“Dry September” is set in the South during the 1920s, when black men were often subjected to violence in retaliation for any perceived offense, often without proof or due process. The story begins with a group of white men discussing the rumored sexual attack or insult of Minnie Cooper, a white woman, by a black man, Will Mayes. The mob of men ignore the protestations of local barber Henry Hawkshaw, who is convinced that Mayes is innocent, and instead decide to abduct and assault Mayes that very evening. This form of vigilante justice, very common during this period in American history, is based on prejudice and racialized anger rather than evidence—and, it follows, is not really justice at all.
Faulkner’s story specifically exemplifies the ways in which whites used violence not to impose actual justice on society, but to maintain their own social dominance over blacks in the South. None of the men in the barber shop know what happened to Minnie Cooper, nor do they care about the details. In fact, when one man suggests that the group figure out if Mayes is actually guilty, the mob’s self-appointed leader McLendon responds, “What the hell difference does it make?” Their intention is not to indict and then punish Mayes for his actions, but to send a message to the black men of Jefferson and to reinforce the social structure of the South in the pre-Civil Rights era. To that end, though the assault on Mayes is not described directly in the story, men in the main square spread the news that Mayes “went on a little trip.” This vague rumor serves as a cautionary tale to the other black men of the town, that the white men are not “going to let the black sons get away with it until one really does it.” Their threat is successful: as Minnie Cooper walks to the movie theater that evening, there was “not a Negro on the square. Not one.”
Beyond highlighting the prejudiced nature of vigilante “justice,” the story also reveals how such vigilantism can rob people of individual, rational thought. While McLendon is ultimately able to rally two cars of men to attack Mayes, there is initially some degree of doubt among those assembled in the barbershop regarding Mayes’s guilt. A few call for facts and evidence, with one attempting to calm the others down by noting that “We'll get the facts in plenty of time to act.” Another questions the allegations themselves, asking, “Did it really happen?” Even as McLendon is able to persuade nearly all of the men in the barber shop to join him, many of them continue to express shame or discomfort about the decision. As some men get up to leave the shop, the others “sat uncomfortable, not looking at one another, then one by one they rose and joined.” The fact that the men go through with things despite doubts about the justice of their actions further points to the dangers of the mob mentality inculcated by vigilantism.
Henry Hawkshaw, the barber, stands out as a man of reason and integrity. He alone explicitly defends Mayes and argues against taking action, yet his words have little effect on the angry mob. Hawkshaw is certain from the beginning that Mayes is innocent, and is steadfast in his defense, noting, “I know Will Mayes… I know Miss Minnie Cooper, too.” This puts him in direct conflict with the prejudiced, vengeful McLendon, highlighting the contrast between the men to the point that they’re described as looking “like men of different races.” Hawkshaw decides to find the men after they leave the barber shop, presumably to convince them not to hurt Mayes, but he, too, is quickly swept up in the action. His repeated protests of “Listen, boys” become little more than background noise, as the men continue on their mission. He even inadvertently becomes involved in the abduction itself, when Mayes lashes out at the crowd of men “and the barber struck him also.”
Hawkshaw eventually realizes the futility of his actions and gives up his role as Mayes’s defender. His final action in the story is to escape, jumping from the moving vehicle and leaving the angry mob behind. The image of Hawkshaw as he “climbed back onto the road and limped on toward town” is one of a man who has tried, and failed, to impose reason. By presenting Hawkshaw’s efforts to curb the violence through appeals to thoughtful discourse futile, Faulkner ultimately argues that prejudiced vigilantism is inherently irrational.
The town of Jefferson is clearly ruled by a group of white men who feel empowered to take justice into their own hands. Their version of justice, however, is rooted in longstanding racism and the desire to maintain the traditional social structure of the pre-Civil War South. There is little room for differences of opinion, reason, or heroism in this highly-structured society, and men like Henry Hawkshaw are doomed to fail in their quest for true justice. Vigilantism in Faulker’s story, then, is not a means for justice at all, but rather the preservation of a specific (and deeply prejudiced) societal order.
Vigilante Justice ThemeTracker
Vigilante Justice Quotes in Dry September
“Kill him, kill the black son!” the voice murmured. They dragged the Negro to the car. The barber had waited beside the car. He could feel himself sweating and he knew he was going to be sick at the stomach. “What is it, captains?” the Negro said. “I ain't done nothing. ‘Fore God, Mr John.” Someone produced handcuffs.
“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.”