Study Guide

Light in August Quotes

  • Race

    She is a Yankee. Her folks come down here in the Reconstruction, to stir up the niggers. Two of them got killed doing it. They say she is still mixed up with niggers. Visits them when they are sick, like they was white. Wont have a cook because it would have to be a nigger cook. Folks say she claims that niggers are the same as white folks. That's why folks don't never go out there. (2.55)

    Joanna Burdens progressive views on race make her an outcast in Jefferson. Her views also identify her with "Yankee" culture even though she's lived in the South, in Jefferson, her entire life.

    He watched his body grow white out of the darkness like a Kodak print emerging from the liquid. (5.10)

    Joe Christmas is consistently described in black and white terms, highlighting the ambiguity of his racial identity but also the strangeness of his physical appearance.

    His face was gaunt, the flesh a level dead parchment color. (2.9)

    Christmas's whiteness gets highlighted here, in order to show how he successfully "passes" as white.

    Without his being aware the street had begun to slope and before he knew it he was in Freedman Town, surrounded by the summer smell and the summer voices of invisible negroes. They seemed to enclose him like bodiless voices murmuring, talking, laughing, in a language not his. As from the bottom of a thick black pit he saw himself enclosed by cabinshapes, vague, kerosenelit, so that the street lamps themselves seemed to be further spaced, as if the black life, the black breathing had compounded the substance of breath so that not only voices but moving bodies and light itself must become fluid and accrete slowly from particle to particle… (5.22)

    Christmas finds himself becoming overwhelmed by black people, even though there aren't any around. These phantom black people seem to haunt him wherever he goes, reminding him of the possibility of his black ancestry, but also seeming to haunt the white South as well.

    On a lighted veranda four people sat about a card table, the white faces intent and sharp in the low light, the bare arms of the women glaring smooth and white above the trivial cards. 'That's all I wanted,' he thought. "That don't seem like a whole lot to ask." (5.24)

    This is the first time we see Christmas expressing a desire – however, it's unclear what that desire is. Does he simply want to be able to have fun? Or does he want to be white, without question?

    Nevertheless his blood began again, talking and talking. He walked fast, in time to it; he seemed to be aware that the group were negroes before he could have even seen or heard them at all, before they even came in sight vaguely against the defunctive dust. (5.26)

    Christmas constantly experiences his black blood "talking" to him – whenever he passes as white, he feels like he's betraying the black blood that supposedly runs through his veins as well.

    Then it seemed to him that he could see her – something, prone, abject; her eyes perhaps. Leaning, he seemed to look down into a black well and at the bottom saw two glints like reflection of dead stars. He was moving, because his foot touched her. Then it touched her again because he kicked her. He kicked her hard, kicking into and through a choked wail of surprise and fear. She began to scream, he jerking her up, clutching her by the arm, hitting at her with wide, wild blows, striking at the voice perhaps…enclosed by the womanshenegro and the haste. (7.27)

    Christmas lashes out at this black woman in self-loathing; he resents her abjection because it reminds him of the inner abjection he feels toward himself.

    He never acted like either a nigger or a white man. That was it. That was what made the folks so mad. For him to be a murderer and all dressed up and walking the town like he dared them to touch him, when he ought to have been skulking and hiding in the woods, muddy and dirty and running. It was like he never even knew he was a murderer, let alone a nigger too. (15.19)

    This highlights that race is culturally and socially created – Christmas's biggest crime was to not behave in the stereotyped ways the town would expect him to. In the same way that Miss Burden defies expectations of women to marry, Christmas defies expectations of what it means to be black.

    But his blood would not be quiet, let him save it. It would not be either one or the other and let his body save itself. Because the black blood drove him first to the negro cabin. And then the white blood drove him out of there, as it was the black blood which snatched up the pistol and the white blood which would not let him fire it. (19.11)

    Christmas experiences his racial identity as a battle between white and black blood.

    Or perhaps what it condoned was not the man's selfdedication to the saving of negro souls, but the public ignoring of the fact of that charity which they received from negro hands, since it is a happy faculty of the mind to slough that which conscience refuses to assimilate. (15.2)

    Mottstown refuses to believe that black people can provide charity for whites, so they just block it out of their minds.

  • Memory and the Past

    The dark was filled with the voices, myriad, out of all time that he had known, as though all the past was a flat pattern. And going on, tomorrow night, all the tomorrows, to be a part of the flat pattern, going on. He thought of that with quiet astonishment: going on, myriad, familiar, since all that had ever been was the same as all that was to be, since tomorrow to-be and had-been would be the same. (12.45)

    Christmas sees his life as a pattern that he cannot escape and is doomed to repeat.

    It was as if he couldn't get religion and that galloping cavalry and his dead grandfather shot from the galloping horse untangled from each other, even in the pulpit. And that he could not untangle them in his private life, at home either, perhaps. (3.7)

    Hightower is unable to emerge from the shadow of his familial past.

    Memory believes before knowing remembers. Believes longer than recollects, longer than knowing even wonders. (6.1)

    Memory, although more subjective than knowledge, is often more real than objective knowledge because of how enduring and how pervasive it is. This is a key theme of the novel.

    Knowing not grieving remembers a thousand savage and lonely streets. (10.1)

    These are the streets that Christmas travels his entire life, in and out of loneliness.

    But there was too much running with him, stride for stride with him. Not pursuers: but himself: years, acts, deeds omitted and committed, keeping pace with him, stride for stride, breath for breath, thud for thud of the heart, using a single heart. (15.10)

    If Christmas is being pursued by anyone, it's himself, and his obsession with his racial origins.

    But it still lingers about her and about the place: something dark and outlandish and threatful, even though she is but a woman and but the descendant of them whom the ancestors of the town had reason (or thought that they had) to hate and dread. (2.37)

    Joanna Burden's ancestors, with their progressive racial views, cause her to become the town outcast.

    But it is there: the descendants of both in their relationship to one another ghosts, with between them the phantom of the old spilled blood and the old horror and anger and fear. (2.37)

    Miss Burden and Christmas are bonded by their relationship to their own personal ghosts. It's what unites them, but inevitably what divides them as well.

    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)

    Byron Bunch delivers this piece of wisdom, revealing himself to be something of a philosopher, and quite aware of the dangers of obsessing over the past.

    That son grew to manhood among phantoms, and side by side with a ghost. The phantoms were his father, his grandfather, and an old negro woman. (20.17)

    These are all of the people who haunt Hightower through life, and they're all symbols of the Old South and its extremely racist past.

  • Fate and Free Will

    It was as if he couldn't get religion and that galloping cavalry and his dead grandfather shot from the galloping horse untangled from each other, even in the pulpit. And that he could not untangle them in his private life, at home either, perhaps. (3.7)

    For much of the novel, Hightower blames his family for his own pitfalls and failures.

    I had seen and known negroes since I could remember. I just looked at them as I did at rain, or furniture, or food or sleep. But after that I seemed to see them for the first time not as people, but as a thing, a shadow in which I lived, we lived, all white people, all other people. I thought of all the children coming forever and ever into the world, white, with the black shadow already falling upon them before they draw breath. (11.12)

    Joanna Burden explains how she internalizes her dad's concept of black people representing the sins of white people.

    In order to rise, you must raise the shadow with you. (11.21).

    Miss Burden believes that the only way to remove the fateful "curse" of blackness is to help black people advance in society. It's a strange motivation for a liberal.

    Perhaps he realised that he could not escape. Anyway, he stayed, watching the two creatures that struggled in the one body like two moon-gleamed shapes. (12.21)

    Christmas represents himself as at the mercy of these competing versions of himself. There's no room for agency or free will here.

    [H]e believed with calm paradox that he was the volitionless servant of the fatality in which he believed that he did not believe. He was saying to himself I had to do it already in the past tense; I had to do it. She said so herself. (12.21)

    Christmas chalks up the murder to his destiny and fate – as a black man, he sees himself as doomed to depravity.

    I have never got outside that circle. I have never broken out of the ring of what I have already done and cannot ever undo. (14.50)

    Joe Christmas realizes that he's been traveling his entire life, but still has yet to reach any clarity or insight about his identity.

    It seemed to him that he could see himself being hunted by white men at last into the black abyss which had been waiting, trying, for thirty years to drown him and into which now and at last he had actually entered… (14.50)

    Near death, Christmas realizes that white society has succeeded in killing him not only spiritually and psychologically, but now also physically.

    Perhaps in the moment when I revealed to her not only the depth of my hunger but the fact that never and never would she have any part in the assuaging of it; perhaps at that moment I became her seducer and her murderer, author and instrument of her shame and death. After all, there must be some things for which God cannot be accused by man and held responsible. There must be. (20.17)

    For the first time in his life, Hightower admits to causing his wife's adultery and ultimately her death.

    He seems to watch himself, alert, patient, skillful, playing his cards well, making it appear that he was being driven, uncomplaining, into that which he did not even then admit had been his desire since before he entered the seminar. (21.34)

    Hightower acknowledges his own fakeness and hypocrisy. He pretended to be compelled toward Jefferson by fate but, in reality, it was his secret desire to live in the town where his grandfather was murdered.

    'Then, if this is so, if I am the instrument of her despair and death, then I am in turn instrument of someone outside myself. And I know that for fifty years I have not even been clay: I have been a single instant of darkness in which a horse galloped and a gun crashed. (21.35)

    Hightower admits that he has not been manipulated by fate or molded, as clay; rather, he is the primary agent in his life and has made the decisions that have lead him where he is today – a lonely outcast.

  • Society and Class

    Man knows so little about his fellows. (2.39)

    So much of the novel is driven by secrets – Christmas's racial secret; Joe Brown's secret family; the truth behind Hightower's marriage, and so on.

    Then the town was sorry with being glad, as people sometimes are sorry for those whom they have at last forced to do as they wanted them to. (3.18)

    The town exerts enormous pressures on its citizens.

    …it did seem that in a small town, where evil is harder to accomplish, where opportunities for privacy are scarcer, that people can invent more of it in other people's names. (3.19)

    Gossip is malicious in the novel; Hightower and Joanna Burden are both victims of Jeffersonian gossip.

    As though, Byron thought, the entire affair had been a lot of people performing a play and that now and at last they had all played out the parts which had been allotted them and now they could live quietly with one another. (3.20)

    Byron notes that there is some level of artificiality in all the gossip; it's almost as if people get used to playing a certain role (i.e., disliking someone) and then they get trapped in that role forever.

    The town had had the habit of saying things about the disgraced minister which they did not believe themselves for too long a time to break themselves of it. "Because always," he thinks, "when anything gets to be a habit, it also manages to get a right good distance away from truth and fact." (3.22)

    The town clings to ideas of Hightower that they may not believe, only because they're convenient and because, well, they've been around for a while.

    Among them the casual Yankees and the poor whites and even the southerners who had lived for a while in the north, who believed aloud that it was an anonymous negro crime committed not by a negro but by Negro and who knew, believed, and hoped that she had been ravished too: at least once before her throat was cut and at least once afterward. (13.1)

    As the town looks at the burning house, they're less concerned with the fact of Miss Burden's death than they are hopeful that she's been raped – the novel seems cynical about the town's capacity for sympathy here.

    So they looked at the fire, with that same dull and static amaze which they had brought down from the old fetid caves where knowing began, as though, like death, they had never seen fire before. (13.2)

    Violence is a kind of spectacle in this small town.

    She had lived such a quiet life, attended so to her own affairs, that she bequeathed to the town in which she had been born and lived and died a foreigner… a kind of heritage of astonishment and outrage, for which, even though she had supplied them at last with an emotional barbecue, a Roman holiday almost, they would never forgive her and let her be dead in peace and quiet. Not that. Peace is not that often. (13.3)

    The townspeople of Jefferson seem to resent privacy – those members of the town who embrace it are precisely the ones who are ostracized.

    Because the other made nice believing. (13.3)

    Society seems to believe things that cause the least strain.

    Maybe it was because like not only finds like; it cant even escape from being found by its like. (4.20)

    Members of society who are similar seem to be drawn to one another – Joanna and Christmas are bound by their mysterious pasts and their familial ghosts, while Byron and Lena share simple ways and spiritual values.

  • Religion

    It was as if he couldn't get religion and that galloping cavalry and his dead grandfather shot from the galloping horse untangled from each other, even in the pulpit. And that he could not untangle them in his private life, at home either, perhaps. (3.7)

    Hightower is haunted by his family history.

    Then Sunday he would be again in the pulpit, with his wild hands and his wild rapt eager voice in which like phantoms God and salvation and the galloping horses and his dead grandfather thundered, while below him the elders sat, and the congregation, puzzled and outraged. (3.12)

    Hightower's preaching style is wild and erratic while also seeming quite personal to the churchgoers. This oratory style seems to alienate the parishioners, drawing attention to the different philosophies of preaching.

    But his teeth were tight together and his face looked like the face of Satan in the old prints. (3.15)

    Hightower is compared to Satan, at the very moment when he refuses to accept any part in what happened to his wife. Coincidence? We think not.

    She ought not to started praying over me. She would have been all right if she hadn't started praying over me. It was not her fault that she got too old to be any good any more. But she ought to have had better sense than to pray over me. (5.9)

    Miss Burden's attempt to "reform" Christmas may be the main reason why he killed her. Maybe it's because she reminded him of old Mr. McEachern and all of those catechisms.

    He had neither ever worked nor feared God. He knew less about God than about work. He had seen work going on in the person of men with rakes and shovels about the playground six days each week, but God had only occurred on Sunday. And then – save for the concomitant ordeal of cleanliness – it was music that pleased the ear and words that did not trouble the ear at all – on the whole, pleasant, even if a little tiresome. (6.48)

    This is kind of a realistic depiction of the way many kids think about going to church – it's neither good nor bad, mostly it's just kind of boring.

    He was lying so, on his back, his hands crossed on his breasts like a tomb effigy, when he heard again feet on the cramped stairs. (7.20)

    This scene eerily predicts Joe Christmas's death.

    "Remember this. Your grandfather and brother are lying there, murdered not by one white man but by the curse which God put on the whole race before your grandfather or your brother or me or you were even though to. A race doomed and cursed to be forever a part of the white race's doom and curse for its sins." (11.20)

    There's this religious idea running through the book that white people are cursed with black people, and forced to deal with them in order to clean themselves from sin. This idea is used by several characters in the novel to justify racism, including Doc Hines and Mr. Burden.

    What was terrible was that she did not want to be saved. [...] She seemed to see her whole past life, the starved years, like a gray tunnel, at the far and irrevocable end of which, as unfading as a reproach, her naked breast of three short years ago ached as though in agony, virgin and crucified; "Not yet, dear God. Not yet, dear God." (12.11)

    Miss Burden struggles with religion here, seeming to know that if she accepts the idea of damnation, she won't be able to enjoy life (or sex) nearly as much!

    As he passed the bed he would look down at the floor beside it and it would seem to him that he could distinguish the prints of knees and he would jerk his eyes away as if it were death that they had looked at. (12.39)

    Christmas has a flashback of McEachern here.

    It seems to him that he has seen it all the while: that that which is destroying the Church is not the outward groping of those within it nor the inward groping of those without, but the professionals who control it and who have removed the bells from the steeples. He seems to see them, endless, without order, empty, symbolical, bleak, skypointed not with ecstasy or passion but in adjuration, threat, and doom. (20.20)

    Hightower suggests that it is not religion that's the problem – it's the gatekeepers of religion.

  • Foreignness and 'the Other'

    Man knows so little about his fellows. (2.39)

    While much of the novel concerns racial and gender "Otherness," there's also the sense in the novel that even the familiar can be "Other," since we never really know one another.

    [Hightower] sits motionless, watching Byron with a sort of quiet astonishment. There is nothing militant in it, nothing of outraged morality. It is as though he were listening to the doings of people of a different race (4.10)

    Hightower sees Byron as strange to him once he realizes that Byron is falling in love with Lena.

    [Miss Burden] has lived in the house since she was born, yet she is still a stranger, a foreigner whose people moved in from the North during Reconstruction. A Yankee, a lover of negroes, about whom in the town there is still talk of queer relations with negroes in the town and out of it, despite the fact that it is now sixty years since her grandfather and her brother were killed on the square by an exslaveowner over a question of negro votes in a state election. (2.37)

    Miss Burden is labeled an outsider both because of her refusal to marry and because her ancestors were dedicated to black rights – the town leaves no room for different viewpoints, and individuals who struggle against it seem to wind up as outcasts.

    That night they talked. They lay in the bed, in the dark, talking. Or he talked, that is. All the time he was thinking "Jesus. Jesus. So this is it." He lay naked too, beside her, touching her with his hand and talking about her. Not about where she had come from and what she had even done, but about her body as if no one had ever done this before, with her or with anyone else. It was as if with speech he were learning about women's bodies, with the curiosity of a child. (8.10)

    Unlike other experiences of "otherness" in the book, Joe Christmas experiences Bobbie's difference from him with wonder and curiosity.

    "Remember this. Your grandfather and brother are lying there, murdered not by one white man but by the curse which God put on the whole race before your grandfather or your brother or me or you were even though to. A race doomed and cursed to be forever a part of the white race's doom and curse for its sins." (11.20)

    Miss Burden's father sees the life of white Americans as inevitably wrapped up with, and bound to, the lives of African Americans. This sense of obligation haunts Miss Burden her entire life.

    She is a Yankee. Her folks come down here in the Reconstruction, to stir up the niggers. Two of them got killed doing it. They say she is still mixed up with niggers. Visits them when they are sick, like they was white. Wont have a cook because it would have to be a nigger cook. Folks say she claims that niggers are the same as white folks. That's why folks don't never go out there. (2.55)

    Miss Burden's progressive views mark her as different, or "Other." Though she's not African-American herself, the quote suggests that, in this society, a white person could become tainted by merely having relationships with black people.

  • Gender

    Because the town believed that the ladies knew the truth, since it believed that bad women can be fooled by badness, since they have to spend some of their time not being suspicious. But that no good woman can be fooled by it because, by being good herself, she does not need to worry anymore about hers or anybody else's goodness; hence she has plenty of time to smell out sin. (3.13)

    The town divides women up into two categories – the good and the bad. Perhaps Joanna Burden is an outcast in society because she didn't fit into either category.

    Once he had owned garments with intact buttons. A woman had sewed them on. That was for a time, during a time. Then the time passed. After that he would purloin his own garments from the family wash before she could get to them and replace the missing buttons. When she foiled him he set himself deliberately to learn and remember which buttons were missing and had been restored. With his pocket knife and with the cold and bloodless deliberation of a surgeon he would cut off the buttons which she had just replaced. (5.9)

    Christmas can't deal with women being affectionate and caring toward him; there is something about female affection that repulses him and causes him to act violently. This small act of violence – cutting off buttons with a knife – foreshadows the larger act of violence against a woman: Christmas's beheading of Miss Burden near the end of the novel.

    His right hand slid fast and smooth as the knife blade had ever done, up the opening of the garment. Edgewise it struck the remaining button a light, swift blow. The dark air breathed upon him, breathed smoothly as the garment slipped down his legs, the cool mouth of darkness, the soft cool tongue. (5.10)

    This is an act of breaking free from thoughts of women.

    He was thinking now, aloud now, "Why in hell do I want to smell horses?" Then he said, fumbling: "It's because they are not women. Even a mare horse is a kind of man." (5.10)

    Christmas is repeatedly disgusted by women and expresses the need to get away from them.

    On all sides, even within him, the bodiless fecundmellow voices of negro women murmured. It was as though he and all other manshaped life about him had been returned to the lightless hot wet primogenitive Female. He began to run, glaring, his teeth glaring, his inbreath cold on his dry teeth and lips, toward the next street lamp. (5.23)

    Christmas smells black women and he begins to writhe with disgust. It's pretty complicated, but we can see it as another manifestation of his own self-hatred.

    It was not the hard work which he hated, nor the punishment and injustice. He was used to that before he ever saw either of them… It was the woman: that soft kindness which he believed himself doomed to be forever victim of and which he hated worse than he did the hard and ruthless justice of men… "She was trying to make me cry. Then she thinks that they would have had me." (7.55)

    Christmas prefers the meanness of men to the kindness of women.

    […] he could almost believe that it was not to make money that he sold the whiskey but because he was doomed always to conceal always something from the women who surrounded him. (12.8)

    Christmas feels compelled to keep secrets from all women he encounters, in order to maintain an emotional distance.

    Among them the casual Yankees and the poor whites and even the southerners who had lived for a while in the north, who believed aloud that it was an anonymous negro crime committed not by a negro but by Negro and who knew, believed, and hoped that she had been ravished too: at least once before her throat was cut and at least once afterward. (13.1)

    The town reveals its own misogyny and hunger for violence – they hope that a black man has raped a white woman, because it'll just fuel their racial hatred.

    He had nothing in his nature of reticence or of chivalry toward women. (12.26)

    Christmas reveals his misogyny here.

    He would have died or murdered rather than have anyone, another man, learn what their relations had now become. That not only had she changed her life completely, but that she was trying to change his too and make of him something between a hermit and a missionary to negroes. (12.26)

    Christmas resents anyone trying to change him – particularly a woman.

    "She was trying to make me cry. Then she thinks that they would have had me." (7.55)

    Christmas reveals his inability to handle the kindness of women.