"Intruder in the Dust" and the Question of Genre

Term Paper, 2010
21 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Table of Contents

1 Introduction

2 History and Definition of the Detective Story

3 Intruder in the Dust as a Detective Story
3.1 Elements of the Plot
3.1.1 The Murder as the Central Crime
3.1.2 Interrogation of Suspects
3.1.3 The Answer to the Crime
3.1.4 The Red Herring
3.1.5 The Idea of Fair Play
3.2 Places and Figures in a Detective Story
3.3 The Protagonists in a Detective Story
3.3.1 The Role of the Detective
3.3.2 The Role of the Watson Figure

4 History and Definition of the Novel of Initiation

5 Intruder in the Dust as a Novel of Initiation
5.1 The Beginning of Charles Mallison’s Maturation
5.1.1 Charles Mallison as a Racist Charles Mallison’s Use of Language Charles Mallison’s Attitude towards Lucas
5.1.2 Charles Mallison’s Moment of Initiation
5.2 The Process of Charles Mallison’s Maturation
5.2.1 Charles Mallison’s Emotional Transformation
5.2.2 Charles Mallison’s Intellectual Transformation
5.3 The End of Charles Mallison’s Maturation
5.3.1 Charles Mallison as a Man
5.3.2 Charles Mallison’s Reconciliation to Society

6 Summary

7 Works Cited List

1 Introduction

The novel Intruder in the Dust was written by the American author William Faulkner. The story covers the topics of life in the South, racial injustice and the problems the South was facing. The setting is the fictional county of Yoknapatawpha, more precisely the town of Jefferson. Charles Mallison, a 16-year-old boy, is the narrator who tells the story of the black farmer, Lucas Beauchamp, wrongly arrested for the murder of a white man, named Vinson Gowrie. Lucas is exonerated through the efforts of the white teenager. Charles Mallison, together with the black friend and family servant, Aleck Sander, as well as Miss Eunice Habersham, a lady of seventy[1], secretly drives out to the grave of Vinson Gowrie and digs him up. At the open grave they find out that the murdered person in the grave is not Vinson Gowrie but a man called Jake Montgomery. After this discovery they call Charles Mallison’s uncle, Gavin Stevens, for help. The lawyer, Gavin Stevens, and the sheriff, Hope Hampton, manage to arrest the true murderer Crawford Gowrie by using Lucas Beauchamp as a kind of “bait”. After arresting Gowrie in the local jail, he commits suicide in his cell. Crawford Gowrie was stealing lumber from his uncle and from his brother Vinson. He wanted to conceal this and therefore killed his brother Vinson. During the whole story, Lucas Beauchamp never tries to convince people from his innocence by explaining what happened, he simply wants them to see for themselves, as he knows that no white man would believe a black man.

In the following term paper, I will focus on the question of genre regarding the novel Intruder in the Dust. My first step will be to clarify the term detective story and to analyse its features. Afterwards I will check its characteristics against the novel to see whether it can be regarded as a real detective story. In the second part of the paper I will take a closer look at the novel of initiation. Here again, a definition of the term will be necessary. Afterwards, I will try to find out whether this genre is more appropriate for the novel. The start of Charles’ maturation will be at the centre of my attention, beginning with his being a racist and the moment that sets the process of maturation in motion. Then I will examine the transformation itself and finally I will look at the end of his maturation.

2 History and Definition of the Detective Story

Nowadays, Edgar Allan Poe is widely considered the father of the modern detective story. The first detective story, The Murders in the Rue Morgue was published in 1841[2]. The author, Peter Haining, who wrote the book Mystery! An Illustrated History of Crime & Detective Fiction, says that “[w]hile the crucial developments in the genre were being made by Poe in America […] crime stories were also finding an ever-increasing readership in Britain – primarily among the buyers of the weekly serials known as ‘Penny Bloods’. The writers who produced the eight-page issues […] were under constant orders to pack as much drama and bloodshed into each as they could.”[3] A detective story can be classified as a type of popular literature in which a crime is introduced and investigated and the culprit is revealed. It is primarily the solution of a problem, where the reader has two alternatives when approaching such a work. “He may regard it simply as a story and await the outcome in its own good time”[4] – or the reader may attempt to unravel the mystery before the detective presents the solution. According to the online encyclopaedia “Britannica”, the traditional elements of the detective story are: “(1) the seemingly perfect crime; (2) the wrongly accused suspect at whom circumstantial evidence points; (3) the greater powers of observation and superior mind of the detective; and (4) the startling and unexpected denouement, in which the detective reveals how the identity of the culprit was ascertained.”[5]

3 Intruder in the Dust as a Detective Story

3.1 Elements of the Plot

In a detective story, usually,[6] the motive for the murder is not fully described, but instead, a detective’s efforts to solve the crime are at the centre of attention.[7] According to Stephen Knight, a professor for English literature at the Cardiff School of English, Communication and Philosophy, it is “still possible to identify a coherent set of practices which were shared, to a greater or lesser extent, by most of the writers then at work. Elements that were randomly present in earlier crime fiction suddenly become a norm.”[8] Those elements are the murder as the central crime, interrogations of suspects, the answer to the crime and the idea of fair play.[9]

3.1.1 The Murder as the Central Crime

The novel presents the reader with a mysterious crime which is to be solved in the course of the story. From the first page on, we know that a murder has been committed. “It was just noon that Sunday morning when the sheriff reached the jail with Lucas Beauchamp though the whole town […] had known since the night before that Lucas had killed a white man.”[10] The murdered person, Vinson Gowrie, is dead from the beginning and the reader does not get to know much about his history. We do not feel emotionally attached to the killed man. In a detective story, “the murder is essential as the central crime”[11] since it is punishable with death and represents the most serious of all crimes. This constitutes to the fact that Intruder in the Dust could be regarded as a detective story.

3.1.2 Interrogation of Suspects

The definition above states that a real detective story should be full of interviews and interrogations in order to find the so-called “Whodunit” (from the 1930s, from who done it, non standard form of who did it, describes a story, play, etc. about a murder in which you do not know who did the murder until the end[12] ). However, we must say that Intruder in the Dust is no real detective story, as neither the boy Charles Mallison, nor his uncle Gavin Stevens set out to interview suspects in order to solve the murder of Vinson Gowrie. When Gavin Stevens visits Lucas Beauchamp in jail after the murder has happened, he does not really want to know what exactly took place out there, at Beat Four, but he has already his preconceived opinion about Lucas being the murderer. He sees no necessity in questioning the suspect. The following sentence, uttered by Gavin is no question at all: “Now. Tell me exactly what happened yesterday.”[13] This statement is a command. For Gavin it is not important what Lucas has to say or to add to the story, because Gavin is certain that he already knows the truth about the crime at Beat Four, where Vinson Gowrie was murdered. In the course of the interrogation Gavin does not listen to Lucas’ answers and does not believe him. Gavin again and again interrupts Lucas’ story and finishes the sentences for Lucas with his version of the crime.

He said in a voice of calm, almost hushed amazement: ‘So you took your pistol and went to straighten it out. You, a nigger, took a pistol and went to rectify a wrong between two white men. What did you expect? What else did you expect?’ ‘Nemmine expecting,’ Lucas said. ‘I wants’ – ‘You went to the store,’ his uncle said, ‘only you happened to find Vinson Gowrie first and followed him into the woods and told him his partner was robbing him’.[14]

Besides, the dialogue between the two men shows the dominance of the white man over the black, as Gavin speaks the most whereas Lucas has only time to utter very short sentences.

3.1.3 The Answer to the Crime

In a real detective story the true murderer is found in the end.[15] In the showdown the lawyer, Gavin Stevens, takes over the role of the detective and reconstructs the whole crime and tells the reader why the crime was committed. Crawford Gowrie killed his brother Vinson because he did not want him to find out that “he had been stealing lumber from him and Uncle Sudley Workitt.”[16]

’Vinson and Crawford were partners buying the timber from old man Sudley Workitt […], that is they had agreed with old Sudley on a price […] to be paid him when the lumber was sold which was not to be until the last tree was cut and Crawford and Vinson had delivered it and got their money and then they would pay old Sudley his, hiring a mill and crew to fell and saw and stack it right there within a mile of old Sudley’s house and not one stick to be moved till it was all cut.’[17]

One night, Lucas Beauchamp took a walk and saw that this lumber was loaded onto a truck and moved away. He then found out that Crawford was stealing the timber. After this, Crawford wanted to bribe Lucas with fifty dollars that he would not tell his brother and uncle about his stealing the lumber. Crawford challenged Lucas about his old pistol which he had bought from old Carothers. “Even if it will still shot you probably couldn’t hit anything with it.”[18] Lucas was set up so that he would fire a shot from his pistol.[19] Afterwards, everything happened very fast, Vinson Gowrie was shot by his brother and when the shot was heard the people from the Beat Four territory came along and saw Lucas standing over the dead Vinson with his still smoking pistol.

As we can see, Gavin Stevens, tells the reader, as well as Charles and Miss Habersham, what has happened and why the crime was committed. The crime is solved in the end. This contributes to the thesis that Intruder in the Dust contains elements of a detective story.

3.1.4 The Red Herring

“Lucas […] standing over Vinson’s body with the handle of that pistol hunching the back of his coat”[20] Very often, a so-called red herring is used in a detective story. A red herring describes an item which has no use in the story except to distract the reader from the real culprit. The red herring can occur in the form of a character, which the reader may believe to be the killer, only to discover later that he is innocent. Or it can take the form of an item which readers believe to be the clue to a discovery, but which turns out to be worthless.[21] However, in Intruder in the Dust this typical element of a detective story is not included as the reader never really believes Lucas to be the murderer. The black farmer is presented as a very honest and righteous person and the reader cannot be convinced of Lucas having killed the white man. This feature of a detective story cannot be found in the novel.

3.1.5 The Idea of Fair Play

Another core element of a detective story, according to Martin Priestman, a professor for English Literature at the Roehampton University of London, is the “author’s fair handling of clues”[22] This idea of fair play is that the reader should, at least in theory, be able to solve the crime at the heart of a story of detection. The reader should have access to the same information as the fictional detective. Each and every detective story should be solved by a careful and observant reader. However, Intruder in the Dust does not follow the principles of fair play as important information is not passed on at all. We do not get to know all the possible suspects. The name of the real murderer, Crawford Gowrie, is not even mentioned in the beginning of the novel but only pretty late in the story. We do not have a chance to solve the mysterious crime ourselves, despite careful reading.

Moreover, important and crucial information is only passed down to us late in the novel. The boy, Charles Mallison, hints at some knowledge about Lucas Beauchamp’s wife Molly. Pieces of this information are given on the pages 10, 15 and 76.

But he couldn’t think what it was his uncle had said or told him and then he forgot that he had remembered even the having been told[23] […] Molly. Of course because he remembered now what it was his uncle had told him about Lucas or about them.[24] […] [A]nd here again something nagged for an instant at his mind his attention but already in the same second gone, not even dismissed: just gone.[25]

The full information that Molly grew up with Miss Habersham is only revealed to the reader on page 86: “Old Molly, Lucas’ wife […] and Miss Habersham […] grown up together almost like sisters.”[26] This shows that the novel Intruder in the Dust is no real detective story as the important feature of fair play is not fully present, as information is delayed.

3.2 Places and Figures in a Detective Story

In a real detective story “the setting of the crime is enclosed in some way.”[27] This can mean that the crime takes place in a “sequestered area”, “an apartment”, in only a “few streets”[28] of a city or in a secluded country house. The novel presents the reader with only a limited number of places. The murder of Vinson Gowrie takes place at the area of “Beat Four”.[29] The whole search for the murderer is carried out between the following two places, namely Jefferson and the graveyard, where the body of Jake Montgomery was found. This feature clearly contributes to the character of a detective story.

Moreover, a real detective story is also socially closed; this means that there are only a limited number of people present who have access to the place where the murder took place. The reader shall be able to know all the people who have access to the site of crime. However, in Intruder in the Dust we are not told who had access to Beat Four. We do not event get to know all the people who play a part in the story. The characters are introduced only pretty late in the novel. This can be contributed to Faulkner’s style of writing, as he does not introduce the characters thoroughly but instead throws them into the story. Only very late in the novel we are told the name and the story of the connection between Jake Montgomery and Vinson Gowrie. We can conclude that this novel does not really show the feature of a limited number of suspects.


[1] C.f. William Faulkner, Intruder in the Dust (NY: Vintage Books, 1991) 93.

[2] C.f. http://www.online-literature.com/poe/ (18.03.2010, 10:00)

[3] Peter Haining, Mystery! An Illustrated History of Crime and Detective Fiction (NY: Stein and Day Publishers, 1981) 31.

[4] Haining 8.

[5] http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/159456/detective-story (24.03.2010, 8:30)

[6] C.f. Peter Nusser, Der Kriminalroman (3rd Ed. Stuttgart & Weimar: Metzler, 2003) 22.

[7] C.f. Nusser 2.

[8] Stephen Knight, “The Golden Age”. The Cambridge Companion to Crime Fiction (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003) 77-94, 77.

[9] C.f. Knight 77.

[10] Faulkner 3.

[11] Knight 77.

[12] “Whodunit”, The Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary of Current English (7th Ed. 2005)

[13] Faulkner 60.

[14] Faulkner 62.

[15] C.f. Nusser 22.

[16] Faulkner 215.

[17] Faulkner 217.

[18] Faulkner 221.

[19] C.f. Faulkner 218/219/220.

[20] Faulkner 219.

[21] C.f. http://www.wisegeek.com/what-is-a-red-herring.htm (19.03.2010, 10:00)

[22] Martin Priestman, “Introduction: Crime Fiction and Detective Fiction”. The Cambridge Companion to Crime Fiction (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003) 1-6, 1.

[23] Faulkner 10.

[24] Faulkner 15.

[25] Faulkner 76.

[26] Faulkner 86.

[27] Knight 77.

[28] Knight 77.

[29] Faulkner 27.

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"Intruder in the Dust" and the Question of Genre
University of Stuttgart  (Department of Literary Studies: English Literature)
Hauptseminar: William Faulkner
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Anonymous, 2010, "Intruder in the Dust" and the Question of Genre, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/305762


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