"Hand Upon the Waters" (Text Key 4671)

short story

William Faulkner’s “Hand Upon the Waters,” the third episode in Knight’s Gambit (1949), first appeared a decade earlier in the Saturday Evening Post (4 November 1939). Our representation of the story draws on the Vintage International paperback edition of the book (2011).

Faulkner takes his story's title from the first of the ten biblical Plagues of Egypt recounted in the Old Testament: "And the LORD spake unto Moses, Say unto Aaron, Take thy rod, and stretch out thine hand upon the waters of Egypt, upon their streams, upon their rivers, and upon their ponds, and upon all their pools of water, that they may become blood; and that there may be blood throughout all the land of Egypt, both in vessels of wood, and in vessels of stone" (Exodus 7:19).1 The death of Lonnie Grinnup has turned the river near his hut into a loathsome spot. Grinnup's decomposing body has been discovered attached to his own fishing line. Fish are literally feeding on the corpse. The coroner’s verdict is drowning by misadventure. Everyone agrees. Everyone, that is, except Gavin Stevens.

Stevens, who figures in all six of the Knight's Gambit stories as Faulkner’s Sherlock Holmes, smells something fishy about the death. In "A Scandal in Bohemia" (1891), Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes upbraids his companion Dr. John Watson. "You see," chides Holmes, "but you do not observe." Stevens could say the same about the witnesses and authorities in the Grinnup case, and uses his own observations about the way one fishes with a trotline to establish that Grinnup was murdered. Alone, he confronts the killer, and the dénouement, with the killer strung on Grinnup’s trotline, provides a sort of extralegal justice, one that does not involve the authorities but that does, in its own fashion of vengeance, recall another passage from the Old Testament.

Mapping the Story: The fact that Lonnie's shack sits "almost in the exact center" of the massive tract of land which his ancestor once owned, and that that ancestor is named "Grenier," are enough to indicate that the events of the story take place in and around Frenchman's Bend, one of the settings in Yoknapatawpha County that Faulkner's imagination regularly returns to. Although Stevens only drives "eight miles" to reach the site of the inquest, and Frenchman's Bend is elsewhere located twelve to twenty miles away from Jefferson, "Louis Grenier" - Lonnie's official name - is the original of the "Old Frenchman" after whom the Bend is named.

Dating the Story: The story begins on a Saturday, and its first paragraph says that the river in which Lonnie is drowned is "at mid-July level," which gives us the month in which the events take place. The text provides no clear evidence about the year, so we follow the protocol that is deployed throughout Digital Yoknapatawpha: in the absence of any evidence to the contrary, we assume a story is set shortly before it was first published. Hence our choice of July 15, 1939 (which was a Saturday) as the date on which story begins. But this is an assumption; Faulkner may have been thinking of a date a year or two earlier.

First Publisher: 
The Saturday Evening Post
First Publisher Date: 
4 November 1939
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Edit Copy Publisher: 
Vintage International
Edit Copy Publisher Location: 
New York
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How to cite this resource:Joiner, Jennie, and Mike Wainwright. "Faulkner's 'Hand Upon the Waters.'" Added to the project: 2018. Additional editing 2021: Stephen Railton; 2022 John Corrigan. Digital Yoknapatawpha, University of Virginia, http://faulkner.iath.virginia.edu

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