character Analysis

There are four main characters in "Dry September."

Henry Hawkshaw

A barber and the moral compass of the story. He appeals to rationale, facts, and truth. Eventually, he realizes his efforts to save Will Mayes are futile. He voices concern for the well-being of Will Mayes, a Black man whose rights are not considered in the racial hierarchy of the Deep South. He is disdained by the other men for even trying to sympathize with a Black man.

Will Mayes

A Black watchman at the ice factory. He is presented as passive and obedient, with his innocence strongly implied but never confirmed. He is unaware of why the men are abducting him. He addresses the white men respectfully to appeal to their sense of superiority in hopes of acknowledgment.

Minnie Cooper

A white woman in her late thirties. She is presented as passive like Mayes; however, she is receiving much more attention now that she is the subject of a rumor. She spends her days living like an upper-class woman; she likes dressing up, window shopping but not buying anything, and going to the movies.

John McLendon

Respected as a war hero by the Jefferson community. Quick to act and violent, he leads the group of men to lynch Will Mayes. His chief priority is maintaining the hierarchical racial code of the South. To him, Will Mayes's innocence is irrelevant. Expressing his dominance and leadership through violence is his way of showing superiority.

"Dry September": Literary Analysis

"Dry September" is a critique of the values of the pre-Civil War South. After losing the war, systemic racism brutalized and criminalized being Black. Innocent people were frequently murdered because of their Blackness.

"Dry September" portrays the oppressive, violent, and cruel nature of a racist and sexist society. Truth doesn't matter; maintaining the social order does. Individuals lose their agency against the backdrop of systemic racism and sexism. The supposed victim and perpetrator are never consulted. The only known facts are that it's a white woman accusing a Black man of sexual assault. That information alone is enough for the men to commit a horrible and cruel murder. Racial prejudice is the main driving factor behind the actions of the men and town.

In the town of Jefferson, white men are expected to enforce the racist and sexist status quo. If coercion fails, they are allowed to use violence without fear of repercussion. Any discussion of justice is quickly dismissed because the white men need to send a message to the Black men of Jefferson.

McLendon, a decorated war veteran, is exulted for his bravery in public. In private, he is a bully and wife abuser. Both women and Black men have secondary status in Jefferson, being used as objects for the white men. While a white woman has the power to accuse and punish a Black man, the white men are concerned with protecting their honor and image rather than the safety and care of the presumed victim, Minnie.

"Dry September": Themes

Four themes stand out in Faulkner's poignant story.

The Dangers of Mob Mentality

The men who inflict the violence are given no individual agency in the town of Jefferson. In the barbershop, more than one man tries to speak out, but they are ultimately ignored. Hawkshaw is threatened with being ostracized by McLendon for speaking on behalf of Will Mayes. The youth even tells Hawkshaw to go back to the North, despite him growing up in the very same town. Most of the men have their own opinions of what to do; however, when pressed to act, they do not want to be seen as cowards or Black sympathizers and join with McLendon. Even Hawkshaw, who intended to defend Will Mayes, is swept up in the moment and ends up joining the fray when the men kidnap and beat Mayes.

The Misleading Power of Gossip

Rumor is what starts the incident. No one checks for details or facts, nor does anyone try to consult the alleged perpetrator or victim. The rumor spreads quickly, and before anything is confirmed, the lynch mob gathers and decides to act. The story strongly implies that Will Mayes is innocent, yet the truth is never disclosed. Faulkner shows that most information is shared through gossip. Minnie's friends press her for details but are not concerned with the truth, much like the men in the barbershop.

Public Reputation versus Private Life

Someone's social standing is a matter of survival in the town. When Hawkshaw refuses at first to comply with the other men, he's insulted and berated. McLendon threatens to smear Hawkshaw's reputation. Though Hawkshaw attempts to act as the moral compass of the group of men, he is ultimately disregarded.

McLendon is honored as a decorated war hero, yet he's clearly prone to violence to assert power rather than justice. Privately, he is an abuser and bully to his wife. When she waits for him to come home, he's angry instead of pleased because she disobeyed his orders. Their interaction shows that for McLendon, this is a repeated offense, and he quickly loses his temper, shoving his wife aside.

Classism and Gender Roles

In Jefferson, women are only valued by being of marriage age. Minnie is judged by the other men for her single status. The men in the barbershop debate her integrity based on her lack of marriage and age. No one seems to be interested in Minnie's well-being. Ultimately, Minnie's value is based on her ability to attach herself to a husband.

Dry September, runabout car, StudySmarteFig. 4 - The cashier used to drive Minnie around in one of the first mass-produced automobiles called runabouts.

Minnie used to be popular and desirable according to the town when she was in her youth. At the time, she was unaware of social and economic class. As time passed and her friends were married off, she began to notice the rest of the town would gossip about her. Minnie realized that since she was poorer than many of the available suitors, she lost her potential to be married once she became older. Minnie isn't afforded any individual agency in her life and is stuck pretending to live as someone she is not, spending her leisure time as if she were rich but never actually buying much besides tickets to the movies.

"Dry September": Symbols

There are three symbols in "Dry September."

The Hot Weather

The late summer heat is oppressive and inescapable. Characters are constantly sweating and comment on the heat having the power to drive people mad. In virtually every scene, the heat is an incessant force that the men and women try to swat away like flies. Even Minnie succumbs to a fever. McLendon often wipes the sweat from his brow with his sleeve, magnifying his anxious and violent energy.

McLendon's Pistol

The gun represents McLendon's propensity for violence. It's a tool for him to enforce the racist and sexist society of Jefferson. He arrives at the barbershop with his gun, asserting his dominance over the other men by having the strongest potential for violence. Until McLendon arrives, the author draws attention to the barbers and razors. At first, the barbers dominate the conversation. The seated men are vulnerable as the barbers hold razors to their necks. Once McLendon arrives, his gun represents his monopoly on violence in the room. McLendon also keeps the gun right next to his bed. By always keeping the gun within reach, even while sleeping, he reveals his propensity, even a thirst, for violence.

Handcuffs

The manacled Will Mayes echoes the slavery of the pre-Civil War South. Despite being technically free, the threat of white violence keeps him from ever being safe. Being Black in a town of white people means his race can be criminalized at any moment. Unfortunately, that's precisely what happens when the lynch mob arrives. By being quickly handcuffed, Will Mayes literally loses any fighting chance of escaping and surviving the lynching.

"Dry September" - Key takeaways

  • "Dry September" is a short story about the gathering of a lynch mob in the fictional town of Jefferson, Mississippi.
  • The story follows the immediate aftermath of an accusation of a Black man sexually assaulting a white woman.
  • "Dry September" shows the oppressive and cruel nature of a racist and sexist world.
  • The four main themes are the dangers of mob mentality, the misleading power of gossip, public reputation versus private life, and classism and gender roles.
  • Three symbols are the hot weather, McLendon's pistol, and handcuffs.

References

  1. Fig. 3 - Colt 1908 Pistol (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Colt_1908_.25_276335_R_DSC_3394.JPG) by Judson Guns (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Special:Contributions/Judson_Guns) is licensed by CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)

Frequently Asked Questions about Dry September

“Dry September” was written in 1931.

The significance of "Dry September" is its portrayal of the cruelty and violence of a racist and sexist society.

In “Dry September” Will Mayes, a Black man, is presumably killed by the lynch mob.

In “Dry September” it is not clear if Will Mayes feels guilty, but his innocence is strongly implied by his pleading and not knowing why the men are abducting him.

“Dry September” is a devastating critique of the values of the post-Civil War South. After losing the war, systemic racism brutalized and criminalized being Black, and frequently innocent people were murdered because of their Blackness.

Final Dry September Quiz

Question

When was "Dry September" written?

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Answer

1931

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"Dry September" takes place in the fictional town of

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Answer

Jefferson

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"Dry September" follows the story of

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men gathering together to lynch a Black man

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Question

What is the significance of "Dry September"?



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Answer

Its portrayal of the cruelty and violence of a racist and sexist society.

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Question

Who is Hawkshaw?

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A barber who tries to defend the accused Black man Will Mayes

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Who is Will Mayes?

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A Black night watchman accused of sexually assaulting a white woman.

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Who is Minnie Cooper?

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A single white woman in her late thirties who is the supposed victim of a sexual assault by a Black man.

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Who is John McLendon?

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A violent and aggresive war veteran who leads the lynchmob

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"Dry September" is a critique of 

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the pre-Civil War values of the South

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McLendon is a decorated war hero in public, but in private he is

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an abuser and bully to his wife

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Hawkshaw eventually joins the lynch mob but

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escapes by jumping out of the moving car

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What are four themes from "Dry September"?

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The Danger of Mob Mentality

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Who wrote "Dry September?"

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William Faulkner

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What are three symbols from "Dry September"? 

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McLendon's Automatic Pistol

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How does the story strongly imply Will Maye's murder?

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When the cars return, Hawkshaw can see that there is one less passenger.

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