by William Faulkner
Minnie Cooper is almost 40, unmarried, and lives with her aunt and her mother. She spends her mornings swinging in her porch swing, her afternoons dressing and shopping, and her evenings dressing and going to the movies. She's always accompanied by female friends of unknown age. Her life, we learn in the section featuring her breakdown, has "a quality of furious unreality" (2.5). Her life has no substance. She is angry a lot of the time, and doesn't have any one to turn to for help.
Minnie is trapped in society that has no place for her. Women over 30 (in the world of the story) who have never been married are considered sex-starved, and capable of doing anything for sexual attention. The reasoning is the following: if a woman can't get a man to marry her, something must be wrong with her. That's the basic logic in this late 1920s, early 1930s Jefferson, Mississippi mindset. Minnie's only interest seems to be movies, but, as we discuss in "Setting" the Hollywood dream celebrating marriage and romance only exacerbates her sense of a stranger in her own home.
Minnie can't see clear to move away, and her attempt at seeking happiness in a non-traditional relationship with a widowed banker ends in further alienating her from the community and making her an object of scorn and ridicule. They consider the relationship with the banker an act of adultery, on her part only. The banker, after dropping Minnie, continues to thrive, and Minnie's so-called friends rub this fact gleefully in her face.
In debating whether or not Minnie shares guilt with the men in the beating, kidnapping, and murder (probably) of Will Mayes, it's easy to forget just how unstable Minnie's position in her society is. Obviously, we are taking a very sympathetic view of Minnie in this opening statement. In the following sections we'll also present some less sympathetic views of Minnie. Denying the nuances of her personality – for all its good and bad – would only repeat the errors perpetuated by the townspeople.
Femme Fatale? Woman Scorned?
A femme fatale is a woman who does anything to keep from being controlled by men and other women. This behavior is often in an effort to resist traditional women's roles, including wife. The femme fatale is dangerous for the men with whom they come into contact. Most common in the noir tradition of film, the femme fatale is usually beautiful and irresistible to the men they meet (source).
We've been told in so many ways that Minnie, as she nears 40, is considered repulsive rather than attractive. If we adjust the standards of beauty to include Minnie Cooper (see Minnie's final section if you're not sure how) at least some elements of the femme fatale apply. In so many ways, Minnie is resisting the control of the traditions that don't take her person into account. One way in which she resists the expected pattern of female conduct is by dating a widower. The town considers this "adultery" (2.4). When the townspeople make clear that even dating is not to be allowed in her case, her unfulfilled needs leak out in less healthy ways. (This behavior can also be considered a form of resistance, misguided as it may be.)
Minnie might not have started the rumor, but if she did, she might or might not have named Will. Regardless, his connection with her in the rumor is what proves fatal, or at least extremely dangerous for him. This is not to say that the femme fatale doesn't feel pain for her victims. The fact that Minnie breaks down soon after hearing that Will has been abducted, because of what he was rumored to have done with her, suggests that she didn't intend for things to go that far.
Critic Paul Rogalus has a different view. He argues that Minnie's hysterical laughter in the movie theatre is due to her happiness, both because Will was abducted and because the men in the square were watching her hips when she walked by them (source: "Faulkner's 'Dry September'". Explicator. 1990, 48.3, p. 175.). This would be a more sinister version of the femme fatale.
It makes us think of an ugly possibility. What if Minnie made a sexual advance toward Will, and Will rejected her? We can't squeeze enough evidence from the story to support that possibility, even though it is an important angle to consider. Winnie is a woman scorned by the tradition into which she was born.
Interestingly, Minnie doesn't get a single line of dialogue in "Dry September." When her friends ask her questions, she doesn't answer. This makes us wonder how she could have started the rumor to begin in the first place. Based in large part on this observation, we propose a scenario. First we'll lay out our other evidence.
Exhibit A: Minnie's ex-beau, the bank teller visits Jefferson once a year for "a [Christmas] bachelor's party at the hunting club on the river" (2.4). Minnie's neighbors see the ex-beau pass on the road. When they visit Minnie on Christmas day, "they would tell her about him, about how well he looked, and how they heard her was prospering in the city" (2.4). Now for the important part; where Minnie's "neighbors," having tormented her about her ex, "watch[…] with bright, secret eyes her haggard, bright face" (2.4). Keep those bright eyes in mind for just a moment.
Exhibit B: On the Saturday night in question, Minnie's "friends" ask if she is "strong enough to go out […] their eyes bright too, with a dark glitter" (4.1).
Exhibit C: While attempting to shush Minnie's laugh-screams, and to numb her emotions with ice, Minnie's friends first make sure no gray hairs have offended Minnie's head, and then ask, apparently in unison, "Do you suppose anything really happened? their eyes darkly aglitter, secret and passionate. "Shhhhhhhhhh!" (4.9).
It's possible that the neighbors who gossip to Winnie about her ex are behind the rumor that something happened between Minnie and Will. The business with these women's glittering eyes is what gives them away. Notice also that Winnie's friends don't seem to openly dislike her, even though they treat her badly.
They are trying to get her a husband, which is what they think she needs. When they taunt her about her ex, they are punishing her for her previous improper behavior. These women are just as mixed up as she is, and their confusion comes out in dark ways. If their influence over Minnie is as strong as we suspect, they are practicing a great evil upon her. They have even, it seems, stolen her voice.
This doesn't necessarily absolve Minnie of guilt in the Will's tragedy, but it does raise some serious questions. Like Will, Minnie should be presumed innocent until proven guilty.