"A Point of Law" (Text Key 2087)

short story

Faulkner needed money when he wrote this short story late in 1939. It was rejected by the Saturday Evening Post, but Faulkner's agent sold it for $1000 to Collier's Magazine in February, 1940, and told a relieved author that the check was already in the mail. As a magazine story, it is an entertainment rather than a work of art, but in writing it Faulkner discovered the character Lucas Beauchamp, who over the next decade becomes probably the most impressive black man in his fiction. While this first story does mention in passing the fire that Lucas has kept burning on his hearth for forty-five years, it provides no hint about the charged racial and familial lineage that is so crucial to his role in the "Fire and the Hearth" section of Go Down, Moses (1942), and Lucas himself shows no sign of the intelligence and dignity he will display as a central character in Intruder in the Dust (1948), where he is arrested for murder rather than moon-shining.

Collier's published "A Point of Law" in June, 1940. Its most complex conflict is probably the largely implicit tug of wills and manipulative strategies that occurs between Lucas and his daughter Nat. However, it is possible that the tensions in the story's scenes between a white landlord and his black tenant, while played almost as farce here, may have helped Faulkner make his imaginative way toward the great subject of Go Down, Moses, which he himself identified in a letter as the "relationship between white and negro races" in his South. When he wrote that novel in 1941, Faulkner drastically revised and expanded this story. Joseph Blotner republished the Collier's text in his Uncollected Stories of William Faulkner (1997); that reprinting is the basis for our representation.

Dating the Story: As is often the case, with "A Point of Law" the dates we assign the story's events are an editorial interpretation, based on the cues provided by Faulkner's text. That is explicit about the chronological relation between the events: "three weeks" after Lucas and George are arrested, they are brought before Judge Gowan; "before the next three weeks are up," they go into a new partnership with a new still - so the entire story covers a period that is not quite six weeks long. And the text ties these events to Lucas' life as a tenant farmer: it begins in "corn-planting time," and by the end both Lucas' corn and the cotton he sows in the "next month" are "sprouting." On this basis we assume it's late April at start, and early June at end. There is also one clue to the year Faulkner might have had in mind: the U.S. Attorney came to Jefferson "only after the administration changed eight years ago." If the administration referred to is federal, this probably refers to the election of Franklin Roosevelt in 1932. Putting all this together, we date the story between April 25 and June 2, 1940. But it is important to remember that all these dates are reference points that seem likely to us; Faulkner sets the tale in the spring, but may have had a different year or months or days in mind.

Following the Story: The point of law on which the story turns is, of course, the rule of spousal privilege, which states that husbands and wives cannot be compelled to testify against each other in court. When on the day of his and George's trial Lucas presents the official document "dated in October of last year" that declares his daughter Nat is married to his co-defendant, the judge has to dismiss the charges against both black men. That much is clear. What is not at all clear is when, or even whether, Nat and George actually got married. There are perhaps four possible readings. (1) The certificate is an authentic marriage license, and they were married in October. They have not been living as man and wife, because Nat is trying to get her father first to fix up George's house by paying for "a cookstove," "a well" and "a new back porch." (2) The certificate is authentic, and was issued in October, but the couple never married after getting it, so Nat is misrepresenting herself when she tells Judge Gowan she is "Gawge Wilkins' wife." (3) The certificate is largely authentic, but issued only since the arraignment: Lucas or Nat acquires it during the previous two weeks, altering the date to make it seem as though the marriage took place in October. (4) The entire document is a forgery, created somehow by Lucas. There is a gap where the story could have revealed which alternative is correct: the narrative does not follow Lucas, Nat and George when they go "into the house" to finish their conversation about getting married; and the text presents a blank space on the page to represent the entire two weeks that Nat is in Jackson. So the "thick, folded, soiled document" that Lucas presents in court is like "the past" in so many Faulkner texts: it determines what happens, but is itself ambiguous, if not uninterpretable. Readers have to read it for themselves. Our representation of the story allows for these multiple readings.

First Publisher: 
Collier's Magazine
First Publisher Date: 
June 22, 1940
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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 Theresa M. Towner. "Faulkner's 'A Point of Law.'" Added to the project: 2016.  Additional editing 2018: Lorie Watkins, Jay Watson.  Digital Yoknapatawpha, University of Virginia, http://faulkner.iath.virginia.edu

Associate Editors: