William Faulkner’s Light in August gives us an exploration of pertinent issues in the society namely; gender, race and class. The writer reveals his interests in history and its significance to the present by arriving at a novel which illuminates Mississippi in August, which seems to come from the far past; hence the symbolism of the title. Yet Lena Grove, a protagonist in the story contributes more meaning to the title as it also signifies her new-born child who was born in August and the “light” that the baby carries signifying a new generation devoid of racism, prejudice and discrimination.
Our aim is to be able to unveil through the characters and their interactions in the story the issues which serve as the themes also of the novel. A lot of the characters are introduced in two or three ways; first through the eyes of the other characters; second thorough a self-analysis of the characters by using internal monologues and; third through the narrator in a series of flashbacks and stream of consciousness technique. This illustrates the elements in the context where we live; the presence of rumor mongering, envy, relative perception, deception, misunderstanding and isolation.
It is important to note that the narrator’s style poses before the audience a challenge of determining the truth and engaging them in the process of understanding the characters; the way it is in actual reality. The narrator may seem unreliable because it highlights how untrustworthy each of the characters’ own perceptions is, by contrasting them with each other. It does not reveal bluntly the truth even reaching a point where the narrator’s self-contradiction impacts on the complexity yet meaning of the story.
I would like to use the character and situation of Joe Christmas, as significant in the revelation of racism in the society. To Christmas, traces of his Negro ethnicity, represents a stigma, which is even worsened by the way people treat him. Blackness is conceived as evil because of the perception of its impurity and aloofness from God. However the confusion lies in Christmas’ inability to decipher his true African-American lineage as he appears European.
However, he also feels he does not deserve to belong in White communities and hide or run away from them. His racial identity and his mixed reaction towards it, is a play on his fondness of dealing with the society in varied ways. As he often willingly tells people that he is black, he enjoys their condemnation and hatred. In the Jefferson community even people who are sympathetic to Blacks are attacked. This is represented by the characters; Joanna and Hightower.
Joanna Burden continues her ancestors’ struggle for Black emancipation, which makes her peripheral in the society just like Christmas. Joanna and Joe had sexual relationship, intensifying the affinity of their interests and perhaps the closeness of their “ostracized” situation. Hightower on the other hand has been treated with less consideration because of his ideas regarded as sacrilegious by his fellow men. When Joe Christmas and Joe Brown were suspected of Joanna’s murder, Brown had initially found a way of bringing Christmas closer to their suspicion by revealing that he was Black. It has been expressed nonetheless that accusing a White of being Black is worse a crime than being Black itself. Clearly, racial discrimination against the Black is presented here.
Yet the performance of Christmas as a victim of racism is quite unclear more than being a victim of false accusations and society’s lack of “reason” and propensity to misinterpret others. One may even doubt the success of his performance in the way things are understood by the audience. His Blackness is not directly admitted by the narrator although the perception that he is brings him a lot of misfortunes. This is perhaps what the author wants us to understand. The truth most of the time is neglected in the society. Hatred and self-interests lead the people to think what they want to think of others in a manner that will benefit them. The same is true with Ms. Atkins, the dietitian, Brown, and the rest of the townspeople.
The issue of racism because of this has been intensified yet alongside this is the traditional culture of condemnation that people feel toward each other in the light of selfishness. The identity of Christmas therefore becomes more than the tragedy of Blackness; it is also a tragedy of class and gender. The narration has often insinuated homosexual tendencies in the relationship between him and Brown as perceived by the townspeople and the encounter with the prostitute whom he beat, and his hatred to mostly feminine characters.
His poverty as an orphan for instance has led him to a series of miseries until his death. His capture in the same way was triggered by money with the ransom placed by the relative of Joanna. So, his perceived hatred against his lineage may also translate into hatred against his social class and gender. The reader must be careful in reading or deriving the true convictions of the novel, and essentially the reading of Joe Christmas. For me, Joe Christmas is a tool for the realization of issues rather than clear-cut facts.
Another character that I would like to use in relation with the issue of gender is Joanna Burden. Her relationship with Joe Christmas is described as sexual although the presentation of her two-distinct characters is important in understanding how society perceives sexuality and gender. The description of the narrator of Joanna’s feminine and masculine sides comprises stereotypes. One part is her public persona: where she is a middle-aged single woman who has lived in deep seclusion for almost all of her life, with the exception of the black people whom she takes care of, and who care for her in return. She is presented here as completely independent, calm, and unemotional.
The narrator uses male adjectives to describe her. Yet who or what determines male characteristics? The other half of Joanna is her “night” personality-wild, lustful, conniving, and, according to Christmas, very feminine. Yet who qualifies feminine attitudes as we know them today, feminine indeed? The narrator has brought to us all the time what the majority thinks of every character in the society. The author’s beliefs and ideas are concealed and are dependent on the capacity of the audience/readers to disclose them by analysis.
Notice that reading and analysis are two different tasks; while most could read; only some could analyze. In relation to Joe Christmas, Joanna Burden represents all that society; its orthodox culture and mainstream tradition have imposed upon the mind-set of people. Joanna Burden represents; gender discrimination, racial and class discrimination. The painful part for Christmas is that he is bound to kill her for the “burden” that she implicitly bestowed on him. To Christmas, Joanna’s insistence for him to be educated, to be religious and her intentional deception of her other persona manifest weakness and fakeness.
He felt he was deceived as she tries to be one of “them”, meaning the majority, the townspeople, the unreasonable, discriminators. Joanna symbolizes responsibility which Joe was trying to run away from. He does not want to conform. Christmas’ pasts and experiences, his uncertainties and self-confusion and identity crisis- all represents the “common” individual. We are all confused of how things are done and decided in the society. Some subject themselves to conformity just to be comfortable, while others refuse. Both died in the end. The two deaths represent both the death of all societal conditions of discrimination and confusion. The birth of Lena’s child who is a character of innocence and purity of intentions suggest the inevitable role of equality and reason in liberating from repression.
In short, the way the narrator has exposed to us the events call for some historical, analytical, political and even philosophical understanding. We can not directly buy the motives presented by the narrator nor could we simply rely on the gossips of the townspeople in determining the truth. The author concealed information about the characters because the facts are treated less important more than the sentiments and beliefs that transpired in every act.
The story does not even call for a “guess who” or “find out” type of goal. The tone which is one of confused nature is intended, effective and meaningful. The essence of the novel lies in that tendency of the reader to feel rather than to be satisfied, to yield an inquiring mind rather than a comfortable ending.
As in the previous sections of Light In August, in the final chapters Faulkner meditates on the problems of storytelling. The information of the death of Christmas was revealed by an unknown character while the case of Lena and Byron were also resolved by a seemingly insignificant character. This poses before us that in normal circumstances, the “prominent” consisting of the highly-educated, and the elite is the source of all “perceived” truths and knowledge. We accept them not because they are real but because of the stature of the source- not knowing that beyond class, truth is not exclusive to the authority and the “famous”.
The author suggests that the ability to give the past significant power in the present as it is highlighted in the discussion of Hightower’s life in the last chapter may be the key to enlightenment. In our society now and the way it is constructed, much is derived from the remains of history. The themes of racism, discrimination and inequalities for example are rooted in our colonial past. There is no light in August if these are not delved into, considered and critically understood.