Study Guide

Light in August Memory and the Past

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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 n**** 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.

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