Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1048

Intruder in the Dust is an excellent introduction to William Faulkner’s numerous and complex novels of the Deep South. Set in Faulkner’s mythical Yoknapatawpha County, his standard fictional location, Intruder in the Dust also includes such familiar inhabitants as attorney Gavin Stevens and farmer Carothers Edmonds. This novel, however, includes...

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Intruder in the Dust is an excellent introduction to William Faulkner’s numerous and complex novels of the Deep South. Set in Faulkner’s mythical Yoknapatawpha County, his standard fictional location, Intruder in the Dust also includes such familiar inhabitants as attorney Gavin Stevens and farmer Carothers Edmonds. This novel, however, includes only a few examples of such famous Faulknerian stylistic devices as elongated, periodic sentences, disconnected narratives, multiple narrative perspectives, psychological time, and stream of consciousness. While the very substance of The Sound and the Fury (1929), Absalom, Absalom! (1936), Light in August (1932), and As I Lay Dying (1930) consists of these variations in style or form, Intruder in the Dust (except for Chick Mallison’s meditations and flashbacks) is a relatively straightforward narration. Faulkner novels typically use parable and folklore as a basis for forming a vision of life as a neurotic and involved psychological process. Intruder in the Dust, however, blends folklore and parable with a formula mystery story and strikes a much simpler note than most of Faulkner’s work.

Aspects of folklore permeate Intruder in the Dust. Faulkner’s panorama of rural local color includes a generous sampling of cracker-barrel philosophers, bigoted rednecks, mischievous and shoeless youngsters, and fading ladies of breeding long past their prime. The plot crackles with anecdotes, bits of country wisdom, humor, and superstition. It is thematically enriched by Stevens’s philosophical speeches. After Chick, Aleck, and Miss Habersham discover that Vinson Gowrie’s grave contains the body of Jake Montgomery, Intruder in the Dust becomes a highly suspenseful mystery story, with Sheriff Hampton and Stevens solving the crime in barely enough time to prevent Lucas Beauchamp from being lynched by a mob far more interested in violence than justice.

The novel also contains several parables, one of which is a southern version of the biblical Cain and Abel story. The brothers Vinson and Crawford Gowrie join forces in several business ventures, including timber dealing. Crawford, increasingly greedy for his own profits, steals timber from his brother and sells it to the shady Jake. When Lucas sees Crawford stealing the timber and threatens to expose him, Crawford kills his brother in a way that makes Lucas appear to be the murderer. Crawford relies on the townspeople’s readiness to blame a black man for the murder of a white man. Much like Mink Snopes in Faulkner’s The Hamlet (1940), Crawford learns too late that violence, instead of eradicating problems, creates more violence and eventually one’s downfall. Truth simply will not stay buried, Faulkner seems to be saying. In a hair-raising midnight scene combining the best of Edgar Allan Poe and Raymond Chandler, plus his own inimitable sense of place and wry humor, the author has three very frightened individuals uncover the truth that frees Lucas.

Beyond the Cain and Abel story, Stevens’s speeches expand Intruder in the Dust into a parable about the people’s right to govern themselves. Some critics condemn Stevens’s rhetoric as the propaganda of an unfeeling and aristocratic bigot. While this interpretation holds some validity, Stevens is not a mouthpiece for Faulkner’s views; nor should Stevens’s pleadings, however prolix, be discounted. In the filibuster tradition of southern oratory, he articulates a code of noninterference, following Candide’s words of “till your own garden.” The intruder of the title may refer not only to those who open Vinson’s grave but also to “outlanders” who would dictate moral action to these people. With their own sense of justice, the southerners close this incident in their own way. They come to realize that Lucas has little to do with what is fundamentally a family feud. As a result of his cruel victimization, Lucas in the future will be shown, or will suffer, innumerable courtesies by white people. He suffered, and he is wise. Lucas will endure. The true villains here are the poor whites, those who pervert the opportunities of their position.

The elderly spinster Eunice Habersham supports Lucas enough to rob a grave to prove his innocence. Had Miss Habersham been less sentimental and more skeptical, Crawford, guilty and white, would have escaped. On the other hand, Hope Hampton, sheriff of Yoknapatawpha County, is highly skeptical and totally unsentimental. Hampton seeks justice, not conviction; evidence, not the will of the voters, persuades him to act. He is a diametric opposite to the familiar stereotype of the rural southern sheriff, a big-bellied hunter and political animal. The villains of Intruder in the Dust behave in predictably stereotyped and evil ways, while the figures in power—Hampton, the prosecutor; Stevens, the defender; and Miss Habersham, the moral sentiment—are humane, rounded characters.

As a story of initiation, the novel is an unqualified success. Young Chick Mallison must unlearn old values as well as learn new ones. In attempting to pay Lucas for his act of kindness, Chick denies the old black man his humanity. What others often interpret as arrogance is really Lucas’s unyielding demand that he be treated as a human being, worthy of respect. Gradually, Chick comes to realize the moral rightness in the demand Lucas makes. After the death of Mrs. Beauchamp, Chick sees Lucas and understands that grief can come to a black man as well as to a white. By the time Lucas is accused of committing murder, Chick knows that he must act with the same humanity Lucas showed him. Through Lucas, Chick also learns to accept Aleck as an equal. Thus, through the initiation of Chick, Faulkner makes a powerful, positive statement about race relations as fundamentally an encounter between one human being and another.

Intruder in the Dust, because it includes Stevens’s philosophical discourses on the South’s ability to handle its own problems after the action has essentially been resolved, is too often dismissed as a distasteful polemic, a lapse in Faulkner’s series of brilliant novels. However, Intruder in the Dust is not so much inferior to such works as The Sound and the Fury or Absalom, Absalom! as it is different in its approach. Always the experimenter and innovator, Faulkner here turns with considerable success to establishing his vision in genre—namely, detective—fiction, as he did earlier with Sanctuary (1931), an even more gothic murder mystery, and Pylon (1935), an adventure story about flying.

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