Study Guide

Light in August Society and Class

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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 n**** crime committed not by a n**** but by N**** 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.

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