"A Justice" (Text Key 238)

short story

"A Justice" can be linked to two other short stories written around the same time, i.e. the late 1920s. Like "Red Leaves," this story takes place among the Indian tribe that inhabited Yoknapatawpha before the white settlers arrived. In "A Justice" the Indians are identified as Choctaws, though in later fictions Faulkner calls them Chickasaws. (The actual Native Americans who inhabited the part of Mississippi Faulkner is writing about were Chickasaws, but Faulkner's Indians derive essentially from his own imagination and the preconceptions of his white culture - they are not a reliable representation of either Chocktaw or Chickasaw life.) Like "That Evening Sun," "A Justice" is narrated by Quentin Compson, looking back at his experience as a child with a non-white inhabitant of Yoknapatawpha. In this story, that character is an old half-Indian half-black man named Had-Two-Fathers at birth and re-named Sam Fathers when he is sold to the Compsons. "A Justice" - in which Quentin tries to understand the meaning of a story about slavery and miscegenation that is being told by someone who was told it by someone else - can also be read as anticipating key narrative and thematic elements of the novel Absalom, Absalom!.

"A Justice" focuses on three different topics: Doom's rise to power, the ancestry of Sam Fathers, and the consequences of chattel slavery. Doom's reinvention of himself in New Orleans and his subsequent ruthless quest for power relates him to several of Faulkner's white characters and arguably rebuts the "noble savage" trope as we see Indian culture as susceptible to the same forces of greed and corruption as white culture. As in other fictions, Sam is defined by that white culture as "black" despite being half-Indian. (When he reappears in the later novel Go Down, Moses, his racial lineage is more complex.) In "A Justice," his biological father, Crawfish-ford (or Craw-ford) is a member of Doom's tribe who sleeps with Sam's unnamed mother after she is acquired as a slave by Doom. When the woman's unnamed slave husband objects, Doom devises a Solomon-like solution to provide a sort of "justice" which attempts to protect the couple's marriage from the intrusion of the owning class.

Like Sam Fathers, the story had two names. Beginning in December, 1930, Faulkner submitted it to five different magazines under the title "Indians Built a Fence." All five rejected it. Under its second and final title, it was first published in These Thirteen, Faulkner's first published collection of short stories (1931). It was re-printed with three other "Indian stories" in the "Wilderness" section of his Collected Stories (1950), which provides the edition our representation is based on.

Dating the Story: Faulkner's three short stories about Ikkemotubbe's Indian tribe contain a number of inconsistencies and anachronisms. The anachronisms make it impossible to align the stories with history (all of them, for example, have steamboats traveling up the Mississippi and Tallahatchie Rivers too early). The inconsistencies make it impossible even to align the stories with each other. In all three, for example, Ikkemotubbe travels to New Orleans. According to "Red Leaves," the earliest written of the three stories, at the time of his sojourn "New Orleans was a European city"; that statement, and the presence in the text of the historical figure Carondelet, require a date prior to the 1803 Louisiana Purchase. "A Justice" was written not long after "Red Leaves," and one detail in the story could suggest a similar date: Sam Fathers is born about a year after Ikkemotubbe returns from the New Orleans trip, and the narrator says that Sam is "almost a hundred years old" when he recounts the story of his birth (343). We are using Quentin Compson's birth date from The Sound and the Fury as a way to date his visit to the farm in "A Justice" as 1902, and if Quentin's and Sam's respective ages were the story's only chronological references, then the New Orleans trip could occur at the same time (circa 1802) in both stories. But in this story Ikkemotubbe's visit to New Orleans very explicitly occurs at the time of "the white man's fight" in the city (346). That phrase can only refer to Andrew Jackson's 1815 victory over the British. Faulkner would have expected every reader to know that famous date, so we are using it as our basis for dating the story Sam tells. Assuming he returns a couple years after the Battle of New Orleans, we locate the return in 1817. This makes Sam 84-85 years old in 1902, which is probably close enough to 100 from a boy's point of view. Sam says Herman Basket told him the story "when I was big enough to hear talk" (345), which we're speculating means when he was about 10, or in 1827.

First Publisher: 
Jonathan Cape and Harrison Smith
First Publisher Location: 
New York
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Edit Copy Publisher: 
Vintage International
Edit Copy Publisher Location: 
New York
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How to cite this resource:
Railton, Stephen, and Christopher Rieger. "Faulkner's 'A Justice.'" Added to the project: 2015.  Additional editing 2019: Theresa M. Towner, Jay Watson. Digital Yoknapatawpha, University of Virginia, http://faulkner.iath.virginia.edu

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