Dark House

In his novel Light in August, Faulkner presents one of his most biting critiques of religious and social intolerance in early twentieth-century society. Faulkner uses the fictional town of Jefferson to confront the presence of racism, sexuality, gender, and religious discrimination in his endemic state, Mississippi. The novel focuses on the unforgiving social standards that Faulkner feels are sanctioned by religious institutions, particularly in isolated rural areas. Light in August is comprised of the personal stories of several women. The misconceptions that Faulkner underscores are part of a paternalistic world where society endorses men’s abusive actions while religious and social intolerance imprison women in victimhood. In the novel, the men justify their prejudices through their belief that women naturally hate other women, especially the fallen ones. Faulkner traverses the strange territory of gender-discrimination through the characters of Byron Bunch and Lena Grove. Right away, the reader becomes aware that a gaping double standard exists in the social realm of Light in August. Men are not faulted for indulging in sex or impregnating a woman outside of matrimony. However, when a woman becomes pregnant out of wedlock, it is her own fault. One of many “kind” strangers, the man Armstid contemplates Lena’s folly unsympathetically, feeling badly for Lucas Burch, “I reckon that fellow is fixing to find that he made a bad mistake…” (13). Unmarried women are condemned for the actions of those who take advantage of them. Women such as Lena are devalued by the very traits that should be considered their finest attributes. Because they are soft, attractive, and devoted, they are fully responsible for enticing men. However, amid the judgment cast upon her by the oppressive principles of Jefferson’s society, it is important to note that Lena is “unshakeable, sheeplike, having drawn upon that reserve of patient and steadfast fidelity…” (6). This fidelity will preserve Lena from accepting the castigation Jefferson would like to place upon her and it will be the silent solace of the subdued women in this novel. Misogyny also plays out in the lives of the wives and mothers in this novel. Mrs. Hines and Mrs. McEachern both endure abusive husbands who see no fault in their actions, sanctioned as they are by the strict, judgmental and unforgiving religious and social standards that reinforce them via male-dominated churches. Faulker portrays Mrs. McEachern as:A patient, beaten creature without sex demarcation at all…hammered thinner and thinner like some passive and dully malleable metal, into an attenuation of dumb hopes and frustrated desires now faint and pale as dead ashes (165). Furthermore, these adults impress their hateful views upon their children, who learn to disrespect their mothers and revile women as the embodiment of sin. This is the case with Mr. McEachern, who effectively beats his brand of discrimination into Christmas. Mr. McEachern constantly uses the Bible to justify his actions, embodying his ideals of righteousness. Eupheus Hines is a man dominated by insanity and prejudice against African Americans that takes second only to his hatred of the “bitchery and abomination” of women (370). Both of these men justify their actions through the conviction that they are doing God’s work. Even sane, apparently good men, such as Reverend Gail Hightower, cannot escape the social mentality of intolerance. Hightower’s emotional destitution causes him not only to be unable to provide for the spiritual needs of his church, but to neglect the emotional and physical needs of his wife. Hightower’s particular brand of misogyny is not so blatantly pronounced as that of McEachern or Hines, but nonetheless, it is present and effective. Hightower considers Lena sinful and believes that she deserves the judgment society sees fit to dole out to her, telling Byron: No woman who has a child is ever betrayed; the husband of a mother, whetherhe be the father or not, is already a cuckold. Give yourself at least the one chancein ten, Byron. If you must marry, there are single women, girls, virgins. It’s not fair that you should sacrifice yourself to a woman who has chosen once and nowwishes to renege that choice (289). While Hightower is still capable of playing positive roles in the lives of women, such as in delivering Lena’s child, his derisive attitude toward women reflects the oppressiveness of the religious principles he preserves. Even the main male protagonist falls into the misogynistic thinking promoted by his society. Byron, discouraged by those who recommend that he help Lena but not marry her, begins to consider her a harlot after the baby’s birth and himself the cuckold of whom Hightower speaks. Joe Christmas is the heightened symbol of Light in August’s misogyny. Faulkner imbues Christmas’ character with the refined versions of McEachern’s tyranny, Hines’ cruelty, and the town of Jefferson’s intolerance. The reader sees the possibility of redemption for Christmas in his relationship with Joanna Burden. However, Christmas’ fundamental belief that the world is a cruel place without mercy and kindness renders Miss Burden’s acceptance unnatural. The cycle of cruelty is made unbearable through the kindness of women such as Mrs. McEachern and Joanna Burden, who undermine the natural order of the world. It was not the hard work which he hated, nor the punishment and injustice… It was the woman: that soft kindness which he believed himself doomed to be forever victim of and which he hated worse than he did the hard and ruthless justice of men (169).Christmas sees women as the epitome of what weakens a man and bares his throat to the world. It is unsurprising then, that Christmas murders a prostitute when she reacts to him with indifference rather than hate. Moreover, Christmas is repulsed even by the physical act of sex with Miss Burden, likening it to falling into a sewer. The social and religious bigotry which Faulkner writes about is a dark house with many rooms. It sanctions oppressors and it encloses victims, neither of whom are able to see past the fallible social constructs that render them slaves to a system of gender-bias and exploitation. However, Faulkner offers hope in the form of Byron, who begins to overcome the misogynistic mentality of his society by the end of the novel and Lena, whose unwavering fidelity is finally rewarded through the hope of a better life; a better man.

Conservative Racist Ideology and the Post Reconstruction South

As one of the great stylists of the twentieth century, William Faulkner explores the South’s haunting past throughout several novels. His novel Light in August is one of many set in Yoknapatawpha County, a fictional place in Mississippi, where he explores the fallout and change in the early to mid 1900’s caused by Reconstruction. In this novel, Faulkner uses a strange protagonist, Joe Christmas, to reveal that society’s moral and social values. Joe, a man allegedly from racially diverse parentage, is never proven to be part black. His alienation from white society, however, is just one example of the influence of the white supremacist theology on the people with whom he interacts. Faulkner also seeks to illustrate how religion can be misused, becoming nothing more than an instrument of racisms. The interactions between Joe Christmas and the townspeople reveal that truth and fact are ambiguous and not always consistent; but that it does not stop public opinion from casting judgment on what they interpret as the truth. Joe Christmas is alienated by society because of his presumed race and behavior. Christmas is brought up in a white orphanage and appears to be white. However he is ostracized by the other children and becomes the subject of racial slurs. During his time at the orphanage, the dietitian notes that, “They have been calling him nigger for years.” (133). Additionally the dietitian asserts,to her own benefit, that he should be moved to an orphanage for black kids and tells the matron that, “I don’t see how we failed to see it as long as we did. You can look at his face now, his eyes and hair.” (134). Even though the dietitian wants to get rid of Christmas because he threatens her job security, her comment originated from the fact that he must not have resembled the other white children. Faulkner deliberately keeps the race of Christmas’s father a secret. Earlier, Christmas is described as not black, but foreign. Later on, Mr. Hines, Christmas’s grandfather, recounts how when he asked the circus manger about the employee that his daughter slept with, the manager initially replied that he was black, but then moments later changed his answer and replied that he wasn’t sure. When Christmas is talking with Joanna, when she questions his race, Christmas is forced to answer “I don’t know it.” (254). Even though Christmas’s race is never confirmed, the townspeople in Jefferson judge him to be black on the word of Joe Brown, an unreliable man who illegally distilled alcohol with Christmas, and then seek retribution for murder with religious and social undertones. Faulkner’s fictional county embodies the racial bias and strong influence of religion that was present in the south in the early 1900’s. Faulkner uses a unified town voice to articulate the opinions and moral assumptions of that society. In his novel Faulkner often uses the word “them” or “they” to describe the town. For example, “They believed for a while that he helped do it.” (in relation to Joe Brown’s responsibility for the murder) and “They would have not have suspected him then if it hadn’t been for a fellow named Brown, that the nigger used to sell whiskey while pretending to be a white man and tried to lay the killing and the whiskey on Brown, but brown told the truth.” (pages 420, 449). The town speaks as one voice and chooses to believe Joe Brown because he is white. In addition to the way he writes, Faulkner highlights the segregation of whites and blacks and the implied racial superiority of whites in his description and imagery of the town. In his childhood, the dietitian describes the difference in conditions between the white and black orphanages, commenting that “It’s bad for the child to have to go to the nigger home, after this, after growing up with white people.” (135). The dietitian’s comments imply that the black orphanage is not as good and that that the company of black people is undesirable. In Jefferson City the blacks and whites live in different areas and go to different churches. Joanna Burden and Rev. Hightower are ostracized by their peers because they choose to associate with black people. Joanna was ostracized for being an abolitionist and promoting equality. Rev. Hightower also shows kindness to blacks and is considered suspect for his actions. The town views blacks as inferior people and views voluntary interaction with them as suspect. Caucasian racial superiority is reinforced by the influence of religion. Mr. Hines is described as expressed of “twofisted evangelism which had been one quarter violent conviction and three quarters physical hardihood.” (343). This quotation reveals how Faulkner emphasized certain words by removing the spaces, in addition to making the story line a discontinuous time sequence. This quotation shows how devote Mr. Hines was to his religion. Mr. Hines made it his task to go into the country side and hold revivals at black churches. During these revival Mr. Hines made speeches with “violent obscenity, {and} preach to them humility before all skins lighter than theirs, preaching superiority of the white race.” (343) Mr. Hines justified barging into churches and screaming at the congregation as his divine calling to help save their souls. Mr. Hines delusions were perpetuated by the combination of religion and racism. Towards the end of the book, Percy Grimes kills Christmas as an act of patriotic and religious duty. After he is dead, Grimes castrates Christmas in a symbolic crucifixion so that Christmas “would let white women alone, even in hell.” (464). The strong influence of religion did not stop persecution of blacks and illustrates the important entanglement of white superiority and religion in the town. In addition to a enigmatic past, Faulkner does not even say that Christmas actually killed Ms. Burden. Faulkner describes how her throat was slit and that Christmas carried around a razor blade, but Faulkner never does more than hint at the relationship between Christmas and the crime. Christmas’s conviction is perpetuated by the racism of the town that drives people to get rid of him because he is a “guilty black man”, and therefore an inherently sinful being that deserves to rot in hell. Christmas is sought out because people in the town feel that it is their duty to make the town safe for moral white people. Faulkner’s novel shows the backwardness and shortcomings of the south during the 1900’s and how prejudicial stereotypes were still pervasive and powerful in that society.

Two American Representations of Violence

Hemingway’s In Our Time and Faulkner’s Light in August are both pieces of literature that revolve around violence. However, the authors’ treatments of violence contrast sharply. Hemingway focuses on culturally sanctioned forms of violence, while Faulkner focuses on more illicit violence. While Faulkner lays a complete foundation for every violent act in his novel, Hemingway is subtler, preferring to simply narrate and avoid directly explaining emotions. Faulkner emphasizes the influence of society on violent acts while Hemingway focuses on the inherent nature of violence in society.Hemingway’s life and literature is full of violence. He eagerly enlisted in WWI, loved sports, hunting, fishing, and often got into fights. In Our Time reflects heavily this interest in culturally sanctioned violence. The vignettes between each story are, for the most part, graphically violent scenes of wartime or bullfighting. Many of the stories themselves involve violent acts (Indian Camp, The Battler) while others, without explicitly recalling the violence, involve the aftermath of the war (Soldier’s Home, Big Two-Hearted River). It is notable that for all the instances of violence in In Our Time, only one comes to mind that does not fall under the category of war, sports, or good, old-fashioned fist fighting – the Indian father’s suicide in Indian Camp.Light in August is an equally violent novel, but in a remarkably different way. Most of the violence that occurs is particularly non-culturally sanctioned. There are references to war, as in Rev. Hightower’s grandfather as well as Percy Grimm’s desire to be a soldier. However the majority of violence, especially that perpetrated by and against Joe Christmas, is not of the sort generally accepted by society. His adoptive father, whom Joe eventually kills, beats him throughout his childhood. At various times in his life he beats women he is involved with and kills Joanna Burden. There is, of course, his ultimate lynching.Hemingway and Faulkner’s narrative styles produce distinctly different contexts for the violence. Light in August is a saga, spanning generations. While Hemingway often gives background information on his characters, his descriptions are short and sweet and mainly serve to situate the story. He leaves it up to the reader to interpret the significance of the information. Faulkner, on the other hand, methodically traces the history of each character, clearly not satisfied until each character’s particular actions and feelings are fully explained. It is not enough for Faulkner to make passing references to Joanna Burden and Gail Hightower’s histories. He includes long sections detailing both their families’ histories and life stories. What is really of note is not the amount of background information. Not only does Faulkner reveal the background facts, he offers analytical explanations of behavior, something Hemingway typically refrains from. In particular Joe’s violent behavior does not stand on it’s own =96 it is important to Faulkner that the reader learn Joe’s past and his reasons for acting as he does. Faulkner traces Joe’s childhood =96 a history of abandonment and abuse.Faulkner’s extensive use of background information and analytical commentary emphasizes the social causes of violence. Joe Christmas is clearly presented as a victim of painful race relations and the power of social categories. Even though his “black blood”, if present at all, is only a drop or so, he has been tortured his whole life. At first the children taunted him, calling him “Nigger!”, but it is as if he has had that cry ringing in his head for the rest of his life and can’t shake it. His violence is always linked to his preoccupation with race. He was so used to shocking women by telling them he was part black that the first time one of them wasn’t shocked he beat her severely and was sick for two years. It is when Joanna Burden suggests that he attend what he refers to as “a nigger college” and become “a nigger lawyer” that he hits her. This leads her to consider joint suicide for the two of them, which is what leads to him committing his most violent act =96 killing Joanna. In a telling conversation with Joanna Burden she asks him how he knows he is part black. He thinks, admits that he doesn’t know and then comments, “If not, damned if I haven’t wasted a lot of time.” This is as close as he comes to conceiving of the possibility that his life need not be determined by an arbitrary gene he may or may not have.Stevens, the district attorney, offers his theory that although Christmas runs from his crime “his blood would not be quiet, let him save it. It would not be either one of the other and let his body save it.” His black blood drove him to violence while his white blood drove him to try to save himself. “It was the black blood which swept him by his own desire beyond the aid of any man, swept him up into that ecstasy out of a black jungle where life has already eased before the heart stops and death is desire and fulfillment.” It seems that Christmas has internalized the social established stereotypes of black and white and has succumbed to his “dark” side after all.Hemingway’s detached narration, in addition to his focus on culturally sanctioned violence, emphasizes the inevitability of violence. The war vignettes leave the reader with the sense that individual choice is impossible. For example: “The first German I saw climbed over the garden wall. We waited till he got one leg over and then potted him. He had so much equipment on and looked awfully surprised and fell down into the garden. Then three more came over further down the wall. We shot them. They all came just like that.” There is no sense of personal responsibility, only the feeling that war happens, and that people kill other people in wars and that is normal and inevitable.Hemingway and Faulkner incorporate contrasting themes of violence in In Our Time and Light in August. Both take a societal view, but Hemingway sees violence as an inherent part of society, as unexplainable as it is inescapable, while Faulkner sees violence as a product of society, and if not rational, certainly avoidable.

Old Verities and Truths of the Heart

In his Novel Prize Address, Faulkner states that an author must leave “no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart…love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice.” He accuses his younger contemporaries of ignoring these noble spiritual pillars while pondering the atomic doom of mankind with questions like, “When will I be blown up?” Such physical fears, far from conflicts of the heart, are what plague his bomb-obsessed contemporaries. Yet Faulkner stands, seemingly alone, in opposition to this weakness; he “decline[s] to accept the end of man” and in rebelling, fights for the old universal truths and the glories of the past. In classical style, he brushes away passing fears and fads, settling for nothing less than the “problems of the human heart in conflict with itself.” Nothing else is worth writing about and Faulkner’s work is living proof.The characters in Light in August are full of the conflicts and virtues Faulkner describes in his speech. In Lena, Hightower, and Christmas, one can find endurance, sacrifice, and honor. In other characters, such as Byron Bunch, the main ingredient is hope. Yet regardless of who he is describing, Faulkner does not forget that only the ancient feelings innate in humanity, those in the soul, are worthwhile. Hope and Love:Hope is one of Faulkner’s favorite spices for cooking his characters. It is perhaps the most human of all emotions in that it is fragile like the body, but at the same time all powerful like the spirit. Lena Grove and Byron Bunch both have an endless amount of hope for the same thing: love they have never received. Hope brought her from Alabama to Mississippi in search of her runaway Lucas. Likewise, hope will carry Byron wherever Lena goes until he can find her love.Lena’s hope is visible in her face, “[she] walked into the door behind him [Byron], her face already shaped with serene anticipatory smiling, her mouth already shaped upon a name” (p.50). She searches from town to town for her lost love, and in each new place renews her hope with a serene smile. Byron’s hope, however, manifests itself quite differently. “There was something funny and kind of strained about him,” is how the furniture repairer describes Byron (p.498). His hope is ashamed and choking; it gnaws at him trying to manifest itself with a feeble attempt in the back of a truck. It is almost as if he doesn’t know how to hope or knows his pursuit is hopeless. Yet he endures in pursuit of his love with the same hope that has carried mankind through all its longings.Honor and Pride:Honor and pride, the most knightly kind of human nobilities are present in some of Faulkner’s characters. These traits, often discarded as vain or arrogant in today’s society, are among the “glories of the past” in Faulkner’s speech. They are timeless in importance and allow a man’s soul to rise from under his shadow. In this manner Hightower and Christmas, the two most tragic and insane characters in the book, are uplifted. They cling on, however awkwardly, to some pride and honor in their distorted worlds.Hightower in his loft, while waiting for the axis that divides day and night, ponders, “there remains yet something of honor and pride, of life” (p.60). His grasping on to life is out of instinct, that ancestral jerk that forces a man to surface for air, his final pride and honor. Hightower stays on despite all his suffering. He is proud to be alive even though he walks among ghosts and phantoms. Furthermore, he reminds himself daily of the honor to be in his bloodline, to have a grandfather as noble as his own.Christmas has some of that survival instinct, but Faulkner also decided to give him another type of pride. “ŒI aint hungry. Keep your muck'” (p.35). His honor is rooted in refusing charity or pity. Unlike Lena, who tries to maintain appearances by eating “like a lady traveling,” Christmas refuses pity because he is proud (p.26).Pity and Compassion:Pity and compassion are the feelings in a generous soul. Pity, however, must be distinguished from compassion. To give alms to the poor or work in a soup kitchen is pity, to forgive someone for a mistake or help your friends in need is compassion. Pity is alien to oneself, a sentiment rooted in guilt for your privilege and other’s poverty (financial, moral, etc.). Compassion, on the other hand, is personal because it is a fear that the same could happen to you. Mr. and Mrs. Armstid both help Lena, but the feelings behind the actions are not the same.When Mr. Armstid sees Lena on the road and gives her a ride, it is out of pity because he knows he will never be in such a situation. His ride is like change in a beggar’s bowl, he offers it with pity and with southern courtesy. Mrs. Armstid, however, feels compassion for Lena’s situation. If the same thing had happened to her, she would have done as Lena did, and therefore gives her the egg money. This ability to empathize with the person she is helping is what transforms her feelings from pity into compassion. It is interesting how Faulkner sometimes uses gender as a controlling factor in human beings’ feelings.Sacrifice and Endurance:Sacrifice and endurance are some of the most painful human experiences. To sacrifice is to forfeit something desired for something that is worth more. It is in a way human wisdom and compassion mixed together, the acknowledgment of something nobler and the generosity to give up your desires. It can, however, mean something else. Sacrifice also means carnal death for life of the soul, like an animal sacrifice for forgiveness. Endurance, much like sacrifice, is a painful experience that requires a man to suffer without yielding, to march on while bleeding. In Light in August, Christmas and Hightower endure pain until relief comes from sacrifice.During their lives, both Christmas and Hightower endure the pain of a hostile society that attacks them endlessly. Christmas endures his never-ending road while searching for identity and his history. He is beaten by society for being black and he suffers for not being black nor white. Hightower, likewise, endures years of suffering in his lunatic search for identity in the town where his grandfather once galloped. Both men are hated by most people for most of their lives, but endure. Much like the honor and pride they both share, it is also their ability to endure that keeps them afloat.Their peace comes in sacrifice. Hightower’s is less physical, but equally painful and alleviating. The price he pays is his life with others: he becomes a ghost, forgotten by his enemies, forgotten by society. Christmas, perhaps because of his violent life, must pay in blood for his peace. He is sacrificed with lead and steel: he dies with serenity on his face, always to be remembered by those who witnessed his death. Those who write about fear, “the basest of all things,” must rediscover the power that lies unhidden in universal truths. If one aims to write something that will last, that will “endure and prevail,” he must write about these truths and about noble feelings. The only way to know for sure is to look back at the literature of the past. What connects all the written words that have lasted through the centuries? What has man deemed worthy to pass on to his children so it reaches us today? And lastly, what has remained from the pillars that supported our father’s fathers while they endured? Without a doubt it was the “glory of his past.”

The Effect of Bobbie Allen and Joe Christmas’s Alienation

Joe Christmas is a walking contradiction in the Southern society in which he resides. Throughout Light in August, central character Joe Christmas experiences many factors that contribute to his inability to form substantial relationships with other characters. Joe’s childhood in the orphanage and living with the McEachern’s has negative psychological effects on his interpersonal skills; however, Joe’s relationship with Bobbie is the most detrimental factor to his ability to form bonds with familial figures. Prior to meeting Bobbie, Joe develops an unstable relationship with Mr. McEachern; his strict enforcement of rules forces Joe to remain docile despite his attempts to rebel. As Bobbie and Joe’s relationship develops, Bobbie’s attentiveness blinds Joe, leading him to defy Mr. and Mrs. McEachern. Although Joe betrays those who care for him to satisfy Bobbie, Joe’s singular attempt at forming a significant bond backfires, leaving detrimental effects in its wake. Joe Christmas’s influential relationship with Bobbie Allen is the critical period which represents his inability to connect with familial figures.

Because of Joe Christmas’s family history, or lack thereof, his unorthodox behavior towards relationships is in conflict with traditional, Southern ideas about family, leading Joe to isolate himself from family and society. Throughout Light in August, family lineage plays a significant role in the lives of the characters. Born an illegitimate child and placed in an orphanage, family history is not in the forefront of Joe’s mind; nevertheless, Joe’s subconscious plagues him with his lack of knowledge about his biological family. However, family is not limited to biological relations. Without knowledge of his biological family, Joe has the ability to form bonds with those closely associated with him, such as Mr. and Mrs. McEachern.

Despite Joe’s desire to rebel and break away from Mr. McEachern’s religious traditions, Joe’s virginal character is upheld until he encounters his first love, Bobbie Allen. In the beginning of his fragile relationship, Bobbie steals Joe’s innocence, which becomes the turning point in his relationship with Mr. McEachern. Despite Joe following Mr. McEachern’s rules, he faces McEachern’s wrath knowing “he would receive the same whipping though he had committed no sin as he would receive if McEachern had seen him commit it” (Faulkner 156). Although harsh, the consistency of Mr. McEachern’s punishments for Joe’s disobedience exemplifies how Joe and Mr. McEachern builds their relationship on dependency, in which Joe is cognizant of the fact that disobedience leads to consequences. Joe’s trust of Mr. McEachern is the blueprint to a relationship with a fatherly figure, however, the threshold of a new relationship interrupts the small progress made between the two men. Bobbie Allen, a local waitress, introduces Joe into a life of sin, despite Joe pursuing the relationship. In the short period in which Joe met Bobbie, she takes advantage of Joe’s vulnerability, from “the first time he had ever seen a naked woman,” to “two weeks later [when] he had begun to smoke […] and he drank too” (Faulkner 195, 199). Through Bobbie’s introduction of sin and pleasure, Joe becomes more inclined to disregard Mr. McEachern’s rules in order to satisfy her. Faulkner capitalizes on the scene in which Bobbie takes Joe’s virginity, setting the precedent for Joe’s behavior in subsequent rebellious events. Joe meets Bobbie at a time in which his relationship with Mr. McEachern was dependable and trustworthy; however, Bobbie provokes rebellion within Joe, a stark contrast from the boy he was prior. Bobbie encourages Joe’s lecherous behavior which evolves into his betrayal of Mr. and Mrs. McEachern.

Although Bobbie seldom asks Joe for gifts, Joe’s desire to satisfy Bobbie results in his betrayal of Mr. and Mrs. McEachern. As a reward of good behavior, Mr. McEachern gives Joe a heifer of his own; however, Joe sells the heifer in order to buy a suit for the dance with Bobbie. In response, Mr. McEachern acknowledges the sins Joe is capable of committing: “sloth, and ingratitude, and irreverence and blasphemy,” forcing him to recognize that “the child whom he adopted twelve years ago was [now] a man” (Faulkner 164). Although inevitable, Bobbie’s seniority to Joe accelerates a clash of personalities between the two dominant male figures. In efforts to differentiate himself from Bobbie’s other lovers, Joe disregards his other relationships to impress Bobbie; his infatuation with Bobbie generates an immense change in his behavior, leading him to deceive the one woman who genuinely loves him, Mrs. McEachern. As a young man in Southern society, money is one thing Joe needs and does not have, “thus he began to steal” (Faulkner 191). Joe, young and easily impressionable, “did not even know he was paying with money for pleasure,” however; he frequently buys gifts for Bobbie such as “a stale fly-specked box of candy” (Faulkner 191). From the time in which Joe is adopted, Mrs. McEachern wants Joe to love her, the same way Joe desires Bobbie’s love. In both relationships, love is forced onto an individual that has no desire to be loved. In this way, Joe and Bobbie are representative of each other. Without a mutual understanding of love, Joe cannot form significant bonds with either Mrs. McEachern or Bobbie. Unbeknownst to Joe, his relationship reflects the only example of love available to him, his adoptive parents. Mr. and Mrs. McEachern’s poor example of a bond, in conjunction with Bobbie Allen results in Joe’s inability to connect with other characters throughout the book.

Because Joe values his relationship with Bobbie highly Joe will go to extreme lengths to fortify his relationship with Bobbie, hurting Mr. and Mrs. McEachern in the process. In Joe’s eyes, his relationship with Bobbie is worth attacking his only father figure, Mr. McEachern. At the point in which Mr. McEachern finds out that Joe is at a dance with a woman, he decides that he must end the sinful relationship between Bobbie and Joe. However, when Mr. McEachern publicly condemns the relationship, shouting “away, harlot,” at the frightened Bobbie, Joe, in a “furious and dreamlike exaltation of a martyr […] swung at his head” (Faulkner 204-205). With the “shattered chair clutched in his hand,” Joe “looking down at his adoptive father” then fled the scene without any remorse for his actions (Faulkner 205). Joe killing Mr. McEachern in order to stay with Bobbie is a pivotal moment in Light in August. At this point in his parasitic relationship with Bobbie, Joe is completely corrupted by the older, more mature woman. Joe goes as far as killing Mr. McEachern to stay with Bobbie, exemplifying his willingness to abandon morals for a genuine connection. However, if placed in the same situation, Joe’s altruistic act would not be reciprocated by Bobbie. Bobbie takes advantage of Joe’s young age and inexperience for her own personal gain by sucking all life and morality from him. Blinded by love, Joe acts irrationally and without remorse, representing his complete disregard of the Southern value of family. Joe’s refusal to accept love from Mrs. McEachern disintegrated what little relationship they had left. Joe capitalizes on Mrs. McEachern’s fragile emotions to destroy their bond. In a rush to reach Bobbie after the dance, Joe runs into Mrs. McEachern at their household, shouting “get away, old woman” (Faulkner 208). Joe’s desire to break Mrs. McEachern works, when she responds “as though she were a phantom, obeying the command sent back by the absent master” (Faulkner 209). Seen as the heart of the home in Southern society, Joe effectively dismantles the McEachern household in breaking Mrs. McEachern. At this point, Joe destroys any possibility of reconciliation. Joe intentionally demolishes bonds with his relationship with Bobbie; however, his efforts backfire when Bobbie rejects his marriage proposal.

Rather than riding into happily ever after with Bobbie, Joe’s efforts to form a substantial relationship fails when Bobbie Allen declines his marriage proposal. Joe goes to extremes in order to pacify Bobbie, however, when asked to marry him, Bobbie’s rejection shocks Joe leading him to think: “why, I committed murder for her. I even stole for her” (Faulkner 217). With Bobbie’s rejection, Joe finally becomes cognizant of his deleterious actions “as if he had just heard of it, thought of it, been told that he had done it” (Faulkner 217). Joe’s misguided beliefs about relationships leads him into a dead-end when Bobbie rejects him, in which he has now isolated himself from familial figures. Joe’s indoctrinated beliefs of marriage being one of the utmost important factors of acceptance into Southern society plagues him. However, Bobbie’s deep, programmed beliefs of race within the South prevails over her minuscule feelings for Joe when she declines his proposal. Joe is rejected in his one attempt to create a family, resulting in a conditioned mistrust towards any form of relationship.

In Light in August, Bobbie circumscribes Joe Christmas’s ability to form bonds of significance. Relationships often have the effect of isolating the parties involved from family, friends, etc. However, Joe Christmas takes takes love to the extreme by attacking his adoptive father. Unbeknownst by the parties involved, a relationship can become parasitic and all-consuming, resulting detrimental effects on emotional stability. In traditional Southern society in which family is placed above all except God, a relationship is seen as a distraction to a loved one. Today, relationships divide families frequently. Differing opinions, beliefs, or simply dislike of the significant other result in complete isolation or shunning of family members. Although exiling family may seem like the only option, shunning family members only results in further division and less trust in the familial relationships. Despite triumphs made in regards to equality since the 1930s, trends today still follow that of Joe Christmas’s experiences in Light in August.

The Effect of Joanna Burden’s Masculinity on the Jefferson Community

Although most men and women recognize how traditional gender roles dictate their actions in hopes of being accepted into society, very few can claim that they have been completely exiled from their community because they appear too “masculine” or vice-versa. In Light in August, the people of Jefferson are presented as a single antagonist in which they solely exist to oppose any unwanted change within the community. Joanna Burden is first introduced with feminine traits typical of a traditional female character; one that exists to serve the needs and wants of their male counterpart. As Joanna begins to develop a relationship with Joe Christmas, it is revealed that she also has an uncanny ability to embody masculine traits. However, the fact that Burden can neither be classified as a man nor woman challenges the town’s dislike towards gender fluidity. Joanna Burden’s blurred separation of masculinity and femininity is the most decisive factor in the Jefferson community’s collective decision to reject her from society.

Because of the townspeople’s need to uphold its traditional Southern values, the community of Jefferson becomes its own character that outcasts anyone who is deemed undesirable or incapable of conforming to their ideals. During this time, the mere idea of homosexuality is not accepted, forcing some characters into isolation from society since their sexual orientations are continuously questioned. Although Joanna Burden has resided in Jefferson throughout her entire life, she is “still a stranger…about whom in the town there is still talk of queer relation with negroes in the town and out of it” (Faulkner 46). This exemplifies the community’s abnormal tendency to form a single, unified opinion as opposed to the variance of opinions expected from a large population. The citizens of Jefferson exile and ignore Joanna because of her transgression from societal norms, which subconsciously influences her personality. The community’s dislike towards actions that contrast their conservative ideologies, such as pregnancy out of wedlock, is a factor proving the townsfolk within Jefferson as incapable of forming individual moral beliefs. Lena’s brother is representative of this underlying issue when he “remarked her changing shape…[and] called her a whore” (Faulkner 6). His opinion on Lena’s pregnancy both aligns with and conforms to Southern society’s expectations of the imperative to be married. The Jefferson community develops into one entity that exists to serve as the town’s metaphorical moral compass. Any character that veers from their collective opinion or attempts to change Jefferson’s conservative agenda is shunned until the individual fades into oblivion.

Before Faulkner further develops Joanna Burden and Joe Christmas’s relationship during its first phase, Miss Burden is originally represented as a stereotypical figure of white Southern femininity. In Jefferson, white women are expected to uphold the Southern tradition without any inclination to change or question it, all the while forcing themselves into the cookie-cutter image of the domestic housewife. Joanna constantly prepares meals for Joe, but never sits down to eat with him, instead she stands “in one of her apparently endless succession of clean calico house dresses and sometimes a cloth sunbonnet like a countrywoman” (Faulkner 233). Strict gender roles place Joanna Burden in a seemingly immovable idea of how white females should be physically portrayed in a society that emphasizes importance of social hierarchies. In this case, she is a symbol of the Southern community’s attempt at exploiting her existence to benefit the opposite gender. Miss Burden temporarily comes to terms with her femininity when she considers bearing a child; another traditional role of women where they are expected to live in servitude as a caretaker. For Joanna, the idea of pregnancy gives her a sense of power: “She talked about it impersonally at first, discussing children. It was some time before [Joe] discovered…she was discussing it as a possibility, a practical thought” (Faulkner 264-265). Pregnancy gives her a feminine sexuality that is not obtained through sexual acts, but instead motherhood – one of the most important contributions a woman is expected to make in Southern society, or more specifically, the Jefferson community. Any deviation from these beliefs gives the townsfolk a reason to punish the unorthodox individual and exile them from the community.

Although Joanna Burden does embody some feminine traits, her unconventional masculinity is what causes her to become an outcast after she is deemed a threat to the Southern social order. Instead of a typical heterosexual relationship that is both common and expected in Jefferson, Joanna takes on a position of masculine authority, challenging the traditional female archetype. When Joe Christmas first meets Joanna, he describes her having masculine traits: “There was no feminine vacillation…It was as if he struggled physically with another man for an object of no actual value to either, and for which they struggled on principle alone” (Faulkner 235). A female character with the ability to alter their persona in order to resemble that of the opposite gender, such as Miss Burden, quickly becomes a danger to the male population of Jefferson; Joe and Joanna’s relationship comes into question when their sexual relations can be interpreted as homosexual sex, a taboo act within the Jefferson community. Another implication of Joanna’s gender fluidity is exemplified when she morphs into the more dominant “male” figure in the relationship, while Joe becomes her submissive counterpart. Christmas suddenly realizes that he is being forced into the position of what Joanna Burden should be – a woman: “’My God,’ he thought, ‘it was like I was the woman and she was the man” (Faulkner 235). This threatens the very moral principles that the Jefferson community prides itself on, where the man and woman should adhere to their God-given roles in society. Joanna challenges the traditionally black-and-white binary of man vs. woman in a culture that is highly intolerant of mixtures of any variation whether it may be gender, race, or sexual behavior.

Because Miss Burden has feminine and masculine aspects, she is neither a man nor woman, but instead, a combination of both. Her embodiment of femininity and masculinity is not originally outwardly shown through her actions and personality, but is eventually inscribed permanently on her body. During the third phase of Joanna’s relationship with Joe, she is depicted as having a “face of a spinster: prominently boned, long, a little thin, almost manlike: in contrast to it her plump body was more richly and softly animal than ever” (Faulkner 266). The juxtaposition of the two descriptions exemplifies the physical duality that she now represents; although her weight gain can be paralleled to pregnancy or femininity, her body still rejects the gender implication. Faulkner also blurs the divide between the two genders by referencing pregnancy in a skewed, unorthodox manner because of both Joanna’s familial history and her dramatized menopause. Burden reveals the moment when she realized that her future would be forever doomed: “…the white babies were struggling, even before they drew breath, to escape from the shadow…flung out like their arms were flung out, as if they were nailed to the cross” (Faulkner 253). The depictions of crucifying white babies and the violence against infants is not representative of her inability to have a child with Joe, which is an effect of the end of her child-bearing age, but foreshadows Joanna’s violent death that occurs in order to remedy the unwanted change within the Jefferson community.

In Light in August, Joanna Burden’s inability to fit into the man vs. woman binary constitutes a threat to the conservative Southern order, which ultimately leads to the Jefferson townspeople’s decision to shun her from the community. Normally, one would expect communities to be a place of progress and change, but the lack of varying opinions in the novel shows how a place where no one is willing to form their own views can be detrimental to societal growth. In the modern world, communities that are not open to change are still very prevalent, many of these stemming from more religious and highly conservative regions. Anyone who is not a cisgender individual or unwilling to comply with traditional gender roles, risk experiencing violent backlash from their communities. Without supporting those who are different or educating the ignorant, equality can never be a possibility, and for some, Joanna Burden’s fictional death may become a reality.

The Identity of Joe Christmas

“He looked like a phantom, a spirit, strayed out of its own world, and lost,” (114) can easily be regarded as one of the most impactful lines in William Faulkner’s Light in August. A very prominent theme throughout the novel is identity, which the quote explores; identity plays a substantial role within the plot of the book, serving as well as a key for the character development of the ‘protagonist’, Joe Christmas. In the novel, Faulkner consistently experiments with each character, including Christmas, and with how they are identified by others and by the reader. Identity can be made very apparent, as when characters quickly label Christmas based upon his actions in tandem with his heritage. Or, identity can be made subtle, like when Christmas mimics the actions that were previously directed at him by other characters. Throughout the whole novel, characters like Christmas always identify themselves, but other characters are able to identify him as well, thus accentuating his main internal conflict.

The way in which Faulkner manipulates how Chrismas identifies himself and how the other characters identify him seemingly enhances the main conflict surrounding Christmas’ ambiguous identity. With each character, Faulkner manipulates the order in which each character is identified. For example, Hightower is first defined by what the reader gathers from his past combined with what others think of him, or external identification, and towards the end of the novel, Hightower identifies himself, or internal identification. But of course, Faulkner makes sure that Christmas does not go in this order. Instead, he is first defined externally,or by what others think of him. This is shown in the beginning of the novel since Christmas is first addressed through dialogue as one mill worker asked the foreman if, “He [Christmas] is a foreigner?” (33). Then, immediately after, Christmas’ race is addressed for the first of many times as the foreman asked, “Did you ever hear of a white man named Christmas?” (33). This dialogue does not only present Christmas to the reader already as an outsider, but it gives off the effect of being slightly unaware of who Christmas is, and the effect extends until the reader is given insight on his own thought process. The dialogue also presents an issue that lasts throughout the entire novel: Christmas’ race. He is never identified as mixed, instead, anything that occurs that holds a predominantly negative connotation, he is identified as black and if anything that occurs that holds a positive connotation, he is identified as white. In this dialogue, the negative connotation that is presented to the audience is ambiguity since Christmas did not look like the people he had worked with. But, these blatant judgements are seen much more frequently within in the novel. For example, the moment once Brown’s story to the policeman in order to get a $1,000 reward does not add up, he places blame on Christmas’ ‘identity’ as he claimed, “Accuse the white man that’s trying to help you with that he knows. Accuse the white man and let the nigger go free. Accuse the white and let the nigger run” (97). As a whole, Faulkner purposefully makes the characters manipulate Christmas’ ambiguous identity to fit their personal thoughts and motives, skewing the perception of Christmas to these characters.

Another important example of this behavior is Doc Hine’s hateful reasoning, ensuring that Christmas always suffered. Ever since Christmas was conceived, Doc Hines believed that, “It’s [Christmas] the Lord God’s abomination, and I am the instrument of His will” (380). Along with the excessive usage of racial slurs to describe his grandson, Doc Hines believed that it was his will, as he was ordained by God, to make it known that Christmas’ identity was an abomination and he spent his life ensuring and spreading that fact around to other characters, manipulating their perception of him in the process. What makes how other characters identify Christmas so unique and complex is how Faulkner is constantly shifting perspectives along with the chapters, which provides the reader with a variety of personal beliefs and motives but also gives more facets to what other characters think of Christmas and how they personally define him. For example, how Percy Grimm believed that the source of all Christmas’ misdoings was just a clash between his “black blood” (448) and his “white blood” (449) as he blamed Christmas’ mistakes on his black blood and his relatively moral actions on his white blood. Overall, due to the judgements of Christmas based upon his ambiguous heritage, all of the other character’s and their personal experiences, beliefs, circumstances, and motives play a huge part into externally identifying Christmas, which easily gives insight to Christmas’ conflicts that surround his identity.

As mentioned previously, what makes Christmas’ identity unique in Light in August is how Faulkner addresses it. In regards to the order of identification, what makes Christmas so complex is a character is how he is identified externally before he is identified internally. Typically, the reader would get insight on who the character thinks they are and the other characters either affirm or challenge that but Faulkner switches it around completely as he makes Christmas affirm or challenge the ideas that other characters define himself as. For example, this technique can be seen firstly in the scene where Christmas roams throughout the town. Filled with symbolism, Faulkner gives the reader an idea of Christmas’ uncertain thoughts regarding his identity as he claimed that, “he looked like a phantom, a spirit, strayed out of its own world, and lost” (114). Up until that point in the novel, the reader is always getting fed with harsh judgements about Christmas’ identity which are centered around his race but in that particular scene, Faulkner’s intricate diction poses Christmas’ internal struggle that he is not fully black nor fully white but that he is a mixture, which is difficult for the other characters and even himself to understand.

Faulkner also makes Christmas challenge or affirm what others expect of him due to their judgements. This mode of behavior is first presented when Miss Burden tried to persuade Christmas to change his lifestyle completely, asking if he wanted to become an advisor for black colleges and to have children with her. Nonetheless, this request only confused Christmas even more, as he believed that, “If I give in now, I will deny all thirty years that I have lived to make me what I chose to be.” (265). Christmas’ personal conflict that involves identity has always been based upon his race so to him, it made sense to refuse to adhere to the Miss Burden’s desires for their relationship. Eventually, that relationship deteriorates because of their contrasts between their respective identities (racially based or gender based). With that being said, it is made apparent to the reader that Christmas had always lived his life, “like it was a basket of eggs” (337). He had never been in a set area of identification; whenever other characters addressed him, it was always based off of what he had done and Christmas’ process of identifying himself internally amplifies that. Thus, he never stays in one place as a result. Eventually, it does get tiresome for Christmas, which is why he claimed that he had “never got outside that circle. I [Christmas] never broken out of the ring of what I have already done and cannot ever undo” (339) when he was running from the police after the murder of Miss Burden. That time is the only instance in which the reader dives deep into Christmas thought process and most importantly, the realization becomes a huge part of his arc as a character. The reader rarely gets insight on Christmas’ own personal thoughts but when the reader does, it is a realization of how Christmas had identified himself in the past and how it has been prolonged throughout his entire life.

Throughout Light in August, all Faulkner does with Christmas is set up external definitions of the character only to let Christmas himself challenge or affirm them. Identity guides the plot of the book as well as a key for character development especially for Joe Christmas. Faulkner is always experimenting with each character, including Christmas, and how they are identified by others and by the reader. Throughout the whole novel, characters like Christmas always identify themselves but, other characters are able to identify them as well which accentuates his main internal conflict. The way in which Faulkner manipulates how Chrismas identifies himself, and how the other characters identify him, enhances the main conflict surrounding Christmas’ ambiguous identity.

The Three Temptations of Christ in Light in August

In William Faulkner’s novel Light in August, Joe Christmas is often depicted to be an almost Christ-like figure. There are many thematic similarities between the struggles Christmas goes through during his lifetime, and the struggles braved by Jesus as described by the Bible. One noticeable similarity that can be drawn between the two figures relates to the classic biblical tale of the Three Temptations of Christ. These temptations are in many ways embodied by the relationship that Joe Christmas has with Miss Burden, which is also divided into three segments.

The first temptation of Christ deals with the Devil attempting to lure Christ into turning stone into bread. This temptation takes its form into a seemingly beneficial offering to Christ, however Christ rejects it because he sees it for what it is: a temptation. This idea of temptation through offering comes up in the first phase of Joe Christmas and Miss Burden’s relationship. This relationship finds it beginnings on the night that Miss Burden discovers Joe stealing food in her kitchen, and allows him to have it. This sets the tone that Miss Burden wants to give to Joe in anyway that she can. Joe, however, suspects that in all the ways she gives, she has an ultimate goal of gaining some sort of leverage over him — a paranoia rooted in his troubled childhood. Thus, he rejects her. This is most clearly seen on the morning after the first night the two spend together. When Joe sees that Miss Burden has set out food for him, his immediate impression is that the food was “set out for the nigger” and proceeds to fling it on the walls (Faulkner, 239). He sees degrading implications in her offering of food, and in flinging it on the walls he preventing himself from being under her care, and therefore her control. This refusal to accept her offering, which echoes Christ’s refusal to accept that of the Devil, continues in his insistence on only entering her house like a thief throughout the entirety of their first phase together, despite her welcoming him into her home. From Joe’s perspective, rather than being dependent on her hospitality, he is acting as an independent agent. Thus, he has power over the “Devil.”

The second temptation of Christ deals with the Devil attempting to get Christ to leap from a pinnacle — behavior that is evidently erratic, yet allegedly tantamount to being a declaration of his commitment to God. This temptation mimics the erratic behavior Miss Burden engages in and insists Joe Christmas do as well in the second phase of their relationship. During this phase, Miss Burden becomes extremely possessive of Joe, frequently engages in fits of jealous rage, immerses herself in delusions, and turns their nights of passion into nights of fury. Among the specific things she does, she adamantly insists on having a secret place with Joe so that she can attain the desirable element of intrigue in their relationship. Joe displays some resistance to this in particular, and as a whole he recognizes that he is in a serious state of instability throughout this second phase. He understands that being in the relationship is making him somewhat of “a man being sucked down into a bottomless morass” (Faulkner, 260). However, unlike Christ, Joe follows through with this indefinite plunge. Still, he maintains a degree of emotional distance from Miss Burden during this time, as evidenced by his awareness of the situation — and in this way he does mimic Christ.

The third temptation of Christ deals with the Devil attempting to get Christ to worship him — a supreme sign of Christ’s surrender to the dark side — in exchange for giving him all the kingdoms of the world. This final temptation is similar to how in the third phase of Miss Burden’s relationship with Joe Christmas, she tries to envelop Christmas into her world wholly. She plans to do this by bearing his children, and, as is implied, marrying him. If Christmas were to go along with this, he would be agreeing to an ultimate act of possession by Miss Burden over him; it would mean that he was her’s, and nobody else’s. However, like Christ, he is tempted by what Miss Burden offers him in return for his total devotion. He almost capitulates to her proposal when he thinks “Why not? It would mean ease, security for the rest of your life. You would never have to move again (Faulkner, 265).” This is a highly appealing prospect to Joe, as he has spent his entire life as an outsider, never belonging anywhere. If he gave in to Miss Burden’s temptation, he would have a home — he would have a kingdom. However, just as Christ refused to hand over his soul to the Devil, so to did Joe in dealing with his personal “Devil,” Miss Burden. He finally declares his total independence from Miss Burden in the very end of their relationship, when he kills her, freeing himself from the influence of the “Devil.”

Race and Gender in Light in August

William Faulkner came from an American South background and in his time, wrote a number of novels that featured themes of patriarchal power and struggles caused by race. Joe Christmas plays an unusual role in Light in August – in him, Faulkner creates a central character with very few redeeming characteristics. Instead, Christmas is misogynistic, cruel and more than that, a murderer. This essay will examine how Faulkner treats race, sex and gender in Light in August, whether it was merely representative of the time of publication or a deeper criticism aimed at American society of the 1920s and prior. It will also look at the causes for Joe Christmas being such a malevolent man, such as his upbringing and the people around him.

To provide some historical context, Faulkner wrote Light in August in 1932, during “the Southern Renaissance of 1925-39” (Wittenberg, 1995, p. 148). This was a time, several decades before the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, in which institutionalised racism was very prevalent, particularly in the South. An example of society’s acceptance of racism and the viewing of black Americans as sub-human can be seen that, around the country, people were “uninterested in compelling southern school desegregation” (Klarman, 2004, p. 27), long after the Emancipation of the Slaves in 1863 (NARA). Just as African Americans were marginalised members of society, so too were women – they were expected to be obedient homemakers and little more (Tames, 1997, p. 46). Nevertheless, there are powerful characters on all ends of the spectrum in Light in August – whilst he does not accept his “black blood” (Faulkner, 1932, p. 181), it is suggested Joe Christmas takes the life of a number of white people such as Simon McEachern and certainly murders Joanna Burden for “praying over” (Faulkner, 1932, p. 45) him. This demonstrates Christmas’ non-conformity to a societal expectation that he should be meek and obedient. Among the female characters, Lena Grove and the “masculine” (Clarke, 1989, p. 403) Joanna Burden stand out as women who have overcome the patriarchal hierarchy of the day.

There is an order of subservience in the novel that covers both race and gender – white men such as Joe Brown are held in higher regard than black men, despite the fact Brown is frequently “drunk down town” (Faulkner, 1932, p. 25), a gossip and quick to sell out Joe Christmas, supposedly a friend, as soon as money is mentioned – bringing race into the matter as well, “accuse the white man and let the nigger go free” (Faulkner, 1932, p. 41). Women are definitely beneath men in the hierarchy, weakness and naivety are just a couple of the intrinsic character flaws given to them by Faulkner. Nevertheless, Deborah Clarke points out that the women of Light in August are connected in way the men are not, communicating in “a language unknown to” (Clarke, 1989, p. 399) them. This shows that there is a distinct difference between Christmas’ impressions of women and Faulkner’s own feelings towards them.

Further down in the rankings again are black men and women. In fact, despite the novel having the theme of race running throughout, there is “not a single significant character who is identifiably African American” (Wittenberg, 1995, p. 146). This does not necessarily demonstrate contempt for African Americans from Faulkner, who chooses instead to focus on the struggles of Christmas, a mixed race man who is “neither black nor white” (Godden, 1980, p. 240). Rather, as Wittenberg writes, Faulkner finds race to be a “linguistic and social construct” (Wittenberg, 1995, p. 146) instead of something that can be broken down to simply black and white – they are too closely intertwined within Christmas yet he seemingly rejects both parts of his identity , instead filled with self-loathing – Thus, in Christmas, Faulkner creates a character that can represent both sides of race relations, without the need for an explicitly named black character.

To highlight just how bad racism was at the time, especially in Faulkner’s fictional Yoknapatawpha County, the townsfolk who come to investigate the fire at Joanna Burden’s house “believed, and hoped” (Faulkner, 1932, p. 117) that she had been raped prior to her murder. They also choose to believe that it was a crime committed by “Negro” rather than “a negro” (Faulkner, 1932, p. 117). This shows that they want their inherent hatred of African Americans to be justified, inventing scenarios purely because Burden is ostracised for her “excessive sexuality” (Clarke, 1989, p. 404) involving black men. It also demonstrates a categorisation of black Americans as a whole, dehumanised mass rather than individuals with free will and thought – they are acting on the impulsion of their “black blood” (Faulkner, 1932, p. 181). In the same line, Faulkner brings up the dichotomy of the United States, divided amongst the “Yankees” (Faulkner, 1932, p. 117) of the north and the people of the south. To the “casual Yankees” (Faulkner, 1932, p. 117) that live in Jefferson, Burden is seen as having caused her own death whereas someone from above the Mason-Dixon line may have seen her as the victim of a senseless crime. It is interesting that the most likely culprit in the minds of the townspeople is a black person when the actual culprit, Joe Christmas, is “neither black nor white” (Godden, 1980, p. 240). This confirms that both Christmas and Burden are isolated based on their perceived affiliation with other races, no matter how factual the basis.

As an example of Joe Christmas’ distrust and disdain for women from an early age, Miss Atkins, the racist dietician who frequently refers to Christmas as a “little nigger bastard” (Faulkner, 1932, p. 52), is described as young and stupid, ascribing the “attributes of an adult” (Faulkner, 1932, p. 52), to Christmas when he is only five years old and she believes she has caught him spying. It can be seen that both Faulkner and Christmas consider this to be true as this is all conveyed to the audience through an objective narrator, able to describe both the “fury and terror” (Faulkner, 1932, p. 52) of the dietician and the “astonishment, shock, outrage” (Faulkner, 1932, p. 53) of the young Christmas when recalling the event. Whilst being unloved and abused as a child does not automatically translate into the terrible human being Christmas grows into, it can be seen that the interactions with Miss Atkins, in an orphanage in which he had never “waited three days to be punished” (Faulkner, 1932, p. 53) certainly did not help his chances of being a balanced adult.

Even though many of the women in Light in August are seen as feeble and unknowingly controlling, Byron Bunch is nevertheless “unmanned” (Clarke, 1989, p. 401) by Lena merely talking to him, he is “already in love” (Faulkner, 1932, p. 25) from the first conversation. This shows that not all Faulkner’s women are powerless. This is further confirmed when considering Lena’s previous interactions with men: Amstrid, who we meet in the first chapter – he think he knows “exactly what Martha [his wife] is going to say” (Faulkner, 1932, p. 8) when in fact, he becomes the subject of an attack aimed at all men, “You men[…]You durn men” (Faulkner, 1932, p. 10), again showing an unspoken connection many female characters in the novel have with each other. Faulkner also establishes the “motif of a foreign language” (Clarke, 1989, p. 409) in discourse between Joe Brown and Joe Christmas, who acts as if he “spoke a different language” (Faulkner, 1932, p. 19) from the one Brown knew. Just as there is a divide between black and white, there is another between male and female.

The separate halves of the novel truly converge in Chapter 19 of Light in August­ in Christmas’ death at the hand of Percy Grimm. Grimm highlights that Christmas will now leave “white women alone” (Faulkner, 1932, p. 187), the mention of race suggesting that Christmas is viewed as black, it is unacceptable for his crimes to have been committed by a white man, there must be separation. This is further confirmed in the imagery of Christmas being castrated after his death, the phrase “black blood” (Faulkner, 1932, p. 187) is again used with negative connotations. The fact that it was “pent” and “like a released breath” (Faulkner, 1932, p. 187) suggests it was a relief for Christmas – in death, he can finally admit his true African American identity that he strove to avoid all his life. The “bloody butcher knife” (Faulkner, 1932, p. 187) also feminises Christmas, a man who has detested women all his life – Clarke says the blood is also representative of “menstruation” (Clarke, 1989, p. 412) . The scene rises and falls through brutal peaks of “rushing blood” (Spenko, 1982, p. 254), troughs of calm contemplation and “peaceful valleys” before climaxing in an “unbelievable crescendo” beyond the “realm of hearing” (Faulkner, 1932, p. 187). This all serves to grip the reader and signifies the ups and downs that run throughout the novel, experienced by both men and women, regardless of their race.

In conclusion, race and gender in Light in August are both treated equally – it is inconsequential what race or gender a person is, Faulkner will give them both positive and negative attributes. As Deborah Clarke puts it, there is an “uneasy relationship” (Clarke, 1989, p. 413) between both sexes and races – whilst they are entangled with each other, it does not necessarily mean that there will be a connection between two people who share a gender or race. Joe Christmas chooses to disassociate himself from his supposed African American ancestry, preferring to continue to pass as a white man but it does not save him in the end from the retribution of the white Percy Grimm. As previously mentioned, there are no significant identifiably black characters but the passing comments in the narration suggest they are peaceful and hard-working. Thus, Christmas’ depiction as a partial representative of African Americans does not negatively affect the reader’s view of the black citizens of Yoknapatawpha.

When it comes to gender, Lena Grove is not a weak woman as McEachern’s wife is, she stays strong and hopeful in the face of her problems, the antithesis of the work shy, careless and disloyal Joe Brown. In this regard, Brown is also the opposite of Byron Bunch, mistaken for Brown’s alter ego, Lucas Burch, who is faithful and diligent. Therefore it can be seen there are strong, non-conformist characters from both races and both genders. Finally, in Light in August, William Faulkner shows that there is no inherent problem that stems from being black or white, male or female – you are moulded by your own life choices, your upbringing and the environment you find yourself in – a progressive moral for a novel written in the midst of an era of legalised racism and sexism.

Bibliography:

Clarke, D. (1989). Gender, Race, and Language in Light in August. American Literature Vol. 61, No. 3, 398-413. Faulkner, W. (1932). Light in August . New York City: Smith & Haas.

Godden, R. (1980). Call Me Nigger!: Race and Speech in Faulkner’s “Light in August”. Journal of American Studies, Vol. 14, No. 2, 235-248.

Klarman, M. J. (2004). From Jim Crow to Civil Rights: The Supreme Court and the Struggle for Racial Equality. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

NARA. (n.d.). Featured Document: The Emancipation Proclamation. Retrieved January 2017, from Archives.gov: https://www.archives.gov/exhibits/featured_documents/emancipation_proclamation/

Spenko, J. L. (1982). The Death of Joe Christmas and the Power of Words. Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 28, No. 3 , 252-268.

Tames, R. (1997). The Way We Lived. London: Reader’s Digest Association .

Wittenberg, J. B. (1995). Race in Light in August: Wordsymbols and Obverse Reflections. In P. M. Weinstein, The Cambridge Companion to William Faulkner (pp. 146-167). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.