Light In August
Philosophical Notions in William Faulkner’s Light in August
Light of August
Critics of William Faulkner have often identified elements of well-known philosophical notions in his acclaimed novel Light in August. These ideas include Jeffersonian agrarianism and pragmatism, but no views are more clearly represented and more often overlooked in Faulkner’s piece than those of transcendentalist philosophers, particularly Ralph Waldo Emerson. The beliefs Emerson presented in his essay “Self-Reliance” on the importance of identity and self-actualization as well as his rejection of societally accepted definitions of virtue can be found in Faulkner’s characters particularly as he moves them toward social and personal awakening. Faulkner, like Emerson, stresses the importance of individuals owning their own thoughts and sharing their beliefs yet still maintains that people must gain truth through experience. The parallels between the work of Emerson and Faulkner in terms of their views on self-definition and belief in a man’s duty to share his views with the world have lead literary scholars to begin investigating the influence of the philosopher on the author.
Faulkner weaves his critical view of societal notions of virtue throughout the piece and incorporates Emerson’s belief that religious and social institutions serve only to preserve their false reputation as essential parts of society when in reality they distort the notion of sanctity and coerce men into forfeiting independent conceptions of themselves. In “Self-Reliance” Emerson points to society’s ability to lead its followers to adopt beliefs despite their own conscious as its most dangerous power. He implores his
audience to seek out their own identities, for “immortal palms must not be hindered by the name of goodness but must explore if it be goodness,”(21). Faulkner shares a very similar sentiment in the novel through the beliefs of the character Byron Bunch who proclaims that, “… because a fellow is more afraid of the trouble he might have than he ever is of the trouble he’s already got. He’ll cling to trouble he’s used to before he’ll risk a change,” (83). Through these words Faulkner conveys that men, despite their fear of being ostracized for operating outside of the norms of society, should have their own moral code. Consequentially, Faulkner connects his piece to transcendentalism. Literary scholar, Cleanth Brooks asserts that the fictional, rural county of Yoknapatawpha, Mississippi, which serves as the setting for Light in August as well as several of Faulkner’s other pieces, works to highlight the suffocating nature of history. Brooks identifies Yoknapatawpha and its citizens as “exemplary models of societal rigidity 19th century thinkers rallied against,” though Faulkner’s writing came nearly a century after transcendentalist movement.
Faulkner, however, does not fully reject society; he merely asserts that people do not need it to have meaningful commitments to the supposed needs of his community, a notion that draws from the individualistic ideas of Emerson. In “Self Reliance” Emerson comments that men who live with an unabashed belief in their own worth will discover the intended purpose of their lives and even achieve a higher level of spiritual awareness within themselves: “The infallible index of true progress is found in the tone the man takes. …If he have found his center, the Deity will shine through him…”(60). Emerson claims men who open themselves up to discovery of higher truths will enjoy deeper connections with God and one another. Faulkner illustrates this point by repeatedly referring to Reverend Hightower by his religious title even though the character obviously lacks meaningful understanding or true reverence teachings of the Church. In fact, Faulkner mockingly refers to him as “the Reverend Hightower” in moments when he is at his most spiritually corrupt and when his character is most out of touch with his so-called beliefs. Ironically, Joe Christmas, an introverted murderer, serves as a Christ-like character that exposes the superficiality of the other characters. His name reinforces this notion, alluding to the birth of Jesus to suggest that Joe himself represents a rebirth of Christ (Backman, 1966). Faulkner draws even more parallels between Joe Christmas and Jesus; they’re both outcasts on the fringes of society, they both are killed in their thirties, and they share the same initials. However, critics of Faulkner have interpreted these parallels and have concluded that the Christ-like quality of Joe Christmas serves mainly to add moral complexity to the character. “…attempts to see Joe Christmas as a martyr,” Irving Howe comments, “is complicated by his life of violence and his general contempt for humanity.” Howe asserts that Christmas serves rather as a fallen hero or an anti-hero who represents the frustration and contempt a modern Christ would feel towards the corruption and moral perversion of society.
This separation of true spiritual awareness and religion plays a key role in Emersonian philosophy, but Emerson goes even further in his criticisms of religion and explores the Church’s affects on men’s relationship with God. In “Self-Reliance” Emerson makes the point that organized religions, namely Christianity, paint God as a distant mysterious entity available only through prayer, ritual, and the summons of privileged members of the religious hierarchy. According to Emerson, such a view only serves to cut off “the relations of the soul to the divine spirit” (28) and cause men to fear direct communication with God. He further develops this idea in his later essay in which he explains that when a man accepts his own ideas and finds “the union of man and God in every act of the soul” (62) he becomes a part of the grander spiritual entity that ties his soul to that of all men, but because of the influence of society and religion men fail to recognize the presence of God within them and, as a result, cannot acknowledge the interconnectedness of men. Faulkner fails to suggest any sort of fundamental unity amongst men, but he does assign much importance to human interaction. Many of Faulkner’s characters in the novel distance themselves from society either consciously or unconsciously, and they begin the piece emotionally stunted under the crushing weight of their isolation. Only those characters like Joe Brown and Byron Bunch who are able to become re-socialized and form connections with others reach any emotional or spiritual contentment. For the characters isolation is confinement, and interaction is freedom. Through the evolution of his characters, Faulkner conveys this notion effectively in the novel. However, such fulfillment cannot be achieved until the characters also attain levels of self-definition aligned with Emersonian philosophy. In this respect the novel serves as a documentation of their spiritual journey to achieve self-reliance and recognize their place in humanity.
Although Faulkner recognizes the potential evils of organized religion, Emerson takes an even stronger stance and makes it clear to his audience that the transition from a mindless follower to a self reliant individual requires the complete rejection of social conventions that, he believes, strip one of his ability to think for himself. In “Self Reliance”, Emerson recognizes the dependence of organized religion on the “sacredness of tradition” (21) to illicit conformity in its congregation. In an attempt to be accepted in society, men adopt the Church’s views on morality and insist on going through the motions of rituals that have long since lost their meaning. Faulkner reflects Emerson’s ideas through his description of the mechanical prayers his characters performed with characters that “believed with calm paradox that they were the irreproachable servants of a fatality that they believed in because they had to,” (209) Their prayers hold no meaning and, therefore, are not actual communications with God but empty gestures that they believe would save their souls. Reverence Hightower’s fall from grace demonstrates the detrimental effects of attempting to question religion. His loss of religious titles, in the end, only helps him and represents a new beginning for his character because only after this moment is he able to cope with the dark history that plagues him (Malin, 1957). The ripple effect of his spiritual rebirth manages to illicit significant internal changes take place amongst the other members of his family. In his 1986 essay, James Snead astutely makes the point that, ironically, Hightower’s commitment to his newly formed identity when he is no longer a reverend is more effective in moving others than his sermons ever were. Through these characters, Faulkner highlights the ineffectiveness of religious devotion in producing wiser individuals.
Emerson does not only charge men with the duty to realize the message that God has instilled in them but also to spread their message to others openly without insecurity or fear of judgment. He proclaims that men, real men, cannot allow the potential scorn of society to force him into silence: “We but half express ourselves, and are ashamed of that divine idea, which each of us represents,” (20). He asserts that it is a man’s moral obligation to share his ideas to the world because “God will not have his work made manifest by cowards,” (20). However, Emerson seemingly contradicts himself by asserting that men must teach others the truths they have discovered and proceeding to insist on the futility of teaching. Faulkner shares even Emerson’s contradiction. In the novel Hightower repeatedly expresses an inability to lead others in their devotion or help them achieve pride in their identities. He expresses this weakness even after he himself has gain a genuine sense of self-esteem (Minter, 1970). Through the repetition of this confession Faulkner reinforces the message that truths cannot be taught but only learned through experience. He instead insists that individuals can teach others not through words but through example. Faulkner recognizes that a man cannot teach an individual to connect their souls to the universal spirit, but that does not mean he should not try to spread his truth by simply living by it. He and Emerson agree that knowledge can only go so far, for intelligence cannot replace wisdom.
Of all the obstacles preventing Faulkner’s characters from progressing, history serves as the greatest of hindrances. Many characters are unable to gain an identity separate from that pushed onto them because of those who came before them. Faulkner attributes this weakness to an overestimation of the past’s significance that people are instilled with throughout their lives. Consequently, the children in Faulkner’s novel emerge as the most enlightened and spiritually whole (Pitavy, 1973). The juxtaposition of Lena Grove and her child demonstrate this notion. While Lena distances herself from others and recoils in shame because of her history, her child navigates her surroundings completely unencumbered and with the doe-eyed innocence of youth. In order for adults to progress they must shed the notions that their experiences have ingrained in them and regain the mindset of their youth, for the old will parish if they cannot adapt. His views on childhood connect to the ideas displayed in Emerson’s pieces. In his essays, Emerson admires children and their ability to express themselves openly without fear of the consequences: “Their mind being whole, their eye is yet unconquered, and when we look in their faces, we are disconcerted. Infancy conforms to nobody,” (20). He asserts that adults have fallen victim to the restrictions of society and are forced to overanalyze or even reject their own thoughts out of fear of how others will react. Children hold no such anxiety. Their minds have not yet been divorced from their souls, and they are able to speak plainly and “from within” (60). As a result they can connect with everyone with ease, but an adult must tear away at the boundaries that they place around themselves in order to connect to their inner selves and pull out the piece of the universal soul that God has instilled in them.
The Emersonian notions of individual thought, freedom from society, the importance of genuine human connection, and the discovery of great truths by abandoning the past are present throughout Light in August. The characters of Lena Grove, Joe Christmas, and Byron Bunch and their progression throughout the novel towards and away from connecting to the universal spirit of humanity capture the arguments Emerson creates in his two essays and serve as clear proof of Emerson’s presence in Faulkner’s work.
Light in August by William Faulkner. The Portrayal of Social Outcast
Faulkner’s Idea on Social Outcasting in Light in August
One of the key beliefs that were prominent in the South was the “Agrarian Ideal”, in which Americans could successfully thrive on small farms and escape the temptation of the city. Unlike today’s society, women during that time period were looked down upon for being pregnant out of wedlock and shunned out of society. In William Faulkner’s Light in August Lena Grove, a woman who is on the search for the father of her unborn child, meets Byron Bunch at a planing mill, mistaking him for her boyfriend. Byron, already a social outcast as a result of his self-inflicted isolation and obsessiveness with his work, gets involved with Lena and claims to fall in love with her. By tangling himself into Lena’s situation, Byron goes against the social norms that he was brought up with. As a result, Gail Hightower, a retired minister who was also shunned out by the Jefferson community, and Mrs. Beard, the owner of a boardinghouse that Byron stays at, judge and condemn Byron for the continuous choices that he makes. Byron becomes more of a social outcast in the Jefferson community after his initial interaction with Lena.
Byron goes against social norms for Lena and becomes naive that she will accept him and fall deeply in love. Byron’s choice of helping a pregnant woman opposes the morals that he was brought up in. The introduction passage to Byron and Lena’s first interaction begins with, “Then Byron fell in love. He fell in love contrary to all the tradition of his austere and jealous country raising which demands in the object physical inviolability” (Faulkner 49). Faulkner uses this quote to stress the importance of the “Agrarian Ideal” that was a prominent belief in the South, which states that the country is a place where a family will flourish on a small living and escape the temptations of the city. This ideal is crucial because this was the environment that Byron grew up in, and falling in love with a pregnant woman is one of the city temptations that he learned to avoid in his childhood. Byron’s parents raised him in a way, like the rest of the community of Jefferson, to take pity on her, not to get involved and become in the middle of it. Readers can also infer that this is his first interaction with a woman, which will veer him away from his country raising. Throughout his life, Byron has steered away from the temptations that the town offers. He works six days a week and travels to another town on Sundays to direct the choir. This constant routine isolates himself from society and puts him at a disadvantage in certain situations. Faulkner states that “If there had been love once, man or woman would have said that Byron Bunch had forgotten her. Or she (meaning love) him, more like-that small man who will not see thirty again…” (Faulkner 47). Byron’s relationship with Lena is his first experience with love, and he is new to the idea of it. He has lived his last 30 years consumed in his work and avoiding the gambling and drinking temptations. He has a completely naive approach to his relationship with Lena and truly believes that she will fall in love with him and completely forget about the father of her baby. Love seems to be an occurrence that is not meant to be in his life because he does not know how to approach it, and his flaws show tremendously. Byron was previously an outcast to the town of Jefferson by making himself isolated from the community, and now he is truly not accepted as a result of getting involved with Lena and her child. After Byron’s initial reaction with Lena he goes and talks to his only friend, Hightower, and receives disapproval for getting mixed up in Lena’s situation.
Hightower and Mrs. Beard are disappointed with Byron and view him differently once he meets Lena and becomes involved in her helpless search for the father of her unborn child. Once Byron encounters Lena, Hightower and him are similar in which they are both rejected by society for the mistakes that they made. Byron goes to talk with Hightower and mentions that Lena must move because she wants to be closer to Lucas Burch and wait for him when he gets out of jail. Hightower aggressively responds with, “‘Why must she move? When she is comfortable there, with a women at hand if she should need one?”’ (Faulkner 299). Hightower is confused on why Byron is insisting that she move and why he is involved with Lena at all. His frustration is apparent throughout their whole conversation and constantly questions Byron why he must move her. Byron’s only reason for moving Lena is to please her, and he will do anything to kiss up to her and show his love for her. Hightower is not the only person that is bewildered by Byron’s decision to become involved with Lena. Mrs. Beard is disgusted with his choice and is not deceived by him. When Byron brings Lena to the boarding house, in hopes of finding a place for her to stay, he introduces her to Mrs. Beard, and she responds negatively. “Mrs. Beard watched him now. He thought that she was still trying to get his meaning. But what she was doing was watching him grope… Her eyes were not exactly cold. But they were not warm” (Faulkner 85). In this passage, readers experience a sense of tenseness between Mrs. Beard and Byron. They do not have much of a relationship, other than him being the occupant and she being the owner, and readers get a sense that they do not communicate much. Readers also detect that Mrs. Beard is baffled, like Hightower, on why Byron is so obsessed with Lena’s story and taking care of her when she has a supposed boyfriend that cares for her. When Faulkner states that, “Her eyes were not exactly cold. But they were not exactly warm” it is apparent that she is judging Byron and the constant acts of kindness that he does for her (Faulkner 85). As the conversation continues between Byron and Mrs. Beard, the tension becomes more dominant. Byron tries to lie to Mrs. Beard, and she calls him out on it: “They say that it is the practiced liar who can deceive. But so often the practiced and chronic liar deceives only himself; it is the man who all his life has been self-convicted of veracity whose lies find quickest credence” (Faulkner 85 & 86). Mrs. Beard realizes that Byron is lying and trying to deceive her. This quote discusses how the practiced liar is the one that can only deceive himself, not others around him. It also states that it is extremely easy to continue lying to oneself, and it is a practice that one will continue throughout one’s lifespan if one does not come to terms with the problem. Mrs. Beard sees Byron as a hopeless being that is wasting his time on a hopeless cause.
Through Byron’s constant desperateness, he has turned away from the innocence of helping Lena and is socially rejected. Now he works for the Devil, and his raising is contrary to him falling in love. The community of Jefferson is also against the idea of being involved with a pregnant woman because one would be conceived as damaged goods. Byron is being aided by the Devil through his interactions and choices with and for Lena. Hightower warns Byron what the outcome of his interaction might be and what he is muddling with: “‘I dont think that you could do anything that would be very evil, Byron, no matter how it looked to folks. But are you going to undertake to say just how far evil extends into the appearance of evil? just where between doing and appearance evil stops?”’ (Faulkner 306). In this passage, readers get a glimpse of Hightower cautioning Byron that people will view him negatively and judge him for getting involved with Lena. He clearly states that he is messing with a woman that bears a child, who is clearly not his and the negative opposing views he is going to receive. Through serving the Devil, Byron also dissatisfies God in the process. Byron goes against God’s will for him in life and utterly disappoints him through his actions. In the conclusion of Byron’s conversation with Hightower Hightower expresses to Byron that “‘If you must marry, there are single women, girls, virgins…. God didn’t intend it so when He made marriage. Made it? Women made marriage”’ (Faulkner 316). Here Hightower uses his religious views to defend his opinion by stating that “‘God didn’t intend it so when He made marriage”’ (Faulkner 316). Hightower outright states that Byron is doing evil and does not need his help because Byron is “‘already being helped by someone stronger than [he is]…”’ (Faulkner 308). Byron not only is following the Devil’s plan but also experiences rejection from his fellow citizens. He asserts what the community is feeling and believes by stating, “The fellow that took care of another man’s whore while the other fellow was busy making a thousand dollars. And got nothing for it” (Faulkner 416). Here readers experience some of Byron’s internal dialogue on what he knows the other members, including Hightower and Mrs. Beard, of the community have been thinking about him ever since he got involved with Lena. Readers also feel Byron’s hurt and rejection that he experiences everywhere he turns. This dismissal that Byron experiences from his fellow citizens is unmistakable throughout the novel.
Byron experiences rejection from all sides of the community, including Hightower and Mrs. Beard. He also follows through with the Devil’s plan by becoming involved with Lena and rejecting God’s belief that marriage is to someone you love and who is a follower of Him. Towards the end of the book, Byron admits that others in the community view him negatively, and he is cast out of society as an outcast. Byron’s rejection from society is a minor part of Faulkner’s Light in August, but it entrenches on the Southern character in which identity of an individual is a key characteristic of Southern literature. A reputation of an individual is a key characteristic that people look at when getting to know someone. It is a lousy excuse to reject an individual from one’s social group for caring and loving a woman that is pregnant, or even caring for the poor and rejected of our society today. Many people receive a label that can never be removed or altered as a result of a person deciding that one deserved to be shunned. In today’s society judgement pollutes and ruins the air that is constantly breathed in, this will eventually contaminate our lives and relationships will soon have no purpose behind them. This contamination will only occur if individuals do not realize how rejection gravely injures a person.
Light in August vs The Catcher in the Rye: a Literary Comparison
“Light in August” by William Faulkner and “The Catcher In The Rye” by J. D. Saling’’’’’er possess qualities that constitute as good fiction and other times, they tend to stray away from being just that, good fiction. Whether or not fiction is considered good or bad fiction, it can be made up of several criteria, from the ability to make the reader feel emotions he or she had no idea they could feel to being able to create specific obstacles within a storyline that brings emotion and said character together to embrace a newfound respect for themselves. The criteria that will allow it to be explored by both novels mentioned above are as followed, respectively, the ability to be able to make the reader feel the five senses, including but not limited to, touch, smell, sight, taste and hearing. Another criteria that makes or breaks a fictional story is the ability to make a reader feel emotions and for them to come to the realization that in order to really connect with the characters in said fictional novel, it’s necessary to go through the highs and lows of the character in question. This makes them come to life and relatable to real life situations. Last but not least, creating obstacles in which a character like Lena Grove, a pregnant teen, from “Light In August” makes something of her current situation by going into a partnership with a man she’s never met before and buying and selling illegal alcohol. Each criteria has a way to bring a fictional novel to seem realistic and other times, the criteria steers away from realistic and more towards detached and unemotional.
In “Light In August” by William Faulkner, personally, it was very difficult for me to grasp whether or not Faulkner had the ability to immediately connect with his readers due to the inability to grab the reader’s attention with some of his characters and the way in which he chose to have them communicate with one another. “Then she says: “Folks have been kind. They have been right kind.” (P 8) This old English way of speaking in the novel forces readers to go back in time at an attempt to relate to a kind of language that was way before their time, thus proving to be difficult for any reader to immediately relate to. “Going back in time” towards the older English language and how characters interacted with one another during the time, spoke a truer testament to the time period in which they were in. Set in the early 1930s and in the Lafayette County of Mississippi, Faulkner took note of the fact that old English was derived from the language spoken from a time period in the South and tried to incorporate that into his novel. What he didn’t do was delving deeper into the minds of the readers that would be reading his novel years down the line. Reading languages change slowly over time and as a result of this, it’s important to follow the criteria of forcing the reader to connect with the characters of a novel on an emotional level and it’s difficult to do so when it’s equally as hard to understand the language spoken between two characters.
Having the ability to specifically describe the daily motions that Faulkner’s characters go through on a daily basis takes a great deal of effort and dedication. “And now he knows that she is watching him: the gray woman not plump and not thin, manhard, workhard, in a serviceable gray garment worn savage and brusque, her hands on her hips, her face like those of generals who have been defeated in a battle” (P 10). An important way in which Faulkner chose to connect with readers was in a descriptive way, filled with characters and colors that come to life with every sentence read.
Faulkner created more than enough obstacles for his characters to overcome with perseverance and resilience. When very pregnant Lena Grove runs away from her home in Alabama due to the curiosity of finding the father of her baby, Lucas Burch, she’ll do anything to find the means to support herself and her unborn child. “…I come from Alabama.” “Alabama? In your shape? Where’s your folks?” (P 8) Just by taking a quick look at Lena, then stranger Byron Bunch can even tell that Lena was in no shape to be travelling, let alone working, in the current physical state she was in. “Perhaps he realized that he could not escape. Anyway, he stayed, watching the two creatures that struggled in the one body like two moon-gleamed shapes.” (P 111) Faulkner chooses to describe the meaning of the affair between Christmas and Miss. Burden in a way that both depicted their affair and characters true personas that he chose to bring out during intense scenes such as this one.
In “The Catcher In The Rye” by J. D. Salinger, Salinger chose to bring his characters to life by expressing the utmost respect to his characters’ senses. The novel begins with the protagonist talking to readers from a mental hospital and describes Christmas time during the colder weather in California, emphasizing on his previous years wintertime. “Anyway, it was December and all, and it was cold as a witches teat, especially on top of that stupid hill…The week before that, somebody’d stolen my camel’s-hair coat right out of my room, with my fur-lined gloves right in the pocket and all” (P 2). Salinger chooses to connect with his readers by depicting every inner thought and physical movement of his character as lifelike and this shows an almost immediate connection between reader and character. This also ties into the fact that along with an immediate connection between the reader and character due to being extremely descriptive, it shows the attachment Salinger feels towards his characters. “Do you blame me for flunking you, boy?” he said. “No sir! I certainly don’t” I said. I wished to hell he’s stop calling me “boy” all the time. This depicted the discomfort Salinger felt for his character, Holden Caulfield, and how much he disliked being referred to as something other than his name. This made his character connect with any reader that ever felt this level of discomfort and certainty that he or she did not appreciate being referred to as something other than anything familiar to them. The ability for Salinger to create obstacles within his characters and their development throughout the story proved to be successful.
Based on the way in which Caulfield presents himself and his sense of maturity, it shows that he was in no rush to grow up. The way other adult figures in the novel are presented, strayed Holden to be even more hesitant on growing older and facing all the responsibilities that accompanied it. “He was a virgin if I ever saw one. I doubt if he ever even gave anybody a feel” (P 21). Although Caulfield himself is a virgin and would be extremely childlike whilst on the topic of the female gender and their sexuality, he was quick to jump on any occasion to “belittle” another character that made attempts to court a woman. Salinger characterized Caulfield as being the first to speak up on an issue that he clearly had no background knowledge on, but the last to take the plunge to gain that knowledge on. The obstacle made for Holden was the fact that he could never own up to his constant self-reassurance of his experiences in life.
“Light in August” by William Faulkner and “The Catcher In The Rye” by J. D. Salinger are both fictional novels that set criteria’s for themselves that either prove to be true or ineffective in each author’s way of writing. The criteria that will allow it to be explored by both novels mentioned above are as followed, respectively, the ability to be able to make the reader feel the five senses, including but not limited to, touch, smell, sight, taste and hearing. Another criteria that makes or breaks a fictional story is the ability to make a reader feel emotions and for them to come to the realization that in order to really connect with the characters in said fictional novel, it’s necessary to go through the highs and lows of the character in question. Lastly, creating obstacles gives the character(s) in question the chance to come to life and make use of the emotions they feel within themselves, as well as between themselves and a secondary character. Every criteria has one way or another to bring a fictional novel to seem more realistic but other times, the criteria steers away from realistic and more towards detached and unemotional.
Inherent nature of violence to the society
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.
Unforgiving social standards and cues
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, whether he be the father or not, is already a cuckold. Give yourself at least the one chance in 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 now wishes 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.
Light in August and All the Pretty Horses Essay
In both novels, All The Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy and Light in August by William Faulkner, a central theme of heroism and the expectations placed on the two main characters and other’s surrounding them is presented as a pivotal point for the advancement of the plot and embellishment of the meaning of the book. While this theme is reflected unseemlier ways while comparing the two works, it is not presented in the same fashion in regards to the author’s choices and characterizations of the figures that populate their fictional worlds. While McCarthy’s work reflects a more optimistic view toward heroic acts and attempts made at greatness than Faulkner, the latter’s novel is a darker rendition of this concept with heroic acts and charity being repaid with corruption and pain. Both novels address this central concept with plot lines that follow the characters through elaborate journeys and focus on set ups for heroism and, at times, failure in achieving it.
The most powerful and understandable medium through which this idea can be translated in the two novels are the characters. Both main characters are used as examples of heroism through means of non-heroic acts or failure at heroism itself through the eyes of the audience or other characters in the novel. In McCarthy’s novel, the main character presented is John Grady who has a set goal of attaining the rustic lifestyle of a cowboy, a naturally heroic role simply by its associative meaning in the eyes of the sixteen year old boy. As both a parallel and contrast the this, Faulkner’s Joe Christmas is a character who is relentlessly set on failure in his opportunities for any kind of redeeming action and yet ascends to the place of a Christ like figure by the end of the novel simply through the payment he is made to make in the closing of the book. These are the two characters received as heroes in their own respective worlds if not by the other characters that inhabit them. The attainment of this perceived greatness is drastically different for each character, how ever, and this difference calls into question the very basis which the audience uses to classify a hero. john Grady’s continuous struggles through the various trials of his journey, such as the fight with the cuchillero in prison, are what give him the respect of the audience whereas Christmas’ heroism is present only because of a certain sympathy felt for him due to the hand he is dealt being an unfair one both in life through his mixed heritage and the discrimination he receives for it and in his death through its circumstances and the hatred which he must suffer. The holistic comparison of these two characters and their failures in their heroic attempts or lack thereof reveal a similar result from two very different approaches, effectively establishing a blurred line for an audience as the the validity and meaning of a heroic figure.
In an extension of the exemplification of character driven heroism, the supporting characters in each of the novels provides more insight into the view the two authors hold of the attainment of greatness. In All The Pretty Horses, McCarthy presents two other key figures that, in addition to John Grady, create a group whose flaws are characterized in each of its members. As the two’s presumed leader, John Grady’s most revered quality by the audience is hope. This trait, how ever, is a downfall for him as he can be overly ambitious. Rawlings is a representation of cowardice, a trait that removes his chance at a heroic status and eventually confines him to the option of retreat back to Texas. Finally, Blevins is the character who represents youth, the main shortcoming of the group as a whole. This combination is the set back that gives John Grady his heroic feature after he overcomes its confinement. This forthcoming of extreme effort from John Grady contrasts Christmas’ lack of persistence in any charitable endeavor. This is where the characters of Lena Grove and Byron Bunch become key in understanding why we view Christmas the way we do at the end of the novel despite his less than honorable actions.Christmas is the ultimate concentration of sin in the novel but is not its sole ambassador. He is simply a result and manifestation of the sins of others. Lena is a testament to his impurity for which he suffers. Her lack of virginity is a parallel to the lack of belonging Christmas feels because of his racial background. Byron is more a figure of corruption as he is distracted from his routine activities and even God by the sinfulness of lust. This reflects the corruption suffered by Christmas through the abuse of others and the festering of sores created through minor acts of untreated sins eventually snowballing into murder. Between the two works, it can been seen an interesting contrast in that one character become dedicates to a goal of heroic notion and achieves the same effect as someone who simply happened to be the product of misfortune and poor circumstances.
While the realization of heroic stature is something attained by both characters, the means to achieving this goal and the effectiveness of their supposed heroism can be debated. It can be argued that John Grady’s actions such as killing a man or hiding sexual relationship with his employer’s daughter are a testament enough to remove his title of the hero of the novel while Joe Christmas’ entire life is enough to revoke his. The reason that these two are able to be presented as heroes is because they are the best that each novel has to offer. Both works present characters who are searching for a world that cannot exist for either of them whether it be one of acceptance or of an era that has already passed. It is the pursuance of a dream that is the most heroism quality the audience sees in these characters and their failures in such an endeavor only create a sense of sympathy in the reader. The novels exemplify the realism of heroic imperfection and present an idea that disproves the warped notions of certain characters while also correcting the mislead assumptions of the reader.
Christmas Apparent Based on Its Actions
“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.
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.
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. “I 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.