My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Light in August, published in 1932, is Faulkner’s seventh novel and generally considered one of the major works of his best period—roughly the 1930s—alongside The Sound and the Fury (1929), As I Lay Dying (1930), and Absalom, Absalom! (1936). Light in August is longer and looser than these, and more conventionally told in third-person omniscient narration. Often said to be a good place to start with Faulkner, it is less committed than the other novels I named to the modernist techniques of stream-of-consciousness narration and fragmentary structure. If Joyce and Conrad preside over the others, the master-spirit of Light in August is Dickens.
The flashback-driven narrative is not conveyed linearly, however; events are mentioned, and then explained a hundred pages later. Each individual page is more linear than a page of, say, Quentin’s monologue in The Sound and the Fury, but the narrative overall, with its three braided stories, is elliptical and recursive.
It begins when Lena Grove, a pregnant young woman from Alabama, arrives in Jefferson, MS, looking for Lucas Burch, the father of her unborn child. There she finds not Burch but Byron Bunch, a lonely man in his 30s who works in a planing mill alongside two bootleggers named Joe Brown and Joe Christmas. Bunch falls in love with Lena at first sight and resolves to help her find Burch, whom he quickly realizes is actually his co-worker, Brown.
Bunch discusses these sudden complications in his life with his friend, the former Reverend Gail Hightower, a minister disgraced and ostracized due to his wife’s adultery and eventual suicide. Hightower is furthermore disablingly obsessed with the exploits, heroic and anti-heroic, of his Confederate grandfather.
On the day Lena Grove arrives in Jefferson, a woman named Joanna Burden is murdered and her house burned down. It transpires that her killer is Bunch’s other co-worker, Joe Christmas, who had been having a tortured affair with Joanna. Christmas, a foundling (so named because he was dropped at an orphanage on Christmas Eve), believes that he is half black, though he can pass for white and though he was raised by a white family headed by a religiously fanatical and sadistic father. Joanna, for her part, is the descendant of Northern abolitionists who came to Mississippi to uplift its black population during Reconstruction, for which her grandfather and brother were both assassinated; despite this, she remained a resident in the town, albeit near its black district, and from her “dark house” (the novel’s first title) she writes to and maintains a network of colleges and other organizations for African-Americans.
Her affair with Christmas, then, is a fatal entanglement complicated both by Joanna’s racial fetishization and paternalism, which is due to her high-handed and Puritanical “sympathy for the Negro” as well as her attraction to the racially and sexually forbidden, and by Christmas’s masochism and misogyny, based on his racial self-hatred and his perceived emasculation by white women’s charity throughout his foundling’s life. Once Joanna decides to stop sleeping with Christmas and start “saving” him, he murders her—though there is a hint that it may partially have been in self-defense, as she brandished a gun at him earlier in the story—and goes on the run.
How these three narratives conjoin, I will leave the reader to discover, except to say that Christmas—as his Christ-imitating and Christ-parodying name clearly foreshadows—is eventually lynched by the community, led by the proto-fascist paramilitary racist Percy Grimm, who not only shoots Christmas but also castrates him.
As full of characters and incidents as a nineteenth-century realist novel, though much more violent and sexually frank, Light in August is often said to be incoherent or disunified, with its strong modernist central narrative of Joe Christmas’s racial crisis weakened by its being conjoined to the country comedy of Lena and Byron and the Confederate nostalgia of Reverend Hightower’s verbose reveries. But the novel does cohere: the stories of Hightower, Christmas, and Burden together form a devastating indictment of American Protestant Christianity, in both its Northern and Southern variants, as an oppressive, pain-worshipping, race-obsessed, and inherently violent creed that creates and destroys humans as outcasts; to this, the story of Lena and Byron serve as a comic-pastoral contrast, showing the gentle persistence of natural human desire that Christianity distorts or denies.
Hightower’s reflections center on this theme as he comes to realize that his own Rebel-inflected Christian vision was destructive and responsible for the death of his wife (and, indirectly, the death of Christmas). Close to the novel’s conclusion, he reflects:
…that which is destroying the Church is not the outward groping of those within it nor the inward groping of those without, but the professionals who control it and who have removed the bells from its steeples. He seems to see them, endless, without order, empty, symbolical, bleak, skypointed not with ecstasy or passion but in adjuration, threat, and doom. He seems to see the churches of the world like a rampart, like one of those barricades of the middleages planted with dead and sharpened stakes, against truth and against that peace in which to sin and be forgiven which is the life of man.
Even earlier than this, before the lynching of Joe Christmas, Hightower concludes that the white church crucifies itself as it projects its flaws onto the African-Americans it abjects and oppresses:
Yet even then the music has a still quality stern and implacable, deliberate, 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. […] 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. It seems to him that he can hear within the music the declaration and dedication of that which they know that on the morrow they will have to do [i.e., lynch Christmas].
But Faulkner does not leave it at that. In perhaps his most startling passage, Joanna explains to Christmas her New England Puritan forebears’ theology and theory of race, through which Faulkner shows that the Calvinist-descended progressive anti-racism of the Northern white is no less patronizing and dehumanizing than overt Southern racism. In the following passage, Joanna’s father has just told her that the white race is cursed by God for having enslaved the black race, which is cursed in turn to be the scourge of the white race’s inexpiable sin; there is much contemporary relevance, difficult to discuss, in this portrayal of the white supremacism and paternalism and, above all, Calvinist self-flagellation that persists beneath so many secular expressions and manifestations of what has been called “white guilt.” Joanna tells Christmas:
“I had seen and known negroes since I could remember. I just looked at them as I did at rain, or furniture, or food or sleep. But after that [i.e., her father’s speech] I seemed to see them for the first time not as people, but as a thing, a shadow in which I lived, we lived, all white people, all other people. I thought of all the children coming forever and ever into the world, white, with the black shadow falling upon them before they drew breath. And I seemed to see the black shadow in the shape of a cross. And it seemed like the white babies were struggling, even before they drew breath, to escape from the shadow that was not only upon them but was beneath them too, flung out like their arms were flung out, as if they were nailed to the cross.”
Joe Christmas, anticipating Richard Wright’s Bigger Thomas of Native Son, attempts to achieve existential freedom by killing the well-intentioned white woman who bears this constrictive racial ideology, but, like Thomas, he only imprisons himself further in the racist script he wishes to evade by casting himself as killer (and this is not to mention the misogyny on which Faulkner’s and Wright’s narratives rest, of which neither author seems quite sufficiently aware). Light in August, though, is more humanistic than Faulkner’s previous novels, grim as it is; a handful of references to “white blood” and “black blood” aside, it blames its tragic anti-hero’s fate almost entirely on his society, and not on any natural forces—which are themselves represented (no doubt problematically from a feminist perspective) in the figure of Lena as female fecundity, and therefore as positive and life-affirming.
Faulkner’s style in this novel is, as he might say, a myriad thing. Anticipating later trends in fictional prose, he narrates in the present tense; he also, though inconsistently, uses typographical devices to mark different levels of narrative discourse—double quotation marks for dialogue, single quotation marks for conscious thought, italics for subconscious thought. There are passages of humorous vernacular dialogue, passages of Hemingway-clear linear narrative with sentences as transparent as this:
It is just dawn, daylight. He rises and descends to the spring and takes from his pocket the razor, the brush, the soap.
And then there are sentences like these, describing the dour orphanage where Christmas grew up, a torrent of language more sonorous than sensible, and wittingly or unwittingly defiant of traditional grammar:
Memory believes before knowing remembers. Believes longer than recollects, longer than knowing even wonders. Knows remembers believes a corridor in a big long garbled [sic—gabled?] cold echoing building of dark red brick sootbleakened by more chimneys than its own, set in a grassless cinderstrewnpacked compound surrounded by smoking factory purlieus and enclosed by a ten-foot steel-and-wire fence like a penitentiary or zoo, where in random erratic surges, with sparrowlike childtrebling, orphans in identical and uniform blue denim in and out of remembering but in knowing constant as the bleak walls, the bleak windows where in rain soot from the yearly adjacenting chimneys streaked like black tears.
This novel’s narrator, or, better, its language, is a character in itself, a viscous medium that thins and thickens at will, a haze of autumnal heaviness, a mood weary and somewhat erotically sickened with the violence it knows—but also curiously hopeful. A modern editor or MFA workshop leader would find something to delete on every page, but for Faulkner, as for Blake, the path of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.
Most criticisms of this novel implicitly wish it to be something other than it is and are therefore unpersuasive. My one major criticism is that too much in Joanna’s relationship with Christmas is sketchily summed up rather than dramatized, and Joanna herself is perhaps more of an idea than a character. Discussions of “writing the other” so often center around obvious racial divides, but I find that Faulkner’s black characters are more substantial than this slightly shadowy Puritan Yankee.
I won’t say Light in August never exasperated or even bored me, but it is a novel of undiminished relevance written in a style of intriguing yet symphonic strangeness, the strangeness of the strangers the novel both evokes and elegizes.
 I don’t agree with this advice, by the way. To start with Faulkner, drop yourself straight into the deep end with The Sound and the Fury, which contains pretty much everything Faulkner can do in one book, from the tour-de-force of the first chapter, narrated through the prismatic consciousness of a so-called “idiot,” to the Ulysses-derived and delirious interior monologue of the disintegrating young intellectual in the second chapter, to the third chapter’s vernacular clarity and bigotry and the final chapter’s stately third-person rhetoric, both of which lead on to Light in August‘s somewhat more traditionally realist aspirations.