Arguably the most important theme in Light In August is that of race. This encompasses the question of racial identity, what it means to be biracial, and the problem of Southern racism. Joe Christmas is the center figure for this theme. He looks white, but believes that he has some unknown amount of black blood. Throughout the novel, this is a significant problem for Christmas. He is at times disgusted by blackness, beating a prostitute for being willing to sleep with a black man, and at other times lives in black communities and does his best to absorb the "blackness" of those around him. He is both ashamed and proud of his black ancestry, always feeling a need to tell anyone he is close to of his racial heritage. He himself acknowledges that his quest to come to terms with his racial identity has completely shaped his lifeÃ-he tells Joanna that if he is not partially black, he has wasted an awful lot of time.
The novel deals with the question of whether ChristmasÃ's racial identity crisis is a necessary result of his biracial blood, or whether it is instead a result of the societal definitions of race. Gavin Stevens represents the first optionÃ-he imagines ChristmasÃ's white and black bloods as literally distinct from one another, and at war with each other. Christmas is not ultimately content to stay in black society, but he knows that he is in danger as long as he is in white society, and he feels as if he is always being forced out, thus he ultimately feels isolated in either society.
Christmas is also at the center of the question of Southern racism. The principal action in the book takes place about seventy-five years after emancipation, and yet many of the social mores of the antebellum South are still clearly in place. Doc Hines faces no punishment for cold-blooded murder because his victim was partially black. ChristmasÃ's guilt in the case of JoannaÃ's murder is assumed because he is partially black, and he is lynched because he slept with a white woman. ChristmasÃ's lynching, however, is not that simple. Although Faulkner builds the suspense over whether the people of Jefferson or the people of Mottstown will lynch Christmas, in the end neither town is interested in following through. ChristmasÃ's lynching takes place at the hands of one man, and those who witness it are horrified. Thus the South of Light In August seems to have at least begun to move forward, yet the progress it has made is so miniscule that it only serves to highlight the progress that has not been made.
Like many of Faulkner's novels, the theme of female sexuality has an important place in Light In August. Each of the unmarried female characters in the novel displays a significant amount of sexuality. Bobbie Allen is a prostitute, Lena Grove and Milly Hines both have children out of wedlock, and Miss Atkins and Joanna Burden both participate in highly sexualized relationships. All of these characters are practically defined by their sexuality, and yet they have very little else in common.
Joe Christmas's youthful perception of female sexuality is similar to that of male characters such as Quentin Compson and Horace Benbow in Sound and the Fury and Flags in the Dust, respectively. He is physically repulsed by the idea of menstruation, and he is disturbed by the idea of a promiscuous woman. He even imagines the virgin female as a beautiful urn - a comparison made in both of the above-mentioned novels as well. Unlike Quentin and Horace, John Christmas moves beyond his early obsession with female purity. Although he is at first surprised and disconcerted to learn that Bobbie Allen is a prostitute, he adjusts to the idea quickly, and spends much of the rest of his adult life sleeping with other prostitutes. Yet Christmas never seems to completely accept female sexuality, which may be why he prefers prostitutes. Whereas Joanna Burden's unbridled sexuality is shocking compared to her public persona, the prostitutes Christmas sleeps with have few surprises.
Milly Hines, who is only present in the novel through other characters' remembrances, faces a much more classic Faulknerian fate for her sexual indiscretions. She has sex out of wedlock, and her father kills her lover, essentially causing her tragic death. Lena Grove, on the other hand, who is the most prominent female character in the novel, is affected very little by her sexual behavior.
Although Lena gets pregnant and must leave home, her pregnancy becomes the vehicle through which she gets to travel the South. The characters that Lena meets all look at her with a certain degree of embarrassment for her condition, and yet she seems completely oblivious to this throughout the novel. And although these characters all can tell that she is unwed, even those that treat her harshly for it (such as Martha Armstid) actually show her great kindness. Thus unlike many of Faulkner's other works, Light In August does not necessarily treat female sexuality as a forerunner to tragedy. Although the social customs of the novel's community certainly do not make it easy to be an unmarried mother, Lena's story makes it clear that the South can be more forgiving of female sexuality in certain circumstances.
The theme of justice, or more correctly, the question of whether justice is possible in the racist South, prevails in Light In August. The novel contains many crimes, both moral and legal-murder, prostitution, assault, robbery, neglect-and so the possibility of retribution or justice is significant. And yet justice quickly becomes a problem when it becomes clear that it is meted out more in relation to race than to guilt.
Christmas is guilty of murder beyond that for which he is accused. And yet the reader is deeply unsure of what punishment he should face, for no one who committed any crime against Christmas has ever faced any punishment. Doc Hines killed Christmas's father, and caused his mother to die, in addition to tormenting the young Christmas, and yet although his guilt for at least one crime is well known, he faces no punishment. Christmas's death makes this question all the more poignant. The classic punishment in the old South for any crime by a black man against a black woman is lynching. According to the rules of the South, Christmas is a black man, and just by sleeping with a white woman he has committed a crime. Thus according to the code of the old South, Christmas has faced an appropriate punishment.
That any society could accept Christmas's lynching as an appropriate punishment for his crime throws that whole society into doubt. At the time of the events described in Light In August, some of the town seems to have realized that such punishments are deranged, and yet they still find them acceptable. The crime committed by society in punishing Christmas in such a way seems to the reader to be more unforgivable than Christmas's crime, making justice impossible.
The nature of stories and storytelling is a frequent theme throughout Light In August. The novel's very structure makes it impossible to ignore the theme of storytelling, as it lacks any chronological structure, moving forward based on a decidedly organic pattern. More noticeable is the idea of the storyteller and the storyteller's power. Throughout Light In August, many different characters participate in telling the story. The reader often learns information for the first time from Byron Bunch's conversations with Hightower, from Gavin Stevens' discussions with his old schoolmate, or from a traveling furniture dealer's interactions with his wife.
Each of the different storytellers' tales - including the narrator's - are colored by their unique motivations. At times, it is only their ignorance that alters their version of the course of events. These instances are less threatening to the reader, because they are usually given the correct or more complete information in another form. What is disconcerting, however, are the more subtle moments when the storyteller may or may not be altering the story to fit their motives. Some of the more obvious cases of this are Gavin Stevens and the furniture dealer who enters the novel at the very end. Gavin Stevens clearly fits his telling of the story of Christmas's last escape to the theory he wants to prove of Christmas's warring white and black bloods. Much of his story is clearly conjecture, which the storyteller can use to powerful affect to completely alter the arc of a story without any actual dishonesty. The furniture dealer seems to be telling his wife the story of Byron Bunch and Lena Grove in an effort to impress - and possibly seduce - her. As with Gavin Stevens, he often uses conjecture, such that the reader is unclear on what is objective truth. The doubt that the reader has in Gavin Stevens and the furniture dealer's veracity makes the entire novel more suspect.
The Past and Present
As with almost all of Faulkner's novels, the connection between the past and the present is an important theme in Light In August. This issue arises with most of the major characters at some point, but it is most significant with respect to Reverend Gail Hightower. With Hightower, the importance of the past is rooted in his family history. According to a loyal former slave of the family, Hightower's grandfather killed hundreds of Yankee soldiers in the Civil War. Unlike many of Faulkner's other characters, who are obsessed with past familial deeds, Hightower is not obsessed with his grandfather's legend because he is nostalgic for the antebellum South, or because he never got the chance to show his bravery and valor in battle. Hightower is a pacifist who is perhaps the least racially prejudiced character in the novel, and thus would seem likely to welcome the transformation from old South to new South. Rather, Hightower is obsessed with his grandfather's history because he was born into a house full of ghosts: an aged father, a dying mother, and a servant obsessed with the past. In this world, the young Hightower found the stories of his grandfather to be more alive than his actual parents, and so he came to feel a profound connection to his ancestor's legendary death. There is some irony in this, because Hightower's grandfather died looting a chicken coop, and Hightower enjoys believing that the person who shot him was the wife of a Confederate soldier protecting her chicken coop. This shows the absurdity of the obsessive pride over familial histories, because so often the actions are so far from grand-especially in the South, where pride in the past is inherently racist, because it shows nostalgia for the culture of slavery.
Perception and Knowledge
Throughout Light In August, the narrator describes characters who take in a situation completely with one glance, or characters who act with a kind of preternatural knowledge. At the same time, many of these characters act on knowledge that is assumed or conjectured, to possibly dangerous ends. The danger of conjecture becomes clear when the Jefferson community takes such assumptions as true knowledge, and acts on them. The clearest example of this is found in Joe Christmas: the town has only Lucas Burch's word that Christmas is the killer, and this is especially suspect since Burch is obsessed with the reward (and is the only other likely suspect). The town, however, learns that Christmas is black, and so takes the assumption that Christmas killed Joanna Burden as fact. While the reader knows that this is true, to have the entire town act on it with so little proof is disconcerting.
The power of assumed knowledge is especially clear in the case of Percy Grimm. Grimm, along with the rest of Jefferson, assumes Christmas is guilty. He takes this knowledge as such definite fact that when Hightower (somewhat unconvincingly) claims Christmas was with him the night of the murder, he believes that Hightower has slept with Christmas...but this does not cause him to have even a moment's doubt that he should kill and castrate Christmas.
This also relates to the questions of identity and who defines a character's identity. For almost all of the three years that Christmas lives in Jefferson, the town defines him as a white man, and thus although he is a bit of an enigma, he is allowed to live in peace. Once Burch tells the town that Christmas has black blood, the town's definition of Christmas changes completely. Thus communal knowledge and communal assumptions create the rules and boundaries by which characters are forced to live.
One of the more disturbing aspects of Light In August is its profusion of violent scenes. Joe Christmas is certainly at the center of most of this. While he is usually the perpetrator, in the earliest instances of violence he is the victim. These scenes are all the more disturbing because Christmas is a young child, and violence is present in some form in almost every scene from his childhood. Where there should be love and kindness, there is instead coldness and pain. These early experiences make the violence Christmas exhibits later in life more understandable, although no less disturbing. The continuity between the violence perpetrated against Christmas and the violence he commits suggests that violence begets violence. Christmas is so hardened to violence by the time he is eight that he cannot accept kindness from Mrs. McEachern, because to do so would force him to soften his shell a little, thus making Mr. McEachern's beatings all the more painful.
That McEachern's violence is perpetrated in the name of religion does not make it any better. In fact, the close tie between McEachern's violent punishments and Christmas's violent leanings as an adult only speaks to the dangers inherent in such stringent organized religion. McEachern's violence towards Christmas in some way creates Christmas's violent tendencies, and McEachern's Presbyterianism creates, or at least justifies, his violence. Thus, McEachern's Presbyterianism is at the root of Christmas's later violence.
Christmas's violence is also closely tied to sexuality and misogyny. The first violent act we see him commit is his inexplicable beating of the prostitute. This seems to stem both from his hatred of women and their unpredictability (as opposed to the hard obviousness of McEachern), and from his confusion about his own racial identity.
The most disturbing act of violence depicted in the novel is also closely tied to race and sexuality, but it is not committed by Christmas. Percy Grimm shoots Christmas five times, and then, while he is still alive, castrates him with a butcher knife. This warped lynching reflects the racist and misogynistic sexual codes of the antebellum South. All of the violence in the novel seems to culminate in this moment, and thus all of the violence seems to be borne out of the racial violence of the old South.
Light In August Questions and Answers
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