Light in August Introduction
In A Nutshell
Published in 1932, William Faulkner's Light in August chronicles the life and death of Joe Christmas, a man of ambiguous racial ancestry. Like The Sound and the Fury, Absalom, Absalom, and As I Lay Dying, Light in August takes place in Faulkner's fictional Yoknapatawpha County (say that five times fast). The so-called Yoknapatawpha novels are linked by their shared location, but they're also linked by certain themes and concerns, such as the legacy of slavery, the persistence of memory, and the South's struggle to come to terms with its defeat in the Civil War, among others.
Light in August was published after Faulkner gained a wide readership 1931, when he published Sanctuary. Sanctuary is a potboiler of a novel, one with lots of alcohol and sex and violence. Once Sanctuary made it big, folks started realizing that Faulkner's other work was actually technically (and emotionally) brilliant. His work was so brilliant, in fact, that the good folks at the Nobel Foundation awarded him the Nobel Prize for literature in 1949.
Why Should I Care?
Joe Christmas is a character in search of himself – and who can't relate to that journey? Light in August presents a cautionary tale of proper and improper ways to find oneself. On the one hand, Christmas runs away from his problems and reacts violently to his own discomfort. Then, on the flip side, characters like Lena and Byron live in the present, admit their shortcomings, and believe in remaining responsible to the people they've allowed into their lives. Similarly, Hightower eventually learns that the path to true self-knowledge is careful, deep introspection that could never come from running away; rather, we must relentlessly face ourselves in all of our flaws if we're ever going to reach the kind of self-knowledge that Christmas yearned for.
Not to get all political, but there are also other reasons why this story of lonely outcasts still matters. In the United States, we still wrestle with issues of who counts as an insider or an outsider – we only need to look at debates on immigration reform and the hot topic of gay marriage for two prime examples of how the question of American normalcy is still being fiercely debated. As a nation, we also still face questions that plagued the town of Jefferson – questions such as how to deal with the legacies of slavery, state-sanctioned racism, and gender discrimination. Phew! That's a lot to cover in one book.