Study Guide

Light in August Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

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Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

Ghosts, Phantoms, and Voices of the Past

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 Street and The Road

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.

The Sheep

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.

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