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 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.
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.
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.
Lena Grove was pregnant with Lucas Burch's child. She set out from Alabama for Jefferson, Mississippi to search for the man who promised to send for her as he settled down with a job at the mill. Welled with anticipation and hope, Lena arrived at the plant only to realize that she had mistaken Byron Bunch for Lucas Burch.
As soon as the search shed lights Faulkner takes away Lena from his readers and defers her until the end of the book. Joe Christmas, a man with mixed ancestry (part white and part Mexican) somehow befriended with Lucas Burch who carried a fictitious identity "Brown" and colluded in bootlegging whiskey.
A substantial coverage of the book recounts Joe Christmas's childhood in an orphanage, his abused adolescence under the McEacherns, his mystifying affair with a slave advocate Miss Burden, and his apprehension after he allegedly burned down the house in which Burden resided in and thus murdered her. Brown sold him out for the thousand-dollar reward.
Byron Bunch, if not dredging overtime at the mill, would visit and keep accompany of Reverent Gail Hightower, who had be expelled by the elders in town after his adulterous wife committed suicide in Memphis. The ex-minister inherited a small income, gave arts lessons and handpainted Christmas cards. He was constantly plagued by visions of Confederate horsemen who killed his grandfather.
So go back and forth the narratives of the book, over vast intervals of time. Byron Bunch, who was in the know of Lucas Burch's dual identity from the beginning, deftly dodged Lena from the truth but arranged her to settle down at Burch's cabin. Together with Lena, Byron also ascertained the identity of Joe Christmas when the Hines, an old couple from Mottstown, arrived in Jefferson.
I don't want to elaborate on the aspects of symbolism (this book has an abundance of them). The names could be symbolic (Christmas, Burden, Bunch, etc). The notion of race and skin color is outrageous in this book. Joe Christmas led a tragic life as a desperate, oppressed, enigmatic drifter who was irreparably consumed by his mixed ancestry. His very own grandfather talked of lynching him because of his copper, parchment-colored skin.
Political overtones seep through the book. Miss Burden's father moved back south from California and spent much time cursing slavery and slaveholders. I get the impression that the curse of the black race is God's curse, while the curse of the white race is those whom the white race has suppressed. The chapter on the reverent is so obscurely filled with dissertation on sins (some of the most arduous, tenacious reading of the entire book).
The structure of the novel is worth a discussion. With 21 chapters, Lena Grove's search for the father of her child is deferred until the very end. Faulkner barely mentions her in passing in Chapter 14 when she settles down in Jefferson. The third and the second-to-the-last chapters devote to Reverent Gail Hightower. From Byron Bunch seems to be sewing all the pieces together as he recounts all the happenings in town and Lena Grove to the reverent. So everything in between shrouds the story the Joe Christmas. The result is a concentric ring structure Faulkner has astutely and deftly constructed in the novel.
Light in August deftly captures the Southern life focusing both on the personal histories of his characters and the moral complexities and uncertainties of an increasingly dissolute, diverse (of which Joe Christmas is an epitome, nobody recognized him as part Mexican) society. The book is a unique combination of a plethora of symbolism and a stream-of-consciousness technique. The characters stay with readers.
It is in the most ruthless and brutal fashion that improbable families are woven together, thriving among fanaticism and carnage. A new, redemptive kind of life can emerge from the ashes through the selfless act of empathizing with the murderer, with the liar, with the deluded. In threading paths alongside them, in going down that endless street called life, there is a chance of embracing the ongoing search for self-acceptance and belonging we all yearn for.
Although “Light in August” explores both issues of gender and race, it is this relentless inquiry concerning the nature of identity and how it is influenced by history, religion and moral belief that most struck me.
Faulkner presents his case with isolated figures, outcasts who choose or are forced to inhabit the fringes of society, challenging the reader to try their miserable lives on with his first-person-perspective stream of consciousness narrative which allows full immersion in the characters’ minds, where past and present, regular print and italics, imbued symbolism and events fuse together into visceral knowing and ultimate understanding.
Nothing is fortuitous in this novel, Faulkner’s deliberate selection of names for his characters adds subtle resonance to the rich portrait of intersecting lives that he threads together. Names charged with meaning, names which can be seen as allegories.
Mr. “Hightower”. The old disgraced minister whose surname signals a self-imposed exile inherited from a complex legacy of familial pride, struggle and shame. The reverend is trapped in the past, torn between the romantic image of his grandfather, the heroic cavalryman who fought in the War, and his father, the pacifist doctor. His inner conflicts compromise his effectiveness as a spiritual leader and husband, playing a definite part in the outcome of the story.
Joe Christ- “Christmas”. The orphaned, racially ambiguous boy with no name. He never stammers, he never pleads. A man without a history, whose only memories consist on painful patterns of violence, abuse and neglect of those charged with his care. His wanderings become a symbolic journey to find out his origins, estrangement and isolation growing in his barren quest to solve the riddle of his being. His futile attempt at establishing human connection with Miss Burden ends not in redemption but in murder and distorted rage. Christmas chooses his path without excuses. He doesn’t ask for salvation, his homicidal nature is partially explained when his origins become clear while he patiently waits for his death sentence, for death can be his only release.
Miss “Burden”, the unfertile spinster who carries her past as a personal crucifixion in the self-imposed obligation to honor the memory of her family with her implacable commitment to the abolitionist cause and black equality. It is, ironically, her obsessive charity that will be her undoing.
Lena “Grove” appears as earth-mother, the child of nature. She neither runs nor hides, she bears no shame for her past, Lena’s inviolable mantra “how the Lord will see that what is right will be done” accompanies her cyclical wanderings, first into and then out of town. She carries the future within herself and walks half of the country in search of Lucas Burch, the runaway father of her unborn child, but finds Byron Bunch instead, who turns out to be the man Lena has been unknowingly seeking all along. Burch becomes Bunch and her newborn son remains nameless, free of the identity struggles the act of naming can engender, ripe with possibilities.
These individually framed lives have to resist the pressing influence of a rigid Society, embodied in Faulkner’s collective voice of the townspeople, the implacable jury in the story, who offer no sympathy based on their prejudiced notions of radical moral order, who find ecstasy in crucifixion, who can’t pity because pitying might involve self-doubt.
The burdens of the past, the isolation of the outcast and the struggle to find a stable and identifiable sense of self, assume tragic dimensions in this novel where lives are sacrificed so that an unwritten future might be engendered. The smoke rising from the Burden House serves not as an ill omen for worse times to come but as a sort of ritualistic cleansing which marks the ending of a self-destructive journey. A newfound, Phoenix-like family arises from the dust to start threading fresh paths along unnamed streets, steering towards a renewed life where hope and undefiled memories are possible. An unscripted future full of light can start in August.