Debt and Payment
The incident at the start of William Faulkner’s novel, when Beauchamp refuses the seventy-cent tip from Chick, is in fact complex. On one level, the young and thoughtless Chick regards it as an insult to his race. More is happening here, however. The incident swells in his mind in part because he feels he owes an unpaid debt to Beauchamp, and he continually tries to repay it. In the end, he succeeds. He goes against the common sense of his time and place, opens the Gowrie grave, and finds the first piece of evidence that will save Beauchamp’s life and set him free. The debt, however, operates at a symbolic level, too. Chick owes Beauchamp seventy cents, but he owes him much more, because his society had enslaved Beauchamp’s ancestors, and presently keeps them in a new bondage that takes the form of strict segregation and poverty Chick’s debt symbolizes something much bigger: all of the South owes a debt to Beauchamp and his race, and Beauchamp knows it.
It is quite rare for Faulkner to comment on political issues or events that are exactly contemporary with his own time, but Intruder in the Dust is an exception. As noted, President Truman introduced civil rights legislation while Faulkner was writing the novel. When, in his speech in chapter seven, Gavin Stevens refers to ‘‘the necessity of passing legislation to set Lucas Beauchamp free,’’ that is surely a reference to Truman’s bill. In certain ways, the characters in the novel are constructed so that each embodies one among the varying reactions Southerners had to the new pressure for civil rights coming from Washington, D.C. Lucas Beauchamp is of the radical black faction, demanding equality now. Various other black characters might be considered to be ‘‘accomodationists,’’ just trying to survive in a world they did not make. Characters like the Gowrie clan represent the most violent of the traditional segregationists. Gavin Stevens is a moderate. And so on; each of the other characters’ attitude toward segregation can be similarly identified within the novel.
Near the end of chapter three, old Ephraim gives Chick a crucial piece of advice: ‘‘If you ever needs to get anything done outside the common run, dont waste yo time on the men-folks; get the womens and children to working on it.’’ Ephraim’s basic idea returns over and over in the novel; so it is that, when no one else in the county is interested, young Aleck Sander and Chick, and the elderly Miss Habersham, open the grave and find the first crucial piece of evidence that ends with the discovery of the truth behind the murder. Faulkner is making a wider point with incidents like this. He suggests that change, in the South, will have to come from outside the present ruling class of elderly men—and, as a matter of historical fact, it was youths of Aleck Sander and Chick’s generation who experienced the civil rights revolution.
Sara Constantakis, Novels for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Novels, Volume 33, Gale-Cengage Learning, 2010