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.
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