William Faulkner organizes the plot of “Dry September” around a single incident: the murder of an innocent black man. An aging and sexually frustrated white spinster starts the rumor that the black man has attacked her. A group of men, led by a former war hero, murder him before they substantiate his guilt.
After two months without rain, the small southern town of Jefferson has an explosive atmosphere. A rumor spreads through Jefferson that the black man, Will Mayes, has “attacked, insulted, frightened” Miss Minnie Cooper. No one knows exactly what has occurred, but the rumor of an attack by a black man on a white woman spreads “like a fire in dry grass.”
The first section of “Dry September” takes place in the town barbershop on Saturday evening. Whether Will Mayes has actually molested Miss Minnie Cooper does not seem important to most of the men in the barbershop. Because a white woman has accused a black man of attacking her, the accusation alone requires that these men demonstrate their white superiority. Hawkshaw, the barber, stubbornly refuses to believe that Will Mayes has attacked Miss Cooper. His rational demand for facts provokes the hostility of the other men.
The smoldering tension flares into violence when John McLendon crashes through the screen door. McLendon leads the party of men who set out to murder Will Mayes. When one member of the group gathered in the barber shop questions what really happened, McLendon whirls on the speaker and asks: “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?” Enraged by the heat as well as the rumor, the heavyset McLendon wants to kill. The honor of an aging white spinster gives him an excuse.
The second part of the story describes Miss Minnie Cooper. Her life seems as stale as the “vitiated air” in the barbershop. Despite a short period of youthful popularity, she did not marry. Her gaunt aunt, a “thin, sallow, unflagging” woman, runs the house, and her invalid mother stays in her room. Miss Minnie’s only romantic experience was with a widower in the town bank. The town “relegated” her “into adultery” twelve years ago, and eight years ago the cashier went to a Memphis bank. The narrator comments that Miss Minnie’s “bright dresses, her idle and empty days, had a quality of furious unreality.” Intensified by the heat, Miss Minnie’s sexual frustration explodes, as does McLendon’s brutality. Both vent their personal frustration on Will Mayes.
Part 3 of the story returns to the account of Will Mayes’s murder. The rumor that spreads like a fire in dry grass has destroyed the humanity of the men who plan to teach the “black sons” a lesson. Hawkshaw accompanies McLendon and the others, hoping that he can reason with them and prevent the murder of Will Mayes. When he realizes that he can only watch, not stop them, Hawkshaw begins to retch and asks McLendon to let him out of the car, but the car does not slow down. Will Mayes repeats the barber’s name twice. Unwilling to witness the actual murder, Hawkshaw jumps out of the speeding car. The barber hides in the weeds and watches the cars return without Will Mayes; afterward, he limps back to town.
Parts 4 and 5 conclude the story by showing the murder’s effect on Miss Minnie, the townspeople, and McLendon. As Miss Minnie dresses to go to the picture show, her flesh feels “like fever.” Her friends call for her early, and their eyes, too, glitter...
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with a bright feverishness. Miss Minnie enjoys the walk to the cinema, strolling “slower and slower, as children eat ice cream,” because “even the young men lounging in the doorway tipped their hats and followed with their eyes the motion of her hips and legs when she passed.”
The picture show, which is described as a “miniature fairyland,” recalls the “desert rat” in the barbershop and the “furious unreality” of Miss Minnie’s bright dresses and her “idle and empty days.” Miss Minnie begins to laugh as she watches the young couples enter the theater: “bodies awkward, divinely young, while beyond them the silver dream accumulated, inevitably on and on.” Miss Minnie started the rumor to make herself part of a life that is only a “silver dream” to her, but she cannot stop her empty, feverish laughter as she watches the “young men and girls . . . scented and sibilant in the half dark.” Her friends take her home and put ice on her temples. As they freshen the ice pack, they smooth her hair, “examining it for gray; ’poor girl!’” They enjoy Miss Minnie’s frustrated laughter—their eyes “darkly aglitter, secret and passionate.”
The narrator does not tell the reader that Miss Minnie created the rumor herself, but the reactions of both the men in the barbershop and her friends indicate that she did. They whisper to one another: “Do you suppose anything really happened?” When Miss Minnie realizes that her dry, frustrated life will continue, she becomes hysterical.
In the story’s concluding part, McLendon arrives home at midnight. His house is described as “trim and fresh as a birdcage and almost as small, with its clean, green-and-white paint.” He half strikes, half flings his wife across a chair because she has waited up for him. His “birdcage” home and small southern town provide no outlets for the violence in his nature. He strikes his wife, as he killed Will Mayes, to relieve his personal frustration.