Joe Christmas does not know whether he is black or white. Faulkner makes of Joe's tragedy a powerful indictment of racism; at the same time Joe's life is a study of the divided self and becomes a symbol of 20th century man. Light in August is the story of Lena Grove's search for the father of her unborn child, and features one of Faulkner's most memorable characters: Joe Christmas, a desperate drifter consumed by his mixed ancestry.
I thought I had a mental block for William Faulkner. I thought I was spoiled for him forty years ago when an over-reaching college professor thought The Sound and the Fury was a good choice for college freshmen who hadn’t read anything else by Faulkner and to whom stream of consciousness was an unknown
Let’s start with the characters: naive, determined Lena Grove who is resolutely searching for the father of her unborn child. Faulkner draws her so adroitly that although we all know the father is never going to marry her, we keep hoping that she will somehow come out on top. Can the roll of the dice somehow come out in her favor for once? The inscrutable Joe Christmas, whose miserable childhood is revealed little by little, which enables us to determine much of what is behind his dubious behavior. Hard-working, compassionate Byron Bunch, who falls for Lena, and still helps her to find the man she’s looking for because that’s just the kind of man he is. And the defrocked Rev. Gail Hightower, whose demons are slowly consuming him, wonders why Byron has such faith in him.
Faulkner places these complex characters among the pre-depression-era populace of Jefferson, Mississippi and the story unfolds in layers and flashbacks. The prose is stunning and thoroughly effective in presenting Faulkner’s themes of memory, race, fate and free will, society and class, and religion. And in doing so, he counters the light with the dark. This is quite brilliant, otherwise the dark in the novel would be overwhelming and drag the reader down.
I am so glad to have rediscovered William Faulkner and will happily read more of his work. Very highly recommended.
Characters are both iconic and down to earth and we learn about them from both the outside, through others' eyes and through their rolling dialogue, and from the inside, in their own often irrational mental ramblings. A humble, simple woman takes on an odyssey by foot; a proud orphan is forced, or, as Faulkner says, "cast" on his own life long journey; other characters hardly move, staying in one place and letting the travelers come to them, or travel over generations, with all of them coming together in an ever thicker morass.
This book reaches inside you and twists as only Faulkner can. It does not let go, and its language seeps into you full of ambiguity and corruption. Known as one of the great indictments of Southern racism, this book is also an angry exploration of gender roles and a peerless work of poetry.
I listened to this on on Audiobook, which is an ideal medium and really brings out the melodious, rhythmic prose. The audio format also leaves someone else to sort through the written dialect for the right rendering, taking a bit of the burden and puzzlement of reading Faulkner off the reader. Scott Brick's rendition is sublime.
Light in August is not an easy read, but it is a true experience more than a read. There is no way to prepare a reader for the experience through a review: you must just "cast" yourself into it.
First, let’s talk about rhythm. Usually when I start a book, I read about 15-50 pages into it and then restart it. It takes me a little while to get into the rhythm or style or pace or whatever you want to call it, and I like to read through the entire book totally immersed in it. I didn’t have to do that with this novel. It made me wonder if there is something about the tone which is familiar to because I’m from the south. Is it rhythm what makes a piece of writing ‘southern.’ There are plenty of books written by southern authors or set in the south which I wouldn’t call ‘southern.’ Thoughts?
Faulkner uses the word ‘quiet’ a lot – particularly in the first half of the book. I think this is used to show something about social norms. The quite members of a society are the good ones, the ones doing all the socially appropriate things. So it is not so much a volume issue as a comment of conspicuousness. I noticed this particularly with regards to Hightower. “The entire affair had been a lot of people performing a play and that now and at last they had all played out the parts which had been allotted them and now they could live quietly with one another.” I get the impression that his sermons were probably not seen as strange until the problems appeared with his wife – like the interviewed neighbors of someone recently arrested always say ‘there was always something strange about him/her.’
There much too much to be said about the role of religion in the novel. First, there is some phenomenal imagery used to evoke the feeling of religion – particularly the use of variations of monotone. Faulkner is a master at dropping one word into a sentence that instantly brings you back to another part of the story or someplace else entirely. Salvation and fate become major elements in the story. It seems that all of the characters are looking for salvation in some way, either through normalcy (Joe’s adopted parents) or the ‘other’ (Joanna). It also seems that there is no way to escape where each character is going and they know this. “The street which ran for thirty years…It had made a circle and he is still inside of it.” “Already he can feel the two instants about to touch: the one which is the sum of his life, which renews itself between each dark and dusk, and the suspended instant out of which the soon will presently begin.” The only characters which seem outside of the cycle of fate are Joe’s grandparents. I kept thinking of them as the Greek chorus. Each one side of the same coin – one wanting forgiveness for all and one wanting punishment for all, neither being able to rationalize the meaning or consequence of their wishes – “monotonous strophe and antistrophe.”
In summary, I can’t recommend this highly enough. Reading back over my thoughts, they seem really disjointed, but there were a lot of thoughts to keep track of while reading.
At the center of Light in August is a man called Joe Christmas who is lost between worlds in the American post-Civil War South. Although he belongs to no community, he is judged by them all, and invariably found wanting. Christmas commits a brutal crime that grows out of a curse visited upon him by his ancestors and their history.
But Christmas is not alone in his struggle. Other lost souls include a young country girl searching for the man who fathered her child, a minister who is trapped in a loop of family history, a laborer who longs for love and music and Christian goodness, several born-again Christians intent on brutalizing those who fail in the eyes of their God, and several other fascinating misfits searching for peace in a world intent on denying it to them. To a great extent it’s a book about fathers and sons, with fathers as great as God and as lowly as deadbeat dads playing their parts in a journey toward a tragic but not entirely hopeless end.
The book is complex, twisting, multilayered and brilliant, rich with humor, wisdom, tragedy, death and resurrection. It isn’t an easy read, but it is beautiful, powerful and true. It reminded me of what great literature is, and why I love to read it.
There are three basic stories that are interconnected, although somewhat loosely. The story of Lena Grove opens and closes the book. She's young, single, and pregnant. She sets out on foot to find the father of her baby who has deserted her. You'd think she'd be depressed or pessimistic about life in her situation, but she's not. She seems to take everything in life as it comes. She's happy in whatever situation she finds herself. But, she's pretty much the only major character in the book that has found any kind of peace at all.
Though there is plenty of misery to go around, for me, the story of Joe Christmas is the saddest. He grows up and lives his entire life without any knowledge of his true identity. The reader finds out as the book progresses that he was taken to an orphanage by his grandfather, who had allowed his only daughter to die in childbirth as punishment for sleeping with someone of a different race. Joe gets his unusual name because he's left at the orphanage on Christmas Eve. He is eventually adopted by a couple, but life doesn't get any better for him. His adopted father beats him on a regular basis. Joe has a problem with relationships with women due to an incident at the orphanage when he was younger. He passes for white for most of his life, but he is ambiguous about his race. He never feels as if he fits in anywhere in the segregated South -- not in white society or black society.
The life of Rev. Gail Hightower is the third story in the book. Gail was born to an older couple and like most everyone else has a less than pleasant childhood. He grows up obsessed by the exploits of his grandfather during the Civil War. He eventually loses his wife and his church because of this strange obsession. He is shunned by the people of Jefferson, and he retreats from life. He looks forward to death as a release from the misery of this life. It's through an encounter with Lena Grove that Hightower decides that maybe he can rejoin life.
That is a very basic synopsis, and I don't want to say much more because I don't want to give too much away. I highly recommend this book especially, if like me, you're one who has tried Faulkner before with less than stellar results. It is not a quick read. It's not the kind of book that you can read while trying to do something else. In fact, I often found myself rereading sentences several times. The writing is complex but absolutely amazing. Though there are three main stories, he weaves them together in such a way that it works beautifully. I love the imagery that Faulkner evokes. He's the type of writer that has that knack of using the exact word necessary to paint a picture for the reader. In fact, he makes up words when nothing else will do -- and it works. I will definitely be reading more Faulkner.
As is true of many great writers, Faulkner's writing can be challenging, but believe me, it is well worth the effort!
Light in August is more accessible, to the point that I was actually able to enjoy the wordplay and flow of language (and which came off as lyrical, especially when read by Will Patton). The story begins with Lena, a pregnant women from Alabama, on the road to track down her wayward lover. She's calm and faithful that she will find the man who abandoned her. The roads lead her to Jackson, Mississippi, where the story weaves through a multitude of characters and lives, and culminating in sex and murder.
This book is infused with racism, saturated with it, which can be hard to read. Generally, I'm not fond of the argument, "consider the time and place," in these matters, because it's often used to shut down the conversation of racism in regards to classic books. In this case, however, the story grows up so much out of it's time and place that it can't be separated from it. Also, I don't get the sense that Faulkner is championing the racism or attempting to demonize his black characters, rather he seems to be telling a story about people that cannot be separated from the racism of the time period. But likewise, he doesn't seem to be damning the racists, either. Instead, he seems to stand outside the scenarios, more as and observer, merely recording actions of his characters (some of which even he doesn't seem to understand), without judging them one way or another.
It's also interesting that one of the main characters, Christmas, who may or may not be part black, is given some of the most significant exploration. He's one of the few characters we see as a child and come of age. Though he looks, if not white, at least like a foreigner, the idea that he might be part black haunts him from childhood, with even the other children in the orphanage calling him the n-word. He absorbs all this as a kind of self hatred, though nothing can be proved one way or another. And it's this idea of what he might be and (white) society's judgment of the black race that shapes much of his life.
I'm just not sure what Faulkner is trying to say with this, if he's trying to say anything at all. His portrayals of other black characters are also problematic by today's standards. What he has done is write a story that's open to multiple interpretations, one that warrants discussion and of which one could argue both for and against the racism of Faulkner.
This is a beautifully written book about the ugliness of people. In fact, by the end the only two characters that were at all sympathetic were Lena and possibly Bunch. Otherwise, there's not much of anyone to like, let alone to champion.
I'm rather torn on to how exactly I feel about it. I love the writing, but am disturbed by the story and despise most of the characters. So, I guess it's a toss up as far as recommendations go.
Light in August is starkly evil. Not only are there characters who are so evil they barely seem human, but there are also the evils of poverty, religion, ignorance, and group-thinking. And looming over it all are the ugly sides of race and gender relations that are the main foci of the book.
The story, written in 1932, takes place in Jefferson, Mississippi. The major protagonist is Joe Christmas, a former abandoned baby of mixed racial heritage, who appears to be white. Rumors of his black blood follow him around however, and this suspicion determines how people treat him (i.e., not well). He especially infuriates the white townspeople who are outraged that Joe doesn’t act like one race or the other; this makes him, in their eyes, either unacceptably presumptuous or idiotic. But Joe’s divided identity is overshadowed, in my view, by his total sociopathic personality: deep-seated rage, incapacity for love, abusiveness, obliviousness to others, and an overwhelming emptiness – whether of feelings, of identity, of purpose, or of a future. “He traveled a thousand streets,” Faulkner wrote, “that were but one street… that ran fifteen years long… “
There are other characters in the book: Lena Grove serves as a Greek chorus, or, others say, as a symbol of Mary, who is on a journey to bear her son and find his father. Lucas Burch is the actual father of Lena’s baby, but wants nothing to do with responsibility. Byron Bunch is one of the few relatively decent people in the book (not to mention, one of the few characters who is nuanced and complex) who wants to do right by Lena. The Ex-Reverend Gail Hightower is one of several characters who have been made social outcasts for not hating blacks. He also serves the function of allowing Christianity to play a large part in the novel. In many ways, he is just a foil, or mirror, for others in the book. A number of female characters serve to highlight both the sociopathology of Joe Christmas and the misogynistic attitudes of most of the other men. A number of male characters serve to display the continuum of race hatred in the South, from mere intimidation and inhumane treatment to the worst excesses of a rage colored by violence and sexual obsession. And be forewarned: the “N’ word appears a gazillion times in this book.
I concede the writing is brilliant, and the thematic placement and symbolism are a dream for literature courses. But I was repulsed by the hatred and violence of the characters and their sick race-hate that seemed to fill their otherwise empty souls. I would like to think that Faulker was way more twisted than the rural South, and so he painted an exaggerated portrait. It’s hard to figure out how to rate this novel – you can recognize its art, but it kind of makes you sick.
Still, there are some amazing sections.
There are several elements of repetition to Faulkner's work. Most stories take place in Jefferson, Mississippi. There is usually one character that is mixed race and as a result, struggling with identity. A fire usually breaks out somewhere. Someone usually is pregnant. Probably the most typical reoccurring element is style. Faulkner uses flashbacks to either tell a story or fill in the gaps of one. Light in August was one of the more easier ones to follow.
Faulkner's writing is very unique in that he seems to understand human nature, and to describe each characters motivations, and needs through the writing, while at the same time conveying that the characters themselves don't necessarily understand why they are doing what they do.
This shows that the best writers not only have a profound understanding of human nature, but that they can convey that through their writing in a way that makes the reader feel intimately connected.
This book is loaded with drama - teen pregnancy, murder, suicide, and it had be sucked in early. I did fade on it a bit towards the end as I struggled to get interested in the Rev. Hightower character. Still, a great book in my opinion. Here's a quote I liked coming from a character that is dealing with his mixed race ancestry:
"He felt like an eagle: hard, sufficient, potent, remorseless, strong. But that passed, though he did not then know that, like the eagle, his own flesh as well as all space was still a cage."
Today one wonders if her radius of Southern quintessence extended as far as the college town of Oxford, nearly 200 miles to the north. Known lately for both its southern lifestyle and “cosmopolitan flair,” Oxford was home to William Faulkner most of his life and it served as the model for Jefferson, MS, the setting for his 1932 novel, Light in August.
Most people outside of Crystal Springs consider Faulkner a representative, if not the apotheosis, of a “Southern writer,” as evidenced partly by his influence on contemporary artists such as the guitarist Doug Wamble, a native Tennessean. Here is an excerpt from an interview with Adam Levy:
Q. What dead artist…would you like to have collaborated with?
A. …For other arts (besides music), it'd be William Faulkner. I'd love to have found a way to work with him, because he's in my favorite subset of humanity — the Southern Intellectual.
Chamber Music America awarded Wamble a grant to explore, in his words, “the dichotomy of being an intellectual who is rooted in the down home elements of the South.”
In embracing and wrestling with the “dichotomy” between folksiness and erudition, Wamble created a “sound portrait of the fictional world of William Faulkner.” Its track “Christmas’ Burden,” a superb bit of banjo blues seen in this live performance here, gives voice to Joe Christmas of Light in August. By playing on the notion of “the white man’s burden,” Wamble considers Joe’s mixed heritage and its impact on his body and soul. On the run, Christmas sings:
And I know that it’s true
something’s gonna happen to me
And I know God loves me too
What does happen is horrifying. His fate stems from Faulkner’s own scarring memory of the public justice enacted on a man named Nelse Patton, according to a website devoted to Faulkner Triva. In Faulkner’s County, the historian Don Doyle examines such atrocities, the concept of a collective “burden,” and the relationship between the legacy of Oxford’s Lafayette County and the lore of Faulkner’s fictional Yoknapatawpha:
[Faulkner] saw the southern past as a burden on his people, carrying with it sins so profound that the past constituted a curse that hung over the land, inherited by one generation after another.
As the past cursed Faulkner’s county, change plagued it. Let’s start with the very population of that “postage stamp.” Faulkner himself provided the following demographics:
Population (ca. 1936): Whites, 6,298, Negroes, 9,313
This yields a proportion of 40% to 59%. The eminent novelist and historian Shelby Foote disputed the depiction as follows: “…[Faulkner] makes it about half black and half white. That’s absurd. No county in the hills here would be half black.” We presume Foote means that the black population is much too large and therefore the statistic is apocryphal when compared to Lafayette. Do we infer that Faulkner was placing his county in the old-line cotton-growing area, and accentuating the perceived threat of unrest to the whites of Yoknapatawpha?
As the population in Lafayette has almost tripled from the 1930’s, the demographics have more than flip-flopped from the Faulknerian portrayal. According to the 2009 census, in Lafayette County there were:
White persons 31,925, Black persons 10,817
We undertake such rudimentary analysis because race matters crucially in Light in August on a societal and individual level. Joe Christmas is tortured, perhaps cursed, by his mixed ancestry. With slavery a century and half behind Americans, we continue to inquire about, if not obsess over, this issue. “Ethnic background is important to many,” writes Blackflix.com, “Since so many of you have asked—here is what we know,” above its Multiracial Celebrities gallery.
Indeed, the identity of “Joe Christmas” evokes the character’s name source and evergreen argument over the race of Jesus Christ. Try a Google search to see the latest permutations of what Jesus looked like.
With a Christian namesake, a Madonna in the character of Lena Grove (played in this video by Mallisa Rainey), a reverend and two preachers, Light in August presents an abundance of religious fervor, inquiry and doubt. The troubled figures invite us on our own epistemological examination of identity and belief. In delving into Joe Christmas’s early childhood, the narrator tells us, “Memory believes before knowing remembers. Believes longer than recollects, longer than knowing even wonders. Knows remembers believes…”
Richard Guilfoyle called this passage a koan, and wrote:
As such, Light in August is an anamnetic text, the remembrance of things past and the recollection of the a priori and phenomenal known in the tradition of The Confessions of St. Augustine, Dante’s Vita Nuova, and Plato. Augustinian, Dantean, and Platonic contemplation of memory is a divine reuniting; it is the educing of the godlike, godly, and for some, even god. The quest is intensely personal, particular, pointed, wavelike, and revelatory of the universal.
Whoa, that’s heavy lifting, Richard—but we’re not getting quizzed on it! Good ol’ Mark Twain broke down this process with more succinctness and cynicism: “In religion and politics people's beliefs and convictions are in almost every case gotten at second-hand, and without examination, from authorities who have not themselves examined the questions at issue but have taken them at second-hand from other non-examiners…”
Hey, it was Twain, not the centathlete, who brought up Politics, the topic other than religion that has no place in polite discussion. With Faulkner in hand, we look at the the 2008 presidential election, where voters in Lafayette County were 56% for McCain and 43% for Obama, in line with the state of Mississippi.
An analysis of other Mississippi counties’ results argued for a correlation between the vote for Obama and the historical demographics of cotton-growing areas. Comparing and overlaying maps from three centuries, the blogger concluded, “The electoral map indicates very clearly that there there is a strong national consciousness in the Black Belt that was expressed in the election of the first Black president.”
McCain won the other Southern states except Florida, Virginia and North Carolina, suggesting that the Crystal Springs tomato was on to something about who is Southern and who isn’t. The site of that convention and conversation was in Hawaii, the birthplace of President Obama, though that is disputed by the Birther Movement, which questions the president’s legitimacy without the production of the “vault copy of the long firm birth certificate.”
The “Mama Birther,” an interesting title, is Orly Taitz, who writes to President Obama on her website as follows: “…your white half is as corrupt as your black half. The issue is not in race, but in the massive Social Security and elections fraud, that you are perpetrating.”
This invective refers in part to the branches of the Obama family tree.
On the Daily Show, Jon Stewart mocked Taitz, whom he called “the lost Gabor sister,” as well as a Delaware woman who shouted that the president “…is not an American citizen. He is a citizen of Kenya.” Stewart’s segment was called “The Born Identity,” punning on the Matt Damon cycle that the centathlete watches over and over again on cable, and again calling attention to the compelling issue of identity.
Another website more seriously rebutted the birthers’ allegation that President Obama’s certificate of live birth was a forgery. The site, snopes.com, calls itself “the definitive Internet reference source for urban legends, folklore, myths, rumors, and misinformation.” The founders and primary fact-checkers, David and Barbara Mikkelson, were interviewed by David Pogue, a technology blogger for The New York Times.
David Pogue: Where does the name Snopes come from?
David Mikkelson: Snopes come from a family of characters who recur in the works of William Faulkner. He typically had different families that represented different strata of Southern society. And the Snopes were on the bottom rung of the social ladder. But none of that has anything to do with the site. It just — I knew the name Snopes from having read William Faulkner. It was my nom de net. And then when we started the site, it turned out to be sort of fortuitous. Because it is so short and catchy and distinctive.
The Snopes clan does not appear in Light in August, but we like to bump into the novelist’s influence in a very contemporary platform. We kept reading:
David Pogue: Does it ever make you cynical about human nature? All this [misinformation], day in and day out?
David Mikkelson: Well sometimes. You know, it gets a little disheartening to see the same kinds of things going around time after time.
Take heart, David, those same things—legends, family histories, imperfect remembrances, avatars, apotheoses (loving the plural), sermons, war stories—will always keep going around in the past, present and future. On Faulkner Time.
As calm, matter of fact, and single-minded as Lena seems to be, explosive events occur all around her as she waits to give birth in Jefferson. By the time she arrives in Jefferson, Joanna Burden's house is on fire, shrouding the town in an ominous veil of smoke. Miss Burden is the descendant of Northern abolitionists, and is shunned by the townspeople of Jefferson. Joe Christmas, the central character, is also an outsider in Jefferson. As an infant, he was abandoned on the steps of an orphanage, and was later adopted by a fundamentalist and physically abusive farmer. Since his arrival in Jefferson three years before Lena, he has lived in an abandoned cabin on Miss Burden's property, and to the townspeople remains brooding, enigmatic and somehow threatening figure.
Gail Hightower, another central character, also lives on the outskirts of Jefferson society. He is a former minister who has remained in Jefferson even after the scandal that defrocked him. His only contact with the outside world is Byron Bunch, a worker at the lumber mill. Bunch and Hightower connect the apparently separate plot strands. Bunch is a saintly character who feels compelled to rescue both Lena and Christmas, and Hightower delivers Lena's baby and makes a futile effort to save Christmas.
This is one of Faulkner's most accessible novels. It is not linear, and there are long flashbacks, but the story is not hard to follow. We often learn of important details of a character's past or plot from one character relating the story to another. This results in a novel in which there are many stories within stories, narrated by different characters. In fact, we learn the final fate of two of the main characters when an anonymous furniture dealer tells his wife, as they are in bed, of a curious experience he had while on the road.
As has been said before, the novel follows in the tradition of Southern oral story-telling. You can almost see a group of elderly men sitting on the dusty front porch of a general store on a town square discussing the story of what happened in Jefferson between the day Lena came to town and the day she left.