Light in August

Light in August is a 1932 novel by the American author William Faulkner.


Set in Mississippi sixty-seven years after the American Civil War ended race-based slavery and twelve years after the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution entitled American women to vote, this novel by William Faulkner shows how racism and misogyny can persist; but its exploration of human prejudices goes well beyond those two. As Byron Bunch observes, “. . .when anything gets to be a habit, it also manages to get a right good distance from truth and fact.” [1]


Speaking of his choice of title, Faulkner said,


". . .in August in Mississippi there’s a few days somewhere about the middle of the month when suddenly there’s a foretaste of fall, it’s cool, there’s a lambence, a soft, a luminous quality to the light, as though it came not from just today but from back in the old classic times. It might have fauns and satyrs and the gods and—from Greece, from Olympus in it somewhere. It lasts just for a day or two, then it’s gone. . .the title reminded me of that time, of a luminosity older than our Christian civilization." [2]


Within the novel itself, the title emerges most explicitly whenever Gail Hightower sits at his study window waiting for his vision of Van Dorn's cavalry raid. The vision always occurs in "that instant when all light has failed out of the sky and it would be night save for that faint light which daygranaried leaf and grass blade reluctant suspire, making still a little light on earth though night itself has come." [3]


In 1998, the Modern Library ranked Light in August 54th on its list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century. Time magazine included the novel in its TIME 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005.[4]


The narrative structure consists of three connected plot-strands. The first strand tells the story of Lena Grove, a young pregnant woman from Doane's Mill, Alabama, who is trying to find Lucas Burch, the father of her unborn child. He has been fired from his job at Doane's Mill and moved to Mississippi, promising to "send for" her when he has a new job. Not hearing from Burch, and harassed by her older brother, Lena walks and hitch-hikes "a fur piece" to Jefferson, Mississippi, a town in Faulkner's fictional Yoknapatawpha County. There she expects to find Lucas working at another planing mill, ready to marry her. Those who help her along her four-week trek are skeptical that Lucas Burch will be found east of the Mississippi, or that he will keep his promise when she catches up with him. [5] When she arrives in Jefferson, Lucas is there, but he has changed his name to Joe Brown.


Looking for Lucas at the local planing mill, she meets Byron Bunch, who falls in love with Lena but scrupulously tries to give her a chance with Joe Brown. Byron is a puritanical workaholic who fears idleness as a snare of the devil. (here you should wonder why, what is the inner relation between the various themes) Joe Brown is a deceiving slacker. [7] The narrative of Lena's story builds a framework around the two other plot-strands. One of these is the story of the enigmatic Joe Christmas.


Christmas came to Jefferson three years before the novel's beginning, and got a job at the planing mill. The work at the planing mill is a cover up for his illegal alcohol business. He has a sexual relationship with Joanna Burden, an older woman who descended from a formerly powerful abolitionist family. Joanna Burden continues her ancestors' struggle for Black emancipation, which makes her an outsider in the society of Jefferson, much like Christmas.


Her relationship with Christmas begins rather unusually, with Christmas sneaking into her house to steal food, for he has not eaten in twenty-four hours. As a result of sexual frustration and the beginning of menopause, Joanna turns to religion. Joanna's turn to religion is frustrating for Christmas, who as a child ran away from his abusive adoptive parents who were conservatively religious. At the end of her relationship to Christmas, Joanna tries to force him, at gunpoint, to kneel and pray. Joanna is murdered soon after: her throat is slit and she is nearly decapitated.


The novel leaves readers uncertain whether Joe Christmas or Joe Brown is the murderer. Brown is Christmas' business partner in a moon-shining enterprise and is the father of Lena's child; Lena knew him as Lucas Burch. He is leaving Joanna's burning house when a passing farmer stops to investigate and pull Joanna's body from the fire. The sheriff at first suspects Joe Brown, but initiates a man-hunt for Christmas after Brown claims that Christmas is black.


The man-hunt is fruitless, but then Christmas arrives undisguised in Mottstown, a neighboring town; he is on his way back to Jefferson, no longer running. In Mottstown, he is arrested and jailed, then moved to Jefferson. His grandmother visits him in the Jefferson jail and advises him to seek help from Gail Hightower. As police escort him to the local court, Christmas breaks free and runs to Hightower's house. A zealous national guardsman, Percy Grimm, follows him there and, over Hightower's protest, shoots and castrates Joe Christmas.


The third plot strand tells the story of Reverend Gail Hightower. He is obsessed by the past adventures of his Confederate grandfather, who was killed while stealing chickens from a farmer's shed. Hightower's community dislikes him because of his sermons about his dead grandfather, and because of the scandal surrounding his personal life: his wife committed adultery, and later killed herself, turning the town against Hightower and effectively making him a pariah. The only character who does not turn his back on the Reverend Hightower is Byron Bunch, who visits Hightower from time to time. Bunch tries to convince Hightower to give the imprisoned Joe Christmas an alibi, but Hightower initially refuses. When Joe Christmas escapes from police custody he runs to Hightower's house, seeking to hide. Hightower then accepts Byron's suggestion, but it is too late as Percy Grimm is close behind. Hightower is then seen musing over his past alone in his house as he prepares for his own death.


Before Christmas' escape attempt, Hightower delivered Lena's child in the cabin where Brown and Christmas had been staying before the murder, and Byron arranges for Brown/Burch to come and see her. However, when Brown gets there, he runs again, and Byron follows him, instigating a fight which he loses. Brown gets into a moving train and is not seen again. At the end of the story, an anonymous man is talking to his wife about two strangers he picked up on a trip to Tennessee, recounting that the woman had a child and the man was not the father. This was Lena and Byron, who were conducting a half-hearted search for Brown, and they are eventually dropped off in Tennessee.


Style and structure


In this novel, Faulkner was influenced by European literary stylistics and conventions, like the stream of consciousness technique, necessary to unveil the personal emotions. The novel's narrative is not organized in order, as it is interrupted by often lengthy flashbacks. The main focus of the narration constantly shifts from one character to another. Other significant stylistic devices are the numerous interior monologues that Faulkner uses to achieve the authenticity in his characters' voices. Just as a person does not know the history of a new acquaintance, Faulkner gives more information about characters as the novel progresses.


Isolation / Alienation / Existentialism / Determinism


Isolation is arguably the main theme of the work. Lena, Christmas, Hightower, Bunch, and Joanna are all isolated to varying degrees. Christmas can be viewed as an existential character in search of meaning or identity. He is a victim figure, objectified, virtually powerless. Hightower's retreat from society and his reluctance to reenter it can be read to contrast Christmas. Similarly, Lena's naturalistic/primal representation contrasts Christmas.


Joe Christmas, whose name is obviously symbolic, showed up in front of the orphanage on Christmas Day, symbolic of Jesus' birth. Faulkner has 66 total characters in his book, and there are 66 books in the Bible. Christmas's death (at age 33) is described in terms of rising and serenity. The bullets from Percy Grimm's gun pierce the wooden table behind which Christmas crouches like nails through a cross. Lena and her fatherless child parallel Mary and Christ. Byron Bunch acts as the Joseph figure, acting as father for Lucas Burch/Joe Brown. Christian imagery can be found throughout.


As detailed by Hlavsa's Faulkner and the Thoroughly Modern Novel (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1991), Light in August has 21 chapters, as does the Gospel of St. John. Each chapter in Faulkner corresponds to themes in John. For example, echoing John's famous, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God", is Lena's insistent faith in the "word" of Lucas, who is, after all, the father. John 5, the healing of the lame man by immersion, is echoed by Joe's repeatedly being immersed in liquids. The teaching in the temple in John 7 is echoed by McEachern's trying to teach Joe his catechism. Most important, the crucifixion occurs in John 19, the same chapter in which Joe is slain and castrated.


Christmas' relationships with women are strictly dysfunctional. He understands and engages in relationships only in violent terms. In fact, this is true to a lesser degree for the other characters as well. Some imagery can be interpreted as being homosexual, though others state that Joe's relationships with women were just conflicted. He thinks women are only out to make him cry.


Christmas' racial identity (or lack thereof) is only a part of a larger theme of identity. His Negro blood, as defined by the behavior of others toward him, represents a sort of original sin which has tainted his body and actions since birth. Blackness is connected with abyss-like imagery and a sort of impurity and separateness from God. This is especially troublesome for the European-appearing Christmas, who has no actual confirmation of his African lineage. Christmas lives his life always on the road, running from white societies which he believes he does not belong in. He hates these seemingly pure societies due to their inability to understand the depths of his irremovable damnation. His supposed racial identity seems to be a secret that he abhors as well as cherishes; he often willingly tells people that he is black, as he seems to enjoy their astonished, pitying, or hate-filled reactions.


Faulkner also explores the idea of the 'curse of racism' through Joanna and Hightower's characters. Both have been ostracized and threatened for their Black sympathies, yet both choose to remain in Jefferson.


2012-2-10 11:49:34

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