Intruder in the Dust

by William Faulkner

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Last Updated on August 5, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 514

Intruder in the Dust is a novel about racial injustice and the larger role of race relations in a small town in Mississippi in the 1940s. William Faulkner demonstrates that the threat of violence against black people is a constant reality that affects all of their actions. A few people in the novel, both black and white, step up and take responsibility for helping achieve justice in the town. Ultimately, they do have an impact, and justice is served.

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A young white boy, Chick Mallison, and an elderly African American man, Lucas Beauchamp, find their lives linked when the older man treats the boy kindly, literally saving his life. The bonds of obligation provide an ongoing connection between the two that Chick, though a teenager, takes very seriously.

Chick, while out hunting in the winter, falls through thin ice. Lucas happens to see the accident and rescues him, then takes him home to dry out and get warm. Because they live in a small town, Chick knows that Lucas is a proud man and is even defiant towards white people. After being saved by Lucas, Chick makes numerous efforts throughout the following years to repay what he understands as his debt to Lucas. He cannot figure out how to do this effectively, and each effort is countered by Lucas, who also detests the idea of moral and financial debt.

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The novel's conflict and resolution revolves around a murder—which turns out to be a fratricide between two members of a poor white family, many of whom live out in the woods away from town. This truth is not revealed until much later in the novel, however. Instead, the reader learns that a man named Vinson Guthrie has been murdered, and Lucas has been accused of this crime.

Chick understands that mob violence will probably take the place of court justice if nothing is done, so he decides to help defend Lucas, both in his murder trial and from the violent people of the town. Chick's uncle is a lawyer and, after considerable urging on Chick's part, agrees to defend Lucas. Chick's friend Aleck, who is black, and the elderly Miss Habersham, who had grown up with Lucas's wife (now deceased), are also involved in the efforts to help Lucas.

The boys (through serious deliberation) decide that the corpse of the victim will provide valuable evidence of Lucas's innocence, so they dig it up—only to find a different man's body in the grave. This information is enough to convince the sheriff to look into the case again.

The dead man who they unearthed was actually Jake Montgomery, with whom Crawford Guthrie, the deceased's brother, had some business connections. Crawford is ultimately exposed as the killer of both men, motivated by the attempt to cover up his illegal activities. Lucas is freed, and Crawford is brought to justice—but he takes his own life while in prison.

Chick then believes that he and Lucas are even, but the older man insists on paying a fee for the services, requiring a receipt for the two dollars.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 689

On a cold afternoon in November, Chick Mallison, twelve years old, accompanied by two black boys, goes rabbit hunting on Carothers Edmonds’s place. When he falls through the ice into a creek, an old black man, Lucas Beauchamp, appears and watches while the boy clambers awkwardly ashore. Then Lucas takes the white boy and his companions to his home. There, Chick dries out in front of the fire and eats Lucas’s food. Later, when Chick tries to pay the old man for his hospitality, Lucas spurns his money. Chick throws it down, but Lucas makes one of the other boys pick it up and return it. Chick broods over the incident, ashamed to be indebted to a black man, especially one as arrogant as Lucas. Again trying to repay the old man, he sends Lucas’s wife a mail-order dress bought with money he saved; again refusing to acknowledge payment and thus admit his inferiority, Lucas sends Chick a bucket of sorghum sweetening.

Four years later, when Lucas is accused of shooting Vinson Gowrie in the back, Chick still has not forgotten his unpaid debt to the man. Realizing that Vinson’s poor white family and friends are sure to lynch Lucas, Chick wants to leave town. Yet, when Sheriff Hope Hampton brings Lucas to the jail in Jefferson, Chick, unable to suppress his sense of obligation, is standing on the street where the old man can see him. Lucas asks Chick to bring his uncle, Gavin Stevens, to the jail.

At the jail, Lucas refuses to tell Stevens what happened at the shooting, whereupon the lawyer leaves in disgust; but Lucas does tell Chick that Vinson was not shot with his gun—a forty-one Colt—and he asks the boy to verify this fact by digging up the corpse. Although the body is buried nine miles from town and the Gowries will be sure to shoot a grave robber, Chick agrees to the request; he knows that Lucas will undoubtedly be lynched if someone does not help him. Barbershop and poolroom loafers already gather, awaiting the arrival of the pine-hill-country Gowries.

Stevens laughs at the story, so Chick’s only help comes from a black boy—Aleck Sander—and Miss Habersham, an old woman of good family who grew up with Lucas’s wife, now dead. The task of digging up a white man’s grave in order to save a haughty, intractable, but innocent black man is left to two adolescents and a seventy-year-old woman who feels it her obligation to protect those more helpless than she. The three succeed in opening the grave without incident. In the coffin, they find not Vinson but Jake Montgomery, whose skull was bashed in. They fill the grave, return to town, awaken Stevens, and go to the sheriff with their story.

This group, joined by old man Gowrie and two of his sons, reopen the grave. When they lift the lid, the coffin is found to be empty. A search discloses Montgomery’s body hastily buried nearby and Vinson’s sunk in quicksand. When the sheriff takes Montgomery’s body into town, the huge crowd gathered in anticipation of the lynching of Lucas soon scatters.

Questioning of Lucas reveals that Crawford Gowrie had murdered his brother, Vinson. Crawford, according to the old man, was cheating his brother in a lumber deal. Jake, to whom Crawford sold the stolen lumber, knew that Crawford was the murderer and dug up Vinson’s grave to prove it. Crawford murdered Montgomery at the grave and put him in Vinson’s coffin. When he saw Chick and his friends open the grave, he was forced to remove Vinson’s body, too. Sheriff Hampton soon captures Crawford, who kills himself in his cell to avoid a trial.

At last, Chick thinks, he has freed himself from his debt to the old black man. A short time later, however, Lucas appears at Stevens’s office and insists on paying for services rendered. Stevens refuses payment for both himself and Chick but accepts two dollars for “expenses.” Proud, unhumbled to the end, Lucas demands a receipt.

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