by Alex Chapman
Publishing Intruder in the Dust in 1948, Faulkner illustrates life in a postwar, Jim Crow small town in Mississippi. He chooses the perspective of a white, socially prominent teenage male through which to discuss the reality of racial inequality. Racist ideology is so deeply engrained in the individuals in Yoknapatawpha County, the setting for many of Faulkner’s novels, that white children grow up with a false sense of superiority over African Americans. Racism is self-perpetuating in this culture because racialized language and social conventions serve to sustain the abhorrent inequality. Faulkner chooses a young protagonist in Chick Mallison to expose the systemic, cyclical nature of racism in the postwar South.
Systemic, cyclical racism occurs in a society in which racist ideology is passed down from generation to generation and reinforced by social and cultural norms. Erik Dussere suggests that racism is cyclical largely because the history of slavery in the South creates in white people a sense of indebtedness to African Americans, and the guilt of slavery is passed on in an unending cycle (37). As long as this cycle of debt endures, racism is self-perpetuating. Feeling a sense of indebtedness and working to pay this debt in order to preserve what Dussere calls the white man’s honor is only continuing a racist, dyadic view of society (37-38). Faulkner illustrates this debt mentality clearly when Chick falls in the frozen lake, and Lucas is there to rescue him (Faulkner 5-6). When Lucas not only rescues Chick but also takes him to his home and feeds him, Chick’s idea of the social conventions under which he and Lucas should interact is shattered.
Chick, a twelve-year-old boy, cannot conceive of being indebted to Lucas, so in an effort to exert his own perceived superiority, Chick attempts to pay him (Faulkner 15). Lucas, refusing subjugation, slaps the coins from Chick’s hands, scattering them across the floor (15). Faulkner describes this narrative through the lens of a twelve-year-old boy to reveal the intrinsic nature of this superiority complex even in children. This racist ideology is embedded in Chick’s subconscious mind in light of the “omnipresent and unquestioned racism that surrounds him” (48). This superiority complex, like the debt cycle, is passed down from generation to generation, almost inherited. Gift giving, according to Dussere, is “a contest for superiority,” and Chick accepting a meal from Lucas puts him in a position of social inferiority (45). Even young boys are taught that any outstanding debt to a black man undermines the white man’s Southern honor, which is of primary importance in this culture (Dussere 42). Therefore, when Chick’s effort to pay Lucas is rejected, the two remain locked in an ongoing struggle for the remainder of the novel.
Faulkner illustrates the debt mentality further by revealing Chick’s obsessive thoughts about his gift giving battle with Lucas. This façade of generosity is wholly stemming from Chick’s need to establish dominance and Lucas’s relentless commitment to shattering the expectations set upon him by a racist society. Dussere argues that this exchange represents the racial tension in the nineteen-forties: a struggle in which both blacks and whites are stuck, “the one to retain mastery and the other to refuse submission” (46). Chick himself identifies the ongoing gift exchange as a racial struggle: “because he would never stop, he could never give up now who had debased not merely his manhood but his whole race too” (Faulkner 21). The debt mentality’s influence is apparent as Chick’s attempt to retain superiority continues as the novel’s murder mystery unfolds. When Lucas is falsely accused of murdering Vinson Gowrie, Chick sets out to uncover the truth and prove Lucas’s innocence in what Dussere calls Chick’s final attempt to cancel his debt to Lucas (45).
Furthermore, Faulkner uses a young boy as his central protagonist to emphasize the reality of society’s strict racial conventions and expectations. Chick’s fixation on Lucas’s physical appearance, mainly his attire, demonstrates the society’s rigid concept of racial identity. The first time Chick sees Lucas, he observes, “ a heavy sheeplined coat and a broad pale felt hat such as his grandfather had used to wear” (Faulkner 6). Readers feel Chick’s bewilderment about Lucas’s racially vague appearance when he says, “you didn’t forget Lucas Beauchamp” (Faulkner 6). Faulkner seizes every opportunity to compare Lucas to Chick’s own grandfather to shatter and confuse Chick’s (and the town’s) narrow view of black men. Chick is surprised again to see Lucas with a “gold toothpick such as his own grandfather had used” (12). Lucas is refusing to submit to expectations and conventions set upon him by a racist society. Dussere confronts these social constructs, which limit Chick’s ability to characterize Lucas: he explains that white people cannot truly understand black people “because they see only what they have been taught about how blacks are and act” (52). Faulkner uses Chick’s confusion about Lucas’s nonconformity to illustrate that racist expectations are passed down, in cyclical fashion, within white families in this society.
Racialized language in the novel also works to limit the possibility of social equality and civil rights in a place such as Yoknapatawpha County. Chick’s use of the word “nigger” throughout the novel reveals the presence of this limiting, racialized language. Chick, representative of white youth, is parroting his society when he calls Lucas a “nigger.” It is the description he has been given to refer to an African American male. Even more, the identity is merely a social construct: “a nigger is not a person so much as a form of behavior” (Dussere 47). Masami Sugimori also references the “reductive ‘nigger’ epithet” that white men in this society use in attempt to control Lucas and maintain their superiority (57). As a young, impressionable protagonist, Chick follows suit and labels Lucas a “nigger” when he sees him sleeping in the jail (Faulkner 56). For a brief moment, Chick and the rest of the county succeed in subjecting Lucas to their preconceived notions about what and how he should be: “a murderous nigger” (Sugimori 59). Faulkner tells readers that “every white man” had been trying for years to “make him be a nigger first,” wanting to safely, comfortably label and confine Lucas (Faulkner 18). Sugimori argues that the way whites use language to keep Lucas from blurring cultural norms is really an effort to “define their own racial identity,” thus providing a motive for these men to maintain systemic racism (Sugimori 57). Sugimori takes a linguistic approach even further, asserting that the label “white” in itself is problematic because the word inherently implies an opposition to blackness (55). Even society’s most basic conceptions of race reinforce racial tensions, making social inequality cyclical and self-sustaining by nature.
Society’s conceptualization of identity as black versus white creates an exaggerated dyadic mentality, which undermines individuality for all people. Sugimori argues that whites in Yoknapatawpha County “cannot conceive of blacks except as an abstract and homogeneous otherness” (56). Lucas refuses to fall into this imposed homogeneity, and therefore, white men become frustrated, angered, and vindictive. Ironically, Faulkner reveals that this culture’s binary definition of race is a de-individualizing force for whites as well. Faulkner illustrates this concept through Chick’s description of the crowd in the town square: “he remembered again the faces myriad yet curiously identical in their lack of individual identity, their complete relinquishment of individual identity into one We” (135). Faulkner utilizes Chick’s thoughts to reveal how the town’s binary ideology regarding race serves to deconstruct the individual. He further illustrates the systemic nature of racist mentality using Chick’s description of the group as a “mob,” in which the identities of individuals melt into one large mass (134).
Moreover, the limited language Chick encounters when learning about the accusation of Lucas murdering a white man exemplifies the narrow-mindedness of the county: “ ‘But just suppose- ’ he said again and now he heard for the third time almost exactly what he had heard twice in twelve hours, and he marveled again at the paucity, the really almost standardised meagerness… of Vocabulary itself” (78). In this conversation with his uncle Gavin, Chick realizes that his uncle cannot even conceive of the possibility of Lucas’s innocence because the “reductive function of racialized language prevents whites from thinking…outside the scope of ideology” (Sugimori 61). This is perhaps the clearest reason that Faulkner chooses a young protagonist. Faulkner strategically places Chick “between boyhood naïveté and adult indoctrination” so his thinking will not be entirely confined by the reductive, racist ideology as it would for an adult male in Yoknapatawpha County. Ephriam’s advice to Chick illuminates the issue of men’s rigid thinking: “If you ever needs to get anything done outside the common run, dont waste you time on the menfolks” (70). In his youth, it is possible for Chick to think outside of society’s limited perspective, which Faulkner juxtaposes against his uncle Gavin’s inability to break out of society’s rigid constraints.
Faulkner’s Intruder in the Dust reveals the nature of racism in the postwar south and the impact racist ideology has on the everyday operations of society. Faulkner chooses Chick as his protagonist to communicate how deeply engrained racist ideals become as they are passed on even to young children. Lucas actively rebels against these conventions and constraints, creating the backdrop for Faulkner to explore and expose persistent racism in this small town society. Chick’s youth allows him to venture outside of the realm of reductive language and stagnant ideology; yet simultaneously, Chick’s thoughts reveal even the subconscious influence systemic, cyclical racism has on children in the postwar South.
Dussere, Erik. “The Debts Of History: Southern Honor, Affirmative Action, And Faulkner’s Intruder In The Dust.” Faulkner Journal, Vol. 17, No.1, pp. 37, 2001. Literary Reference Center.
Faulkner, William. Intruder in the Dust. New York, Vintage Books, 1991.
Sugimori, Masami. “Signifying, Ordering, And Containing The Chaos: Whiteness, Ideology, And Language In Intruder In The Dust.” Faulkner Journal, Vol.22, Issue 1/2, pp. 54-73, 2006. Academic Search Complete.