The OF Blog: William Faulkner, Light in August

Friday, November 09, 2012

William Faulkner, Light in August

Light in August (1932) read like a nuclear bomb, detonating in my synapses, dispersing vivid, quick, and powerful images as I read this novel over the past two days.   It is perhaps the most troubling and moving Faulkner story that I have read.  Set during the late Prohibition period in his fictional Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi setting, Light in August addresses issues of isolation, determinism, racism, and sexism in such a fashion that readers may find themselves dwelling upon the import of its scenes and characters for days or weeks after finishing the final page.

There are four main point of view characters in Light in August:  Lena Grove, a young, unmarried pregnant girl who walks from her home in western Alabama in search of her one-time lover, Lucas Burch; Gail Hightower, a disgraced former minister who dreams of the glories of his Confederate cavalry-leading grandfather; Byron Bunch, an industrious thirty-five year old man who fears idleness as much as he does the devil’s other tools; and Joe Christmas, the enigmatic itinerant worker who is haunted by memory of his adoptive parents and the revelation that he contains “nigger blood.”  In each of their stories, Faulkner moves back and forth between the literary present and the past through long, stream of consciousness-filled flashbacks that serve to create a composite image of not just themselves, but of the town of Jefferson and its peoples.  At first, these extended flashbacks distract from readers wanting to know more about why Lena walked alone for days to reach her destination or how Joe Christmas (whose name appears to be one of several possible allusions to the Christ’s sacrifices) came to work in Jefferson and partner up with the mysterious Joe Brown, his driving (and possibly other?) buddy and one time fellow mill worker.  Yet as the story unfolds, connections, both plot and thematic alike, appear between these characters that create a narrative tapestry that is devastating and yet, in some small yet vital sense, optimistic alike.

Hightower serves as the grounding element in this novel.  His cuckholding and the events that follow it have ostracized him from his community.  He dreams of gallantry, yet is acutely aware of the hypocrisies and latent violence in his neighbors.  He is the one who acts as a quasi-guardian to Lena, providing a necessary check on her guileless view of humanity and her wandering lover.  He is also a mentor to Byron, counseling him to be wary of coming too close to Lena, echoing then-prevalent social attitude regarding “impure” women.

In this can be seen a painful echo not just of his own failed marriage, but also that of Joe Christmas’ birth mother (whose identity is revealed late in the novel).  Without directly stating it, Faulkner here appears to be making a withering condemnation of the rigidity of those gender conventions  and the approved violence directed by men (such as Christmas’ adoptive father, his biological grandfather, and even in Christmas’ own relations with women) toward women simply because they choose (or are forced by circumstance) to behave outside of their demanded roles.  Hightower’s warnings are not simply a confirmation of this attitude, but instead are admonitory comments about the sufferings involved in gender relations.

Lena serves more as a symbolic antithesis of Christmas.  She is innocent and trusting, even when her beau has skipped town and moved to another state.  She seeks shelter and understanding, yet is not embittered by the sidelong glances she often received from men who noticed her pregnant state.  Her character complements Byron’s in that while he searches for a “good” woman to marry, she represents the imperfect perfectness of this desire.  Their motivations and actions act in diametrically opposite fashion from that of the shiftless Brown or the vaguely sinister Christmas (an initial reading which may possibly be in conflict with the later plot).

Christmas represent the darker, existential searches for meaning in a world that seems determined to sort people based on the color of their skin and not on the content of their character, to paraphrase Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous quote.  He appears to all extents “white,” if one defines that by how one is received by segregationalists.  He is abused as an adopted child (his biological grandfather removing him from the house, with the moniker of “Christmas” being in reference to his approximate birthdate and deliverance into adoption), informed that his mother was practically “a whore” and that he had “nigger blood.”  This triggers a years-long search for identity which expresses himself in violent sexual interactions with women, where he voices his black heritage to white prostitutes when he can’t pay them (in order to outrage them and perhaps lead to his own beating by local toughs) in the South and a role reversal when he wanders out of the South following whatever trade he may find for a spell.  He feels he is cursed and in a flashback sequence with the Carpetbagger-descended Joanna Burden, this curse is shown in a different light, as she recounts what her father told her:
‘Remember this.  Your grandfather and brother are lying there, murdered not by one white man but by the curse which God put on a whole race before your grandfather or your brother or me or you were even thought of.  A race doomed and cursed to be forever and ever a part of the white race’s doom and curse for its sins.  Remember that.  His doom and his curse.  Forever and ever.  Mine.  Your mother’s.  Yours, even though you are a child.  The curse of every white child that was born and that ever will be born.  None can escape it.’
This view of racism as being as much an ‘original sin’ for the whites who demean and maltreat blacks as it is a burden and curse for the blacks who have to endure such evil treatment is revisited later in some of Faulkner’s other fiction.  It is a troublesome topic, because on one hand he does not directly condemn this shameful discrimination while on the other the implications of these words hint at a fatality that conjures images of fire and brimstone looming over this cursed society that has deprived a significant portion of its community of basic human rights based on the color of their skin.  Faulkner elaborates further on this contentious issue when Hightower reflects on the ominousness that lurks behind even worship:
The organ strains come rich and resonant through the summer night, blended, sonorous, with that quality of abjectness and sublimation, as if the freed voices themselves were assuming the shapes and attitudes of crucifixions, ecstatic, solemn, and profound in gathering volume.  yet even then the music has still a quality stern and implacable, deliberate and without passion so much as immolation, pleading, asking, for not love, not life, forbidding it to others, demanding in sonorous tones death as though death were the boon, like all Protestant music.  It was as though they who accepted it and raised voices to praise it within praise, having been made what they were by that which the music praised and symbolised, they took revenge upon that which made them so  by means of the praise itself.  Listening, he seems to hear within it the apotheosis of his own history, his own land, his own environed blood:  that people from which he sprang and among whom he lives who can never take either pleasure or catastrophe or escape from either, without brawling over it.  Pleasure, ecstasy, they cannot seem to bear:  their escape from it is in violence, in drinking and fighting and praying; catastrophe too, the violence identical and apparently inescapable  And so why should not their religion drive them to crucifixion of themselves and one another? he thinks.
As the story unfolds, we see this violence, this bloodlust that masks itself in piety and justice.  As much as Brown and Christmas represent illicit sin and violence, the townspeople, from those who shunned Hightower to those who later do their own version of “crucifixion” to a poor soul, are just as “cursed” to replicate these horrific acts in sanctioned ways.  It is not easy to read; one may find him or herself despondent after reading that passage and the scenes that follow.  Yet there are glimmers of hope, represented in the relationship between Lena and Byron.  They represent, if not quite innocence, charity, toward each other and toward the world around them.  They do not by themselves symbolize the removal of the stain of deterministic racism and sexism in the world, but their characters crystallize within themselves the hope that these evils can somehow be ameliorated.  It is fitting that Light in August closes with them, as they are the metaphoric “light in August,” that fleeting time in which the oppressive summer heat lifts for a moment and memories of coolness and freshness emerge before they are submerged again for a while.  Light in August discusses some rather depressing and harsh truths about human society, yet that germ of hope buried in this soil of suffering, confusion, and hatred provides this weighty novel with just enough “lightness” to make reading it a worthwhile experience.

Originally posted in February 2012 on Gogol's Overcoat as part of a weekly "Faulkner Friday."  Novels  reviewed from January-April will be reposted here on Fridays, while the short stories will appear on Wednesdays.

1 comment:

M Saul said...

I am bewildered by people who admire, or are even interested in, William Faulkner. I just finished reading "Light in August". I cannot find any connection to the book, except as a puzzle: who is speaking, how old is he or she, when are these events taking place? That is a challenge the way a crossword puzzle is a challenge.

But when I figure it out-I've gotten good at it--I really don't care what the characters are saying. His characters are more like vessels for human misery than actors in life. Life happens to them. They don't think much. The narrator thinks for them--one of the few pleasant aspects of the novel. (Another is Faulkner's poetry. If he were a poet, rather than a novelist, I might enjoy the work more. But his metaphor and description are entombed in his leaden prose.)

Faulkner seems to delight in this. He uses synecdoche extensively: "His hand held the knife..", not "He held the knife in his hand..." The characters are separated from any intentionality, even any emotion. I don't like them. I don't even hate them. I want them to go away--which they do when I close the book.

But some of Faulkner's metaphor doesn't go away. A pity that the man chose to be a novelist.

His plots lumber forward in a way that makes me oddly thankful for his leaden style. This is not a page-turner. The only pleasure I had in reading was that of savoring each sentence, each metaphor, each turn of phrase. But I didn't really care much what was going to happen.

And his structure? Well, I find it bungling and amateurish to have two University Professors step off a train in the last 4/5 of the novel and talk about what is happening, then vanish from story. Ditto the introduction of a racist killer to perform the final murder and castration. How can I care about such a character? A deus ex machina.

In short, I can only wonder what the Nobel Prize committee and the Professoriate of American Literature see in this novel and this writer. It's not for me. Fascinatingly ugly, but not a read I would repeat.

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