Intruder In The Dust Summary

William Faulkner

Intruder In The Dust

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Intruder In The Dust Summary

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Intruder in the Dustby William Faulkner examines racism in mid-twentieth-century southern America through the tale of a black man wrongly accused of killing a white man. The novel is written in the third-person-limited point of view, following the thoughts, experiences, and perspective of a white teenager named Charles Mallison. It opens with Lucas Beauchamp, a black man accused of murdering a white man named Vinson Gowrie, being led to jail by the local sheriff. Watching the scene, Charles recalls meeting Lucas for the first time.

Four years prior to the arrest, Charles was out hunting rabbits with his black servant, Aleck, and another black boy, when he fell of a bridge into a creek. One of the boys lowered down a stick so that Charles could pull himself out of the water but it did not help. Charles then heard a voice order them to get the stick out of the way so he could climb up. Having pulled himself out, he saw an unknown black man who demanded that the boys accompany him back to his house. On the way there, Charles remembered an old story and recognized the man as Lucas Beauchamp. Inside Lucas’s cabin, Charles was grateful to dry his clothes and warm himself by the fire. When Lucas offered him dinner, he attempted to refuse but Lucas cut him off before he could do so. Likewise, when Charles offered to pay the man after the meal, Lucas pretended not to see the money Charles was holding out to him and refused payment.

For some time after the incident, Charles’s pride was injured by Lucas’s refusal to take his money. He attempted to repay the supposed debt, even buying Christmas presents for Lucas and his family, only to have his plan foiled when Lucas sent him a present in return. It was not until a couple of years later when Lucas ignored him in the street that Charles felt free of any obligation to the man. However, when he hears of Lucas’s arrest, he cannot convince himself that he does not truly owe him something and when Lucas asks him to get his uncle to meet him, he knows he must help. He convinces his Uncle Gavin, a lawyer, to meet Lucas in the jail. However, when they get there Gavin assumes that Lucas committed the murder and proposes only to get his sentence reduced to imprisonment rather than hanging if he pleads guilty. Later, Lucas asks Charles to go to the cemetery and exhume the body of the man he is accused of killing so he can check the caliber of the bullet used and prove that Lucas is innocent.

When Charles tells his uncle about Lucas’s request, Gavin dismisses it as the lies of a guilty man trying to escape justice. Undeterred, Charles asks Aleck to get his horse for him so he can go to the cemetery, but then Miss Habersham, an old woman who grew up with Lucas’s wife, reveals that she overheard Charles and offers them the use of her truck. On the way to the cemetery, a mule passes them in the shadows carrying something that they cannot identify. When they arrive, they notice that the flowers on the grave are disturbed but think little of it. However, when they dig up the grave, it is not Vinson Gowrie but a timber merchant named Jake Montgomery who lies in the coffin. This is enough to convince Uncle Gavin to accompany Charles, Aleck, and Miss Habersham to visit the sheriff and persuade him to get legal permission to unearth the coffin. The sheriff agrees and, while Miss Habersham and Charles’s mother stand guard at the prison (on the assumption that “southern gentleman” would not try and get past them to lynch Lucas), they go to cemetery.

At the cemetery, they meet Gowrie’s father,accompanied bytwo of Vinson’s brothers. Gowrie’s father initially refuses to let them dig up the grave but relents and orders his sons to do it. However, they unearth an empty coffin. The sheriff deduces that anyone attempting to dispose of the bodies of both Vinson Gowrie and Jake Montgomery in such a short amount of time would not have traveled far so they search the nearby woodland. They find a trail of hoof prints that match the Gowrie boys’ mule and follow it to a ditch where they find Jake Montgomery’s body. Further on, they find Vinson Gowrie buried in quicksand and the sheriff looks at the wounds and concludes that they were not done by Lucas’s gun but a gun like the one owned by Vinson Gowrie’s brother, Crawford. After returning home, Charles realizes why the Gowrie family and other white people did not try hard to lynch Lucas: They already knew that Lucas was innocent because Vinson Gowrie had been killed by his own brother. Charles is disgusted and enraged by the fact that, even though they did not try to kill Lucas themselves, they were happy to let him be arrested or executed.

Charles then learns the exact details of the whole sordid tale. Vinson and Crawford Gowrie had been in business together selling timber but Crawford had been secretly taking some of the timber off to sell on his own. By chance, Lucas had noticed this so Crawford tricked him into waiting in the woods carrying a gun and then shot Vinson and hid, waiting for Lucas to be found nearby. That way, he was able to kill the brother he had been stealing from and ensure that the only person who had witnessed this theft was framed for the murder. When he went to dig up his brother’s body, he found Jake Montgomery, the man to whom he was selling the stolen timber, already exhuming the corpse. Realizing that Montgomery must be aiming to prove his guilt, Crawford shot him and put him in the coffin. Later, after Charles, Aleck, and Miss Habersham dug up the grave the first time, Crawford snuck back and removed Jake’s body too. As the novel ends, Crawford commits suicide in prison while Lucas is released and, proud and unflinching to the end, goes to Uncle Gavin and rewards the lawyer who always assumed he was guilty by paying him for his services entirely in pennies.

Part of the body of work that won Faulkner the Nobel Prize for Literature, Intruder in the Dust is celebrated both for its uncompromising portrayal of southern racism and its stylistic qualities, including the adept use of stream of consciousness. It was adapted into a successful movie in 1949 and remains a classic example of Southern Gothic literature.