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Light in August | Study Guide

William Faulkner

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Light in August | Context


Yoknapatawpha County

One of the cohesive aspects of Faulkner's body of work is the fictional location in Mississippi where the majority of his tales take place. Yoknapatawpha County was first referenced in the novel Sartoris (1929), which was a revision of the novel Flags in the Dust (not published in its original form until 1973). The fictional county would be the setting for many of his novels and short stories, and references to residents of the area would cross-pollinate those texts. Yoknapatawpha County was based in part on Oxford, Mississippi, in Lafayette County.

In 1929 the first major novel of Faulkner's career, The Sound and the Fury, was also set in this fictional county. This pattern would hold true for other acclaimed major novels, including As I Lay Dying (1930), Light in August (1932), and Absalom, Absalom! (1936). It would also be the setting of his commercially successful but controversial novel Sanctuary (1931). He returned to Yoknapatawpha County with the 1938 publication of The Unvanquished as well as the Snopes Trilogy (beginning with The Hamlet in 1940). A map of the layout of his fictional county, drawn by Faulkner, is archived in The William Faulkner Collection at the University of Virginia.

Prohibition and Bootleggers

In Light in August, the characters of both Joe Christmas and Joe Brown (who also goes by the name Lucas Burch) are "bootleggers." They were modeled on the many people who were learning to turn a profit on the federal prohibition on the sale of alcohol. The 18th Amendment (also known as the National Prohibition Act), which outlawed the sale of alcohol, was ratified on January 29, 1919.

The decision to make the sale of alcohol illegal was not without precursor. For nearly a century temperance laws (those limiting the sale of alcohol) were passed. The first of these was in 1838 in Massachusetts. That law limited the sale of alcohol to 15 gallons at a time. Between 1851 and 1855, there were 13 states with laws limiting hard alcohol sales; however, 12 of those states had repealed the laws by 1863. The forces in favor of temperance were strong, though, and after the Civil War (1861–65) both the Prohibition Party and Women's Christian Temperance Union were formed. A third organization, the Anti-Saloon League, was created in 1893.

When the National Prohibition Act went into effect, the climate for pleasure was high. Radio, film, and vaudeville were all popular. In response to the passage of the act, many people began making their alcohol at home, concocting "bathtub gin," and selling it on the black market. This illegal industry arguably gave birth to continuing criminal enterprises. These criminal elements produced and smuggled liquor, sold it, and created businesses to provide it to the people.

Race and Segregation in the 1920s and 1930s

Between the end of Reconstruction (1877), the rebuilding years that followed the Civil War (1861–65), and the advances in civil rights in the 1950s, numerous laws enforced racial segregation in the South. These laws, often called "Jim Crow laws," enabled inequality to grow. The most well-known of these was the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision by the U.S. Supreme Court. This decision permitted "separate but equal" facilities for black and white citizens. Although the decision specified "equal" facilities, the reality is that this was seldom the case. Black schools, public bathrooms, drinking fountains, and other facilities and institutions rarely equaled those for whites. The Plessy v. Ferguson decision was not reversed until 1954.

One effect of these inequities was the tightening of the definition of what it meant to be a "person of color." Prior to the Civil War, there had been a degree of tolerance for people of mixed ancestry, especially in Louisiana where there had been "half-French free persons of color." Joe Christmas spends the majority of Light in August wrestling with his perceived racial identity. Tellingly he has no proof of his identity. He is called racial epithets as a child and later believes himself to have black ancestry. He tells various women that he "thinks" he does, but he has no confirmation either way. Eventually, midway into the book, Joanna Burden asks the question that the reader may be asking when Joe claims that he knows that one of his parents was of African descent. She asks, "How do you know that?" Joe has no answer. All he can say is "If I'm not, damned if I haven't wasted a lot of time." The novel never answers the question. The suspicion of being black was reason enough for being treated unfairly, as is apparent in the way that the sheriff treats the potential black witness when he wants to know who lives in the cabin. He and the other men strike the man with a strap in order to get answers.

The novel uses the offensive term nigger throughout, and the treatment of the black men and women in the novel is reflective of a level of hostility that was common in the post-Civil War South. This inequality was legalized not only on the state level, but upheld in the Supreme Court decision of Plessy v. Ferguson. Faulkner may not have been writing to explicitly expose the racial injustice that was common at the time but Light in August provides a clear visual of the pervasiveness of such injustice.

Faulknerian Style

Faulkner is generally considered a modernist, the literary term for writers working from 1914–45. Unlike their predecessors, the romantics, modernist writers do not try to depict any kind of ideal, natural beauty. Instead, they describe the world in its gritty, often unpleasant state and search for beauty within that state. Faulkner's novel Light in August contains violent murder, rape, arson, deceit, a fugitive, and a castration. As a Southern author, Faulkner also works in what is called the Southern Gothic. His fiction deals with issues in the modern era that were central to the South, and he does so in a way that is intentionally grotesque to shock the reader's sensibilities, give them a new perspective on humanity, and force them to think about ancient and complex themes differently. Among these are the divisions between "Old South" and "New South," as well as topics of miscegenation (mixture of races) and a "mythic past."

The tendency to see the past as present to some degree explains another aspect of Faulkner's style—the so called "Faulknerian" prose. Faulkner tends toward a non-linear style of writing. In Light in August the reader will note that there are swaths of the novel that are entirely back story to the current events. Faulkner wrote, in one of his often-quoted passages from his novel Requiem for a Nun (1951), that "the past is never dead. It's not even past." The idea that the past, the familial and cultural history, factor into the present story is a hallmark of Faulkner's style, as well as much of Southern fiction.

Another trait of Faulknerian fiction is a fluid narrative structure. Not only is the timeline non-linear, but the point of view is often fluid as well. The reader will note that the idea of "authority" is sometimes unreliable. When the reader learns of the murder of Joe Christmas's biological father, it is by Byron Bunch telling Hightower. Byron learns this from Mrs. Hines, who learns it from Doc Hines. No person who was present at that murder is involved in the reveal.

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