Summary of Part I
The narrator of "Dry September" is omniscient, but uses the point of view of an observer. Therefore, details about the characters and the action are revealed as if the reader were a viewer of the scene with no prior knowledge of the circumstances. The first paragraph sets the scene in a stifling barber shop, makes clear the troubling truth: "none of them... knew exactly what had happened." The following conversation, between Hawkshaw the barber, a second barber, Butch, the drummer, a second client, and an ex-soldier who is also referred to as "third speaker," makes this fact incredibly clear. The men argue over whether the details of the story matter, and Hawkshaw, who at this point is only referred to as "the barber," emerges as a defendant of Will Mayes.
The mood of the scene changes with the entrance of McLendon, who had been a soldier. He asks, "Are you going to sit tehre and let a black son rape a white woman on the streets of Jefferson?" By using the word "rape," he assumes the worst about the rumors of a crime, and riles up the other men. Butch jumps up to agree with him, but other men remain skeptical. However, McLendon squashes the questions of one of the clients with the following point: "Happen? What the hell difference does it make? Are you going to let the black sons get away with it until one really does it?" Rather than stand out for its absurdity, this argument serves to rally the men around McLendon's cause.
Hawkshaw continues to point out that they ought to "find out the facts first, boys... Let's get the sheriff and do this thing right." McLendon responds by calling him a "niggerlover," the same name Butch had called him earlier, before McLendon's entrance. The men start to jump up to join McLendon, including the drummer, who doesn't even live in Jefferson. All the men except the three barbers follow McLendon outside. Hawkshaw puts away his razor, then runs out of the barber shop saying, "I can't let -" The reader is led to believe he intends to warn Will Mayes, or somehow stop the violent crime about to be carried out. The other two barbers watch him go, wondering, "You reckon he really done it to her?"
Summary of Part II
Part II begins with a description of Miss Minnie Cooper, who up until this point has only existed to the reader as part of a rumor. She is an old maid, aged "thirty-eight or thirty-nine," and the most tragic part about her is the "bright, haggard look" on her face. The children of the town used to call her "aunty." The narrator relates how twelve years before, "the town began to see her driving on Sunday afternoons with the cashier in the bank;" and how this caused the townspeople to say, "Poor Minnie." At that point, she asked that the children of the next generation call her "cousin" instead of "aunty." But eight years had passed since her affair with the cashier, and now neighbors seem to delight in reporting about him to Minnie. In the evenings, Minne dresses in one of her bright dresses and goes out with women neighbors, but "she passed and went on along the serried store fronts, in the doors of which the sitting and lounging men did not even follow her with their eyes anymore."
Summary of Part III
Now we are redirected to the present, where Hawkshaw is chasing after McLendon and the murderous gang. When he catches up with them, at first they assume he has come around and is joining them in their mission. However, he continues to defend Will Mayes. The ex-soldier tries to pretend that they are just going to "talk to him a little; that's all," while Butch and McLendon feel comfortable announcing freely the violent nature of their plans. They get into two cars and drive out of town, to the ice plant where Will Mayes is a night watchman. They get out of the cars, and McLendon and Butch venture farther to find Will Mayes.
Then they all run at the victim, and a disembodied voice yells, "Kill him, kill the son." But they drag him to the car instead. Will Mayes doesn't physically resist the men, but verbally asserts his innocence. He asks, "What is it, captains?" obviously unaware of the crime of which he is accused. The white men all begin to strike Will, and in resistance, he happens to hit Hawkshaw in the mouth; Hawkshaw then strikes him, too. But as they ride in the cars, Will Mayes between Hawkshaw and the ex-soldier, Hawkshaw asks to be let out. McLendon tells him, "Jump out, niggerlover," and doesn't slow down; so Hawkshaw jumps out of the moving car.
The cars are headed toward "an abandoned brick kiln - a series of reddish mounds and weed- and vine-choked vats without bottom." Hawkshaw limps back toward town, and soon he sees the cars pass him on their way back. McLendon's car is last, and there is one fewer man inside it. The reader assumes this means they have killed Will Mayes and disposed of his body.
Summary of Part IV
Miss Minnie Cooper is dressing to go out with her female neighbors, who provide her with not necessarily sincere support. She is trembling as they approach the town square. Now, "even the young men lounging in the doorway tipped their hats and followed with their eyes the motion of her hips and legs when she passed." As they walk through the square, her friends point out with "hissing exultation" that "there's not a Negro on the square. Not one."
They arrive at the picture show, and as the movie begins, Minnie starts laughing. Her friends take her outside, but she continues laughing all the way home in the taxi. They put her in bed and put ice on her temples, trying to calm her down. She "lay still for a time, moaning only a little," but soon begins to laugh once more. Her friends repeat, "Poor girl! Poor Minne!" as they question whether or not "anything really happened."
Summary of Part V
McLendon arrives home at midnight, and his wife has been waiting for him. He scolds her for waiting up, and "half struck, half flung her across the chair" before taking off his shirt and exiting to the screened porch. He is sweating profusely and wipes his face and body with his shirt, removing his pistol from his hip and putting it on the bedside table.
Diction reminiscent of death and destruction is used throughout the story, creating a tone of doom even before the reader understands what is to happen to Will Mayes. The first sentence:
Through the bloody September twilight, aftermath of sixty-two rainless days, it had gone like a fire in dry grass - the rumor, the story, whatever it was.
The use of the word "bloody" to describe the color of the impending darkness as the sun sets, as well as the comparison of the rumor to fire blazing through dry grass, set a dangerous tone for the story to follow. When McLendon leads the men out of the barber shop, "The air was flat and dead. It had a metallic taste at the base of the tongue." The use of the word metallic to describe the taste of the air creates the image of a gun, perhaps in one's own mouth. As Hawkshaw chases McLendon and the gang of men, the air is described as "lifeless," and:
The day had died in a pall of dust; above the darkened square, shrouded by the spent dust, the sky was as clear as the inside of a brass bell.
The words "pall" and "shrouded" recall a funeral, while the sky is described as if it is a funeral bell. As the cars barrel down the narrow road toward the brick kiln where they are about to murder Will Mayes, "their motion was like an extinct furnace blast: cooler, but utterly dead."
The men of the story often create truths from their assumptions, whether they mean to or not. When McLendon barges into the barber shop and uses the word rape, rape immediately becomes the assumed crime. On the other hand, Hawkshaw is the first to mention Will Mayes' name. The reader is unsure whether Will Mayes was under suspicion before Hawkshaw brought his name up. Though Hawkshaw's intention was to rule him out as a culprit, the effect is that the other men seize upon the name and decide he is, in fact, the perpetrator.
In this story, that which is illogical and driven by violent instinct always beats out that which is logical. For instance, when McLendon asserts that it doesn't matter whether or not anything happened between Will Mayes and Miss Minnie Cooper, rather than being stricken by the unfairness of his logic, the men seem to relate to the emotion behind the statement. When the men arrive at the ice plant, Hawkshaw makes the very logical point that if Will Mayes is on duty, it proves he couldn't have been anywhere near Miss Minnie Cooper; however, this point is totally ignored by the other men.
The turning point in the story is when Hawkshaw hits Will Mayes, after Mayes happens to slash his mouth in the struggle against the men trying to force him into the car. Up until that point, Hawkshaw had been the lone defender of Will's innocence; now, he joins the violent gang, no longer protesting, and instead follows along with the violent plan.
Anonymity is an important force in the mob violence of the story. Although Will Mayes recognizes the individual men involved in his murder, there is a mysterious voice that guides them when they arrive at the ice plant: "Kill him, kill the black son!" The narrator, too, retains a level of anonymity by continually referring to Hawkshaw as "the barber," as if he/she doesn't know Hawkshaw personally. The narrator also achieves a level of anonymous removal by revealing certain events only through outside observation, rather than by describing what actually happens. For example, when McLendon and Butch capture Will Mayes, the narrator describes the sounds of the scuffle, but never says directly what actually happens in those moments. The reader has to assume that Will Mayes has been thrown down one of the brick kilns, but only because that is where the cars are headed when Hawkshaw jumps out, and because when they return they hold one fewer man.
"Dry September" was originally published in January, 1931, in Scribner's Magazine. The barber Hawkshaw, appears again in Faulkner's May, 1931 short story "Hair." In "Hair," we learn that Hawkshaw's name is Henry Stribling. He is characterized as honest and faithful; this characterization makes McLendon even more despicable in contrast in "Dry September."
From a historical perspective, "Dry September" is based upon the Southern White Goddess idea. It was the belief that a southern white woman could never tell a blatant lie; so any hint that she was the victim of violence or disrespect was taken as the truth, without the need of proof. Thus, the white men in the story take justice into their own hands.