One of the coolest aspects of Light in August is the way the mood of the novel shifts constantly between light comedy and dark drama. There's a big difference in tone between the quicker-paced, comic mood of Byron's life at the mill or his odd love story with Lena, and the tragic tale of Joe Christmas's life. The lighter portions of the novel tend to feature more dialogue and great one-liners:
"I reckon that being good is about the easiest thing in the world for a lazy man." (2.18)
In contrast, many of Christmas's chapters focus more on descriptive detail and thoughts:
Then it seemed to him, sitting on the cot in the dark room, that he was hearing a myriad sounds of no greater volume – voices, murmurs, whispers: of trees, darkness, earth; people: his own voice; other voices evocative of names and times and places – which he had been conscious of all his life without knowing it, which were his life, thinking […] God loves me too. (5.7)
These differences in tone keep the novel from getting boring, which is always cool. But they also turn the book into a tragicomic hybrid that puts southern American humor in contact with the horrific legacies of slavery and racism in America.
William Faulkner was an American modernist through-and-through. As such, many features of modernism are present in Light in August. First off, the story is told from multiple perspectives and in several different writing styles – Joe Christmas's story is told through dense flashbacks rich in psychological detail, Mrs. Hines tells Hightower her story in her own words, while Hightower's story is told in a mixture of flashback and town gossip. This creates a story that doesn't privilege just one perspective. Instead, it spreads authority throughout the town's characters, suggesting that there are multiple ways of telling stories and of telling the truth, as well. Light in August also features the use of stream-of-consciousness, particularly in Joe Christmas's sections. This allows us access to his confused and tortured psyche.
Faulkner also gives the novel a distinctly southern vibe, though, by including southern dialect and local colloquialisms. Even the title of the novel, Light in August, is thought to reference a southern phrase meaning "pregnant." The very title of the work, then, highlights the fact that this is a novel deeply influenced by and embedded in southern life and culture.
Well, a few things, actually. First up, at the beginning of Chapter 20, Reverend Hightower sits at his window before the sun begins to set, and marvels at "how that fading copper light would seem almost audible, like a dying yellow fall of trumpets dying into an interval of silence and waiting" (20.2). Some scholars suggest that Faulkner thought that Mississippi sunlight had some rather distinct properties, so one way to think about the title as a way of honoring a peculiar geographical feature – Southern light.
Hightower's final scene is also important in that he finally takes responsibility for being a bad minister and for driving his wife insane, leading him to experience a kind of en"lighten"ment while sitting at the window and observing the changing light outside. In this sense, to "live in the light" might mean to have the ability to see yourself clearly, without such distortions as egotism or a pre-occupation with the past.
Some scholars also note that the phrase "to be light in August" is a Southern slang term for pregnancy; this highlights Lena Grove's role as a character that unites several aspects of the story and brings characters together during her pregnancy and with the birth of her child.We should also let you know that Light in August was originally titled Dark House, and three of the major characters – Joanna Burden, Gail Hightower, and Joe Christmas – are frequently depicted sitting in darkness. We'd say that's a pretty appropriate image for characters that are trapped in the past and in their own egos, unable to experience enlightenment and insight.
We're going to go out on a limb here and suggest that there are not one but three endings to the novel. The first ending is when Christmas dies, the second is when Hightower dies, and the third is the final chapter where Lena, Bunch, and the baby head to Tennessee in search of Joe Brown.
Now, these three endings give us three different perspectives on the individual's relationship to society. Christmas's death seems inevitable – a final, physical manifestation of decades of social alienation, anger and loneliness. Christmas learns no real lessons about himself or his racial identity, nor does he ever forge a meaningful connection with anyone.
In Hightower's death, we see the value of reflection and of being really honest with yourself. He finally realizes that his wife's death was his fault, that he was kind of a bad minister because of how obsessed he was with the Civil War, and that he was a selfish jerk a lot of the time. It takes a lot to admit these kinds of things to yourself, but Hightower does it through pain-staking reflection and thought, which eventually leads to a kind of en-"lighten"-ment that nicely coincides with the novel's title. Ironically, this enlightenment comes way too late for either Hightower or the world to benefit from it, and he dies almost immediately after having come to these revelations.
So where do we turn to for some hope and a little uplifting? Well, in the strange threesome of Lena, Byron, and the baby we see a modern version of the American family, tied together by ethical choices and a sense of responsibility (rather than marriage). Instead of running away from responsibility either physically (as Christmas so often did) or mentally (as Hightower did), Byron Bunch retains his position as the moral compass of the novel, choosing to stand by Lena even if that means helping her find the father of her child. The novel seems to suggest that honoring social ties – however tempting it is to abandon them – is perhaps the surest way to enlightenment and happiness.
Faulkner used the fictional Yoknapatawpha county as the setting for many of his novels and stories, including Absalom, Absalom, The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying, and " A Rose for Emily." The strategic location allows Faulkner to explore the tortured legacy of slavery and the Civil War in the post-Reconstruction South. Mississippi in the 1920s faced an uphill battle: cotton had been its chief economic resource, but the abolition of slavery meant less cotton production to fuel the economy; Jim Crow laws meant that while African Americans were technically free, they still had to live "separate but equal" lives apart from white Americans, leading to a lot of racial tension. The novel also takes place during Prohibition (1920-1933), a period when the sale and manufacture of alcohol was illegal in America.
Light in August is actually an easier read than other Faulkner novels, so don't come into this one expecting the garbled tale of an "idiot" (Sound in the Fury) or too many dense paragraphs like the ones we tackle in Absalom, Absalom (although you will still see a few). The greatest challenge to the narrative is that it isn't written in chronological order, and the story alternates between flashbacks and conversations/events taking place in the present-day.
One of the major reasons why Faulkner can be so hard to read is his use of long run-on sentences like, say, this one:
Knows remembers believes a corridor in a big long garbled cold echoing building of dark red brick sootbleakened by more chimneys than its own, set in a grassless cinderstrewnpacked compound surrounded by smoking factory purlieus and enclosed by a ten foot steel-and-wire fence like a penitentiary or a zoo, where in random erratic surges, with sparrowlike childtrebling, orphans in identical and uniform blue denim in and out of remembering but in knowing constant as the bleak walls, the bleak windows where in rain soot from the yearly adjacenting chimneys streaked like black tears. (6.1)
Yeah, we didn't think your teacher would like that one either. This paragraph-sentence also features other Faulkner traits such as compound words ("cinderstrewnpacked," "sootbleakened"), repetition ("bleak walls and bleak windows"), and made-up words known as neologisms ("adjacenting"). While at first the paragraph might seem completely overwhelming, it helps to keep in mind what's being described – Joe Christmas's memory. And how do people remember? In bits and pieces, and in flashes of information that may not make sense on their own, but when put together they create an emotionally complex collage of the past.
Another feature of Faulkner's writing is his use of perspective. Since this is a tale of a local community, the narrative jumps around from Lena's perspective to Byron's, from Joe Christmas to Reverend Hightower.
The three characters in the novel who are the most pre-occupied with the past are also the ones who seem to experience ghostly presences: Hightower refers to himself as growing up "among phantoms, and side by side with a ghost" (20.10); Christmas describes a darkness "filled with the voices, myriad, out of all time that he had known, as though all the past was a flat pattern" (12.45); Miss Burden is haunted by black shadows.
These ghosts, shadows, and phantoms seem to represent different aspects of the past that these characters are unable to give up. Hightower is so obsessed with the nineteenth century that he cannot fully exist in the twentieth; Joe Christmas is haunted by the possibility of his black ancestry; Joanna Burden can't leave the house she grew up in and the legacy of her male ancestors. Each of these characters isolates themselves from living people, but it may actually be the dead that they seek to escape. As Byron Bunch puts it, "A man will talk about how he'd like to escape from living folks. But it's the dead folks that do him the damage. It's the dead ones that lay quiet in one place and don't try to hold him, that he can't escape from" (3.23).
The novel begins and ends on the road, and we see dozens of them in between. Interestingly, the street takes on two distinct meanings in the novel. For Joe Christmas, the street functions as a series of endless dead ends; after he sees Bobbie for the last time, he enters the street, "which was to run for fifteen years" (10.3). He's constantly walking in an attempt to find himself or to reach clarity, but instead he just ends up confused or threatens violence, as when he wanders into a black neighborhood with a razor in his hand. In contrast, for Lena Grove the road is redemptive and filled with infinite possibilities. The road delivers her to Jefferson and to Byron Bunch, and by the end of the novel it's leading her toward a new life with her make-shift family.
Christmas's murder of the sheep in his neighbor's field has at least two meanings (of course, in literature, there is always room for more!). First, the killing foreshadows the murder of Miss Burden, letting the reader know that Christmas is capable of taking a life. The sheep is also another Christian symbol, and may foreshadow Christmas's own impending death. Christmas could be interpreted as a sacrificial lamb whose death makes the white community of Jefferson feel safer and vindicated.
Much of the narrative is told in the third person omniscient style. With this approach, the narrator is able to convey all of the feelings and unconscious thoughts and desires of the characters, really fleshing them out and making them similar to complicated human beings. The third person style allows the narrator to move through time and space, so we can see Joe Christmas when he was five years old, stealing toothpaste, but we can also get to know him when he's a young adult, drifting from town to town.
In addition to third person technique, we also get a lot of the characters telling their stories and back-stories through first person dialogue. Lena Grove tells her story to Armstid in Chapter 1, for example. Similarly, Mrs. Hines tells her story to Hightower and Joanna Burden tells Joe Christmas the history of her family, saving the narrator the trouble of doing so. This mixes things up a bit and allows us to differentiate characters by the way they speak and their perspective on the world. It allows characters to speak in their own language, giving the stories more originality and variety than they'd have if only one narrator delivered them all to us.
Christmas leaves this repressive family because they will not nurture his search for identity. He longs for companionship, sex, and fun – a normal teenage life that he cannot get in this household. He also wants to come to some sense of harmony with himself and to resolve his racial identity issues.
Christmas experiments with his racial identity during this time, alternating between passing as white and black depending on which woman he's sleeping with and which town he's in at the time. He's almost trying on different identities, trying to see which one fits.
Miss Burden's attempts to "reform" Christmas by turning him into a devout black activist only alienate and confuse him further. While he's uncomfortable in white society, he seems totally unwilling to give up his position "passing" as a white man, and the idea of helping black people seems disgusting to him. This inability to reconcile his simultaneous desire for and hatred of both whiteness and blackness leads him to want to kill Joanna.
If Christmas's goal in life was to find himself, and to discover a place where he could live in peace, then the murder he commits actually gets him the exact opposite of what he wants. Rather than finding a place to settle, Christmas is now doomed to repeat what he has done his entire life – run away.
Christmas's literal destruction is tragic because it's an act of racial hatred, ignorance, and fear. But it's also tragic since he has never actually realized anything about his racial identity. He has spent his entire life shutting people out and refusing to bond with anyone. He dies socially isolated and clueless about himself, one of the greatest tragedies possible.
As Christmas's story begins, we see how his strange racial origins will haunt him for his entire life, leaving him confused and without an anchor in the world.
In these scenes, Christmas experiences interpersonal conflict with everyone he meets. He loathes McEachern, is disgusted by Mrs. McEachern's kindness, and alienates Bobbie with his violent behavior.
The moodier and more reclusive Christmas becomes, the worse we know it's going to be for his journey of self-discovery.
This act is the height of Joe's story, as it forces him to go on the run once again, and we realize that he'll really never find insight into himself now that he's being described as a black man who has murdered a white woman in a racist southern town. He's pretty much screwed, unless…
At this point it is unclear whether or not Christmas will survive. It's also ironic that while he murdered Joanna Burden for trying to get him to pray, he ends up looking for shelter in the house of a gatekeeper of religion.
Christmas is described as allowing his death to happen, as he lets the crazed Percy Grimm kill him. Unable to reconcile the warring racial factions within him, Christmas decides it's better to die than to have to live as a strange, uncomfortable amalgamation. It almost seems as though there's not yet room in America for a person of mixed race.
Joe Christmas is adopted by the McEacherns, where he has Christianity literally beaten into him every day. One day he fights with McEachern, hitting him over the chair and possibly killing him. He steals money from Mrs. McEachern and runs away, roaming from town to town, a rootless drifter.
Joe Christmas arrives in Jefferson, Mississippi, shacks up with Joanna Burden, and starts selling whiskey illegally. When Miss Burden tries to reform him into a Christian black activist, Christmas becomes enraged, eventually killing her with a razor.
Christmas is murdered. Hightower has moments of deep insight in his study, realizing his selfishness and life's mistakes. The novel doesn't specify whether or not he dies. Lena Grove, Byron Bunch, and Lena's baby travel to Tennessee together in search of Joe Brown.