Light in August

Light in August

Infobox Book
name = Light in August
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image_caption = Cover
author = William Faulkner
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language = English
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genre = realistic fiction
publisher = Smith & Haas
pub_date = 1932
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"Light in August" is a 1932 novel by the American author William Faulkner.

"Light in August" is an exploration of racial conflict in the society of the Southern United States. The title of the book was inspired by the special light that illuminates Mississippi in August, which seems to come from the far past. This underlines Faulkner's interest in the weight of history and the manner in which we relate to our pasts.

Originally Faulkner planned to call the novel "Dark House", which also became the working title for "Absalom, Absalom!" However, one evening while sitting on a porch during a summer evening, his wife remarked on the strange quality that light in the south has during the month of August. Faulkner rushed out of his chair to his manuscript, scratched out the original title, and pencilled in "Light in August".

"Time" magazine included the novel in its "TIME 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005". [ [ The Complete List | TIME Magazine - ALL-TIME 100 Novels ] ]


The narrative structure consists of three connected plot-strands. The first strand tells the story of Lena Grove, a young pregnant woman who is trying to find the father of her unborn child, Lucas Burch. With that purpose she leaves her home town and walks several hundred miles afoot to Jefferson, a town in Faulkner's fictional Yoknapatawpha County. There she is supported by Byron Bunch, an employee in the planing mill who falls in love with Lena and hopes to marry her. Bunch keeps secret that Lucas Burch is hiding in town under the alias Joe Brown. Lena is a simple child of nature, representing positive human qualities like innocence and endurance. Her journey in August and the birth of her child are symbolic of the eternal cycle of nature.

The narrative plot of Lena's story is also circular; it builds a framework around the two other plot-strands. One of these is the story of the enigmatic character 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 climax of her relation to Christmas, she tries to force him, by threatening him with a gun, to admit publicly his black ancestry and to join a black law firm. Joanna Burden is murdered soon after by Christmas in an attempted murder-suicide. Her throat is slit and she is nearly decapitated. Her body was left to burn inside her house which is set on fire to cover the evidence of her murder. The murder was presumably committed by Joe Christmas, but this is not explicitly narrated. It appears that Lucas Burch/Joe Brown may have at least set the house on fire. Lucas is initially cast as a possible murderer, as he was found inside the burning house by a passing farmer who rescued Joanna's body from the flames.

Thanks to a tip-off by Lucas Burch/Joe Brown, Christmas' previous business partner in the moon-shining venture and the father of Lena's child, Christmas is caught after giving himself up in a neighboring town. During his unsuccessful escape attempt, Christmas is shot and castrated by a national Guardsman named Percy Grimm.

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's community against Hightower and effectively turning him into a pariah. The only character who does not turn his back on the Reverend is Byron Bunch, who visits Hightower from time to time. Bunch also tries to convince the Reverend to give the imprisoned Christmas an alibi, but Hightower initially refuses. When Christmas escapes from police custody he runs to Hightower's house where he tries to hide. Hightower then accepts Byron's suggestion, but it is too late as Percy Grimm is close behind.

At the end of the novel, the Reverend helps Lena to deliver her baby, a circumstance that helps him break his inner isolation and makes him feel his approaching death.

All characters in "Light in August" are multidimensional: i.e., each one is subject and object, observer and observed, self-crucified and crucified by others, villain and victim.

Style and structure

In this novel, Faulkner was influenced by European literary stylistics and conventions, like the stream of consciousness technique, necessary to explore the innermost recesses of the psyche of the characters. The novel's narrative is not organized chronologically, 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 utmost 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 / existential / deterministic

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 (J.C.), can be viewed as a Christ figure. He showed up in front of the orphanage on Christmas day, symbolic of Jesus' birth. On a side note, Faulkner has 66 total characters in his book, and there are 66 books in the Bible. His 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: U of Virginia P, 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 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.

Misogynistic / homosexual

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. Note the masculinity of the names Joanna and Bobbie, the two women he had relationships with.


Christmas' racial identity (or lack thereof) is only a part of a larger theme of identity. To Christmas, 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 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 remain in Jefferson as hermetical figures.

###@@@KEY@@@###succession box
title=Novels set in Yoknapatawpha County
after="Absalom, Absalom!"


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