Light In August was the first book Faulkner published after gaining some public success with Sanctuary, the book he wrote for commercial gain only. He published Light In August in 1931, thus beginning the period of the publication of much of his best work. Light In August was not as experimental as the two masterpieces that preceded it, The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying, but it continued and refined many of the themes that Faulkner had developed earlier in his career.
Light In August tells the interweaving stories of a cast of very different characters all trying to make their way in the South. These characters inhabit Jefferson, Mississippi, the central town in Faulkner's fictional Yoknapatawpha County, the setting of many of his novels (and most of his greatest works). Each of these characters highlights one or more of Faulkner's favorite themes-Joe Christmas faces a crisis of racial identity and finds sexualized women horrifying, Reverend Hightower is so obsessed with his family's past that he is barely alive, and Lena Grove is a fallen woman.
While the themes are familiar, the characters are very different incarnations of them than those found in other Faulkner works. Lena's character is nothing like Caddy's in The Sound and the Fury, for example, and unlike the Sartorises preoccupations in Flags in the Dust, Hightower's obsession with his family's past is not related to glory - and is in fact far more complicated and obtuse. Unlike the characters in The Sound and the Fury or As I Lay Dying, the characters in Light In August are not held together by familial relationships. This fact changes the tone of human interaction in the novel and extends the study of these interactions from the family unit to the community.
The connections between the characters in Light In August are not immediately clear, and the novel meanders structurally through each of the stories with considerable complexity. This is the main modernist feature of Light in August, for the writing is much more simplistic than, for example, Faulkner's next major novel, Absalom, Absalom!, as well as Faulkner's other modernist masterpieces. Yet there is also complexity in the tone of the novel, which varies dramatically from the rather comic romance between Lena Grove and Byron Bunch to the tragic, violent, and deeply disturbing story of Joe Christmas.
Light In August's title comes from a moment towards the end of the novel when Reverend Hightower contemplates the changing light as he encounters all the ghosts of his life, before finally dying himself. In this chapter, the August light is tied to the overlapping of past and present, for it brings with it the ghosts of the past. Faulkner highlights the way history overpowers the South, for this light that brings the ghosts bathes everything, and is inescapable in any effort to survive.
Besides Reverend Hightower's story and its focus on past and present, Light In August centers around two distinct and contrasting stories: that of Lena Grove's circular and peaceful journey to find Lucas Burch, and Joe Christmas's linear, violent journey that ends in his brutal death. Some critics have faulted Light In August for its lack of a thematic tie between these two stories, but ultimately they each show how even those living on the fringes of Southern society are closely connected to each member of the community.