Setting and Action in W. Faulkner's story "Dry September". (T. Fedorova)
The setting in Faulkner's "Dry September" plays an important role in the movement of the plot. It heightens the atmosphere in the story, revealing the dramatic character of the events described by the author.
The opening line of section 1 reveals the theme of "Dry September". Faulkner refers to "bloody September twilight" describing a sunset and the evening of injustice. The author uses the metaphor "bloody" to warn the reader about the murder that is going to be committed. The evil thing and the destruction that will occur are the results of the rumor that has spread quickly, "like a fire in dry grass" (a simile is used). The author himself calls it "the rumor, the story, whatever it was". In this way he sets the scene, creates the image of destruction, death, injustice and violence, and underlines the theme of "Dry September".
The action begins in a barber shop and this is an immediate setting, filled with the atmosphere of suffocation. Faulkner underlines the staleness of "the vitiated air", "breath and odors" and uses the word "stale" twice in the same sentence, describing the barber shop, to heighten the reader's impression of the inhuman atmosphere, in which characters can neither think clearly nor take right decisions.
The author says that none of the people who gathered in the barber shop "knew exactly what had happened" and in this way Faulkner shows the injustice of the decision and predicts more cruelty in the action taken by the characters as the story develops.
One of those in the barber shop blames the weather as if it were a proof of a black man being guilty of raping a white woman. "It's this durn weather... It's enough to make a man do anything. Even to her." The second sentence of his remark can also be understood as a hint given to the reader by the author that something dangerous might happen. It is the direction in which the action will develop.
The entrance of McLendon into the barber shop intensifies the atmosphere even more by creating an image of cruelty, aggressiveness, and violence. The author attracts the reader's attention to the physical force and aggressiveness of McLendon. Faulkner repeats twice that "the screen door crashed" when McLendon appeared in the barber shop and left it. The reader may conclude that this man is narrow-minded and not well educated because he has too limited a vocabulary, swears ("what the hell", "damn niggerloving"), and can not express himself clearly enough. He is a man of action, who got used to taking violent decisions (he "had been decorated for valor"). He uses a lot of imperative verbs, for example: "Tell everyone of the sons...", "Kill him", "Get in!", "Jump out", "Look at the clock". When other men in the barber shop agree to join McLendon in their punishment of the "nigger", they also become aggressive - the drummer, for example, flings the cloth to the floor. The barber picks it from the floor and begins "to fold it neatly" constantly repeating: "Boys, don't do that". Such a detail as folding the cloth can be interpreted as the barber's inner belief that the black man is innocent. The reader may be sure that the barber would not join the men committing a murder. That is exactly what happens. The barber wants to prevent the crime but he is unable to do so.
Faulkner describes air as "dead" (it is personification). Though the crime has not been committed yet the author uses the words "death", "dead" very often: while describing the atmosphere. In this way the impression of the inevitability of the murder is quite strong. The dead air "had a metallic taste at the base of the tongue".
Section 2 describes the life of Miss Minnie Cooper who "was of comfortable people". Faulkner uses the words "haggard" and "bright" constantly. The word "haggard" means "having lines on your face and dark marks around your eyes, especially because you are ill, worried, or have not had enough sleep"1. In "Dry September" it is used in the meaning "tired of one's lifestyle". The word "bright" is used in negative meaning "strong and easy to see"2. The author shows that Miss Minnie Cooper's manner, dress and look are haggard. Her face is "like a mask or a flag" (it is a simile). "When she was young she had had a slender nervous body, and ...haggard vivacity" which made her very popular. Some time later, however, people stopped paying that much attention to her. About a year before the action described in "Dry September" Miss Minnie Cooper had a man scare - a man on the kitchen roof was watching her undress. There was no proof of that fact as well as there would be no evidence of sexual assault. The author shows that the lady's "idle and empty days had a quality of furious unreality", she was bored and she would invent something to amuse herself. Faulkner warns the reader that the emptiness of the lady's days is dangerous, something bad is going to happen. It becomes clear that she has made up the story about sexual assault just to amuse herself and to attract other people's attention to her.
Section 3 begins with the description of a street: "the day had died in a pall of dust". The author uses the words "died" and "lifeless" to create the image of death. All people in the city are morally "dead", they have no spiritual life. In his story Faulkner uses the words with negative suffixes that signify lack of some quality, for example, "lifeless", "breathless". The negative suffix -less- has a metaphorical meaning - the absence of moral norms in society. The author describes dusty, lifeless society where prejudice and stagnation flourish and prepares the reader for the approaching crime: "Dust hung...above all the land".
The author also uses the verbs that define quick and violent actions, for example, to hurl up, to slam, to rush, to fling back, to drag, to strike, to slash, to tug, to kick. The use of these verbs also creates the image of violence and aggressiveness. The atmosphere is tense: “there was no sound of nightbird nor insect", characters "seemed to sweat dryly" as they "waited tensely". Significant is the use of the words that describe sounds of movement: squealing, crunch, hissing, cracking. There is no light, except for the car lights in "the breathless dark". The author describes darkness, dim faces. Only when the barber walks away from the dark place, from the crime, he sees the town that "began to glare beneath the dust". These elements create the atmosphere of cruelty, injustice of what is going to happen. At the same time the atmosphere reveals the views of the author, who is against immorality. "Faulkner is perfectly aware that Negroes are human beings like himself, but ones who suffered much because of the color of their skin"3. In section 3 the murder is committed secretly in the darkness. The reader is prepared for the fact that the murder will occur in the atmosphere created in the beginning of the chapter. In this way setting helps to understand and to predict the action.
Faulkner describes Miss Minnie Cooper's appearance and actions again in Section 4: "Her own flesh felt like fever". He also indirectly shows her emotional state: the words "fever" and "tremble" are repeated several times to define what she feels (the verb "tingle" is the synonym of the verb "tremble": "Her lips began to tingle".) The lady knows that the black man has been killed. She could not predict the consequences of her rumor, she did not expect this result. Her accusation sets off a violent chain of events which results in the murder of Will Mayes. Her amusement turned out to be very cruel. Miss Minnie Cooper has a nervous breakdown ("She began to laugh") and is put to bed. The question "Do you suppose anything really happened?" proves that there is no evidence whatsoever of sexual assault and that other people think the lady might have made the whole story up.
Section 5 begins with the description of McLendon's house, which is "neat" and "new". The setting emphasizes the difference between McLendon's cruelty and the place he lives in. The house is "trim, new, small, with its clean, green-and-white paint". It seems to be a place of harmony. The author creates an image of innocence and indirectly shows McLendon's brutality, aggressiveness, and violence by contrasting the atmosphere of cruelty with the cosiness of a house. Unfortunately, this is not a house where love and harmony exist. McLendon's wife has a "pale, strained, and weary-looking" face. He is aggressive even at home and this is more evident because his violence contrasts with the quietness of the house and the shyness and passiveness of his wife.
The author constantly returns to the motif of heat. Section 1 begins with the reference to dry September, and section 5 also has the reference to the heat: "Don't, John. I couldn't sleep… The heat, something". The weather, again, is the only explanation of what is happening and what has happened.
The last sentence: "The dark world seemed to lie stricken beneath the cold moon and the lidless stars" describes society and not nature. The author shows that the whole society is ill with immorality, racism, and prejudice. There is no hope that something can be changed. Faulkner repeats the word "dust" several times meaning the wickedness of the society. The world is corrupt, unfair, and merciless.
The settings in "Dry September" are not just places in which characters appear, but also the atmosphere created by the author. The setting reveals the dramatic character of the events described in the story.
To create the image of injustice, cruelty, and violence Faulkner uses different devices, such as metaphors, similes and personification. Sometimes the author uses these twice in the same sentence to intensify the impression on the reader. Synonyms are also important because they increase the tension in the story. Faulkner contrasts the characters’ actions with their inner state. It is possible for the reader to predict the action (and the murder). The connection between setting and action is obvious. Faulkner’s views are revealed to the reader with the help of numerous details: the society where people commit a crime is cruel.
1.William Faulkner "Dry September".
2.Highlights of American Literature, Chapter XXIX "William Faulkner", p.208.
3.Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English, Third Edition.
1 Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English, Third Edition
2 Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English, Third Edition
3 Highlights of American Literature, Washington D.C., 1995 Chapter XXIX "William Faulkner", p.208