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.”

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