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Dry September

Dry September


by William Faulkner

Will Mayes

Character Analysis

Will's character resists traditional analysis. He might seem at first a mere outline of a black man, the victim of a rumor, and then the victim of a hate crime. Yet, Will is no stick figure. He provokes our emotions, our interest, and our sympathy. From the small clues given, we get the sense of a living, breathing person – someone we have just met and want to know more about. So how has Faulkner created such a compelling character out of so little material, and, more importantly, why? We'll give some possible answers in the following sections, followed by a brief discussion of less sympathetic reactions to Will.

Portrait of a Good Man

Readers are often drawn to the underdog figure, and Will is immediately established as such a figure in the initial barbershop scene. Because Hawkshaw speaks well of Will, and nobody else counters Hawkshaw's statement, we have no reason to doubt him. In fact, it doesn't matter if Will is a nice guy or not. It is, however, easier for us to stay focused on the injustice being done him if we have an almost instinctive trust for him, and if we realize that the crime against Will seems to be a reaction to his association with a white woman.

Our sympathy is further provoked when we realize that Will is working earnestly on a Saturday night. His pleas to at least know his crime, pleas of innocence, and his begging for Hawkshaw not to dessert him further develop him as a sincere and thoughtful man.

At the point that Hawkshaw jumps out of the car we are concerned and sympathetic toward Will – but he is soon lost to us. Will's story, like his life (assuming he was killed that night) is cut short. Whatever his fate, when we reach the end of the story without further knowledge of Will, we feel mournful.

The Mock Trial of Will Mayes

Remember when Hawkshaw suggests, in Part 1 that they call the sheriff and have a proper investigation before taking matters in their own hands? That never happens. Will is not given due process of law, which is a fancy way of saying his rights are being violated. As you know, in the US system of justice, a person legally accused of a crime (after a basic investigation has been conducted, and basic evidence found) has the legal right to:

  1. be notified of the charge against him/her
  2. an attorney and a defense
  3. a (fair) trial by a jury of his/her peers, during which evidence from both sides is weighed
  4. a formal sentencing by a judge
  5. to appeal the verdict and/or the sentence.
This is just a basic list of the rights due to an accused person in the US. That doesn't mean that these rights are always upheld. Will was subjected to what is known as an extralegal or extrajudicial process. Vigilantes are people who take the law into their own hands. They are outside the law, but what they do looks strangely like law, or, in the case of Will, a mockery of the law.

The evidence is a rumor, and nobody knows how Will's name got mixed up in it. The investigation occurs in the barbershop, and consists of McLendon (playing the role of policeman) pressuring the men into joining him for the "arrest" (granted, most of them didn't need much pressuring).

The extralegal arrest happens when they kidnap Will from his job as night watchman at the ice factory, beating him in the process. To make it clear that this is a mock arrest Faulkner gives his vigilantes handcuffs. Will rides in the back of the car – just like an arrested person would in a police car.

We don't get to see the rest of the extralegal process in "Dry September." We don't need to. The trial and sentencing was already taken care of in the barbershop, before the arrest, when Will wasn't even present. The carrying out of that sentence was anything but mock. Will was either killed or very badly damaged. We can be fairly certain he doesn't get the chance to appeal.

The sad irony is that even if Will had been given the benefit of the legal process, people like McLendon and his gang would likely be involved and Will's fate might have been similar. But, at least there would have been hope. We can't forget that Hawkshaw and people like Hawkshaw were around in those days.

So, perhaps Faulkner minimizes the details of Will's character to allow us to zero in on the how and why of his tragedy, instead of focusing on more traditional kinds of character analysis.

Will Mayes Timeline