Light in August | Study Guide

William Faulkner

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Light in August | Themes


Memory and the Past

Perhaps the most well-known line in the novel is "Memory believes before knowing remembers. Believes longer than recollects, longer than knowing even wonders." This line leads into the chapters recounting the boyhood and teen years that formed Joe Christmas into the man who killed Joanna Burden.

It is not only Joe Christmas whose memories shape his actions in the novel. Both Joanna Burden and Reverend Gail Hightower reveal their histories in the course of the novel. In Hightower's final chapter in the book—Chapter 20—he expresses his belief that he is surrounded by "phantoms"—his memories of the people in his past. Likewise Joanna Burden is haunted by the story of her brother's murder. Joanna says, "He had just turned twenty when he was killed in the town two miles away by an ex-slaveholder and a Confederate soldier." She didn't know her brother, so her "memory" is less memory than "past." This is true of Hightower's phantoms, as well. He imagines hearing "the wild bugles and the clashing sabres and the dying thunder of hooves." This, too, is family history, not personal memory.

In Joe Christmas's case, the memories that haunt him are his own. However, his family past is as much a factor as his memories. His mother was an unwed mother, pregnant by a man she claimed was "a Mexican" and whom her father, Doc Hines, claimed was black. Hines murdered Joe's biological father, stole the infant Joe, and left him at an orphanage. The past—both his memories and his familial history—shaped Joe Christmas's life, just as they did with Hightower and Burden. The past shaped the experiences that led to tragedy and death in all of these characters' lives, as they do for all those who live in Faulkner's South.

Alienation and Isolation

The theme of alienation is central to Light in August. It is most obvious in the character of Joe Christmas. Joe wasn't sure at any point in his life exactly who, or what, he was. His goal of finding a place where he belonged arguably drove him to the situation that led him to commit murder and to his violent death. As Faulkner's narrative choices demonstrate, examining Joe's past helps the reader understand the journey that led to such an end. Due to a childhood in which he was orphaned, adopted by a cruel man, and raised with violence to a manhood that included a first girlfriend who was a prostitute who rejected him, Joe yearned for acceptance. He sought it, trying to find a relationship with a black woman "who resembled an ebony carving" and trying to "breathe into himself" the essence of being black. He tried telling white lovers that he was of mixed ancestry, to various results. Midway into the novel Joe takes a walk through a white neighborhood and observes a quiet, happy family. "That's all I wanted," he thought. "That don't seem like a whole lot to ask." Throughout his life, all Joe wanted was to belong, but it was forever denied to him.

Joanna Burden is also shaped by her isolation. When Byron Bunch first describes her after her house has been lit on fire, he tells Lena Grove that "folks in this town will call it a judgment on her" because she is a "Yankee." When Joanna recounts being a young child and her father taking her to the family graveyard, she tells Joe Christmas that her father "hid the graves." She explains that he had to do so because "someone might see it and happen to remember" the past. As they speak further Joanna notes "we were foreigners, strangers, that thought differently from the people whose country we had come into without being asked or wanted." Decades later, she is still treated as an outsider. Her first intimate relationship is with Joe Christmas—and it ends in her death and in his arrest and eventual death as well.

Race and Identity

Another powerful theme in Light in August is race and identity. The novel never definitively answers the question of Joe Christmas's race. Joe claims early on that he is black. His only proof of this is his personal belief. Eventually when Joanna Burden questions Joe about his claims, he only says that he knows that one of his parents was of African descent. She asks, "How do you know that?" Joe cannot answer. All he can say is "If I'm not, damned if I haven't wasted a lot of time."

Earlier encounters Joe had include a woman saying "I thought maybe you were just another wop." (Wop is a racist term for Italian.) The conversation about Joe when he's working at the mill was "Did you ever hear of a white man named Christmas?" When Joe Brown speaks to the sheriff about the murder and fire at the Burden house, he also references Joe's race, "Accuse the white man and let the nigger go free." Likewise the woman on the road who saw Joe Christmas "told them about the white man on the road." Similarly when Joe walks into the revival (again while on the run), the narrator notes that the black men and women there "saw that his face was not black" and elsewhere notes that "they saw that the man was white."

Joe's identity and his long search to find where he belongs drives his life, his choices, and thus the novel. It is a theme made all the more important because Light in August is set in the South in the early 20th century when questions of race and identity were being addressed, often with violence and hatred.

The Feminine Ideal

The novel draws heavily on Christian allegory, in which female characters are often depicted either as an Eve or a Mary. Mary is the New Testament's virginal, saintly mother who nurtures all of humanity, while Eve is the Hebrew Bible's temptress whose actions condemn mankind to eternal damnation. Variations of these characters can be found throughout Faulkner's novels. In Light in August they are most strongly embodied through Joanna Burden and Lena Grove.

The Eve figure is depicted in other literary forms, such as myth and folklore, as a harbinger of death. Childbirth in pre-modern societies is a violent act in which women often die. Also, a woman's sexuality is commonly viewed in literature and other art forms as terrifying in its power to overwhelm a man. Joanna Burden's particular brand of Christianity and her illicit sexual relationship with Joe Christmas (whose name, if not his behavior, suggests Jesus Christ) mark her as the Eve character. It is no accident that as her fertility wanes, her religious convictions strengthen. Nor is it coincidental that in Faulkner's novel those convictions are inextricably bound with race. Her family's abolitionist stance along with her own sexual voracity combine to give her a powerful hold over Joe Christmas and other men in the community.

Lena, on the other hand, is pregnant, unwed, and mild-mannered. She could not be more Mary-like. Faulkner repeatedly describes her in pastoral terms, aligning her with the sky, the light, the earth and all of its bounty. She is a life giver, a nurturer who brings out the best in everyone she meets. But she is not a passive character. She is on a journey to right a wrong. She will not succumb to her destiny but is determined to change it, even if change seems hopeless.

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