The characters in “Dry September” act within strictly proscribed gender and class boundaries, which Faulkner refers to vaguely as “snobbery male and retaliation female.” These categories dictate the actions of both men and women in Jefferson, robbing individuals of broader opportunity and in, some senses, free will. Such rigid boundaries, the story suggests, ignore the possibility of female agency and force men to perform an authoritative masculinity that, in this story, quickly escalates into violence.
Minnie Cooper’s status in society is marred by a number of factors, starting with the fact that she is not part of the upper class. Her social routine is similar to that of richer women: she dresses in the afternoon, meets up with friends, and spends time socializing in the shops. Yet Minnie only has “three or four new voile dresses” to choose from each day, and she and her friends “haggle over the prices” without actually making any purchases. This class distinction is of the utmost importance in Jefferson, and is the reason that Minnie finds herself unmarried and alone in her late thirties. Her beauty allowed her to enter into the upper echelon of society for a time, but only while her friends were “still children enough to be unclass-conscious.” She was unable to compete with her upper-class friends for the available men to marry and has since found herself living with her ageing mother and aunt.
While the men in the barber shop consider it necessary to defend the honor of a white woman, they still pause to consider Minnie’s specific social status. When one man asks who Minnie is, Hawkshaw notes, "She's about forty, I reckon. She ain't married.” As a woman, Minnie is defined by her age and marital status—evidence further in support of Mayes’s innocence, because the implication is that even a black man would not rape an older, unmarried woman. Another man jokes that the weather can make men do strange things, “Even to her.” Thus even as the men prepare to violently avenge this wrongdoing, they question Minnie’s social value amongst themselves.
As a relative outsider in her own society, Minnie is a passive observer with little to offer beyond this minor scandal. Like her visits to the moving pictures, Minnie’s trips downtown give her a glimpse into a lifestyle she will never know. She watches the younger women, “their delicate, silken heads and thin, awkward arms and conscious hips, clinging to one another or shrieking and giggling with paired boys in the soda fountain when she passed.” This is a sort of reenactment of the same courting rituals she herself nearly got to participate in as a young woman, yet which are closed to her now. Even in her relationship with the bank teller, Minnie is powerless and devoid of agency. She is a passenger, both literally and figuratively, driven around without the opportunity to make her own decisions. The boyfriend leaves her to take a better job in Memphis, opting for the path of upward mobility that is not available to Minnie. This sense of exclusion is reinforced every Christmas, as the man returns for an “annual bachelors’ party at a hunting club on the river,” an event that excludes Minnie on the basis of both her gender and class.
In contrast with Minnie’s “idle, empty days” and complete passivity, the men of the barber shop feel compelled to act without consulting Minnie or any other woman. In fact, once Minnie has made her way to the moving pictures that evening, the news of Mayes’s abduction is common knowledge, yet no one speaks directly to her about it. This strongly suggests that the abduction of Mayes has little to do with Minnie’s safety, and much more to do with fulfilling the obligations of pre-established gender roles.
Indeed, the men of Jefferson feel obligated to perpetuate a damaging, performative masculinity that is reinforced through violence, both implicit and explicit. The scene in the barber shop is almost theatrical, in that many of the characters use symbols, gestures, and physical space to establish dominance. The scene opens with the barber standing as his customers sit and talk; as the conversation about Minnie and Mayes gets more heated, however, customers sit upright or jump out of their seats. One man must even be forced back into his chair: “he arrested himself reclining, his head lifted, the barber still pressing him down.” Hawkshaw holds “the razor poised above the half-risen client,” keeping the man in check; another barber “held the drummer's face down, the razor poised.” The act of standing over another is a physical gesture of dominance and is repeated throughout the story. In the final scene, for example, McLendon notably stands over his wife, “poised on the balls of his feet,” until she looks down submissively.
The clearest, and most dangerous symbol, of toxic masculinity in the story McLendon’s gun. As he leaves the barber shop with the angry mob of men, “the butt of a heavy automatic pistol” peeks out from his pants pocket. As the weapon that will be used to abduct and presumably kill Mayes, the pistol is a badge of pride for McLendon. Known for his military service, McLendon has already established his masculinity and social status through previous acts of state-sanctioned violence. The pistol makes a final appearance at the end of the story, as McLendon strips down before bed, leaving his weapon on the bedside table. Even in the privacy and safety of his own home, McLendon keeps this symbol of masculinity close by and ready for use.
When viewed through the lens of the restrictive gender and class boundaries, the characters in “Dry September” have very little freedom to establish individual opinions. Women like Minnie Cooper, who do not belong to the upper class in Jefferson, are forced to wait for a suitable partner to choose them and run the risk of a lifetime of spinsterhood. While men move more freely in this society, they are obligated to reiterate their masculinity, mainly through threats or acts of violence. In either case, attempts to move within narrowly-defined social constructs shape characters’ behavior and specifically push them to cast aside a man with the least agency of all—that is, Will Mayes, a black man—in a performative attempt to prove their own social value.
Gender and Class ThemeTracker
Gender and Class Quotes in Dry September
“That's the one: see? The one in pink in the middle.” “Is that her? What did they do with the nigger? Did they?” “Sure. He's all right.” “All right, is he?” “Sure. He went on a little trip.”