Study Guide

Light in August Themes

  • Race

    The legacies of slavery and racism are central to Light in August. Joe Christmas spends his life haunted by his blackness, the status of which is never actually confirmed in the novel. The book suggests that in 1920s America, knowledge about someone's race was much more about perception, hearsay, and opinion than it was about objectivity.

    Questions About Race

    • What effect does Joe Christmas's biraciality have on him?
    • How does race play into the relationship between Christmas and Miss Burden?
    • What is the legacy of slavery and the Civil War in Jefferson, Mississippi?

    Chew on This

    Christmas acts out his racial self-hatred by inflicting violence on other black people.

    Whiteness is in the eye of the beholder.

    Christmas refuses to exist as either a black man or a white man.

  • Memory and the Past

    Several characters in Light in August are haunted by history. Joanna Burden carries this in her name, as her family history is a burden that keeps her from ever being able to move out from under the shadow of her male ancestors. Similarly, Hightower allowed the myth of his grandfather to dominate his life, and he moved to Jefferson pretty much because he was obsessed with the heroic idea of this man. Interestingly, the characters who aren't so consumed by the past, Byron and Lena, are two of the only characters still standing at the end of the novel.

    Questions About Memory and the Past

    1. What memories are important for characters in Light in August and why?
    2. How does the legacy of slavery and the Civil War haunt the novel?
    3. How's the process of remembering depicted?
    4. Is remembering a solitary activity?

    Chew on This

    Christmas moves into the cabin in order to act out his black ancestry.

    Hightower experiences enlightenment when he finally acknowledges his pathological obsession with his familial past.

  • Fate and Free Will

    Characters in Light in August are distinguished from one another through how they perceive their free will. Christmas struggles with these concepts throughout the book, constantly referring to warring factions inside of himself – the black and the white, the violent person and the non-violent, the child and the man – and usually blaming others for his problems rather than admitting to his own choice in the situation. Hightower struggles with these things too, but eventually he comes to accept that he made certain decisions in life (he chose to ignore his wife, for example) which had certain effects (his wife cheated on him and died). Christmas is never able to take responsibility for killing Miss Burden because he believes he was compelled by something totally out of his control.

    Questions About Fate and Free Will

    1. Are women in the novel as free as men are?
    2. Why's the idea of fate so important to Joe Christmas?
    3. Which characters believe in fate? Which believe in free will? How do these beliefs influence their decisions?

    Chew on This

    The idea of fate allows Christmas to shirk responsibility for killing Miss Burden.

    Men in the novel are far freer than women.

  • Society and Class

    In a small town like Jefferson, everyone's up in everyone else's business, which makes privacy difficult. The town is also extremely judgmental, and Light in August is set in 1920s America, so things are a lot more conservative. This conservatism leads Joanna Burden and Hightower into their roles as outsiders – Joanna is an outsider because of her progressive views and because she never marries, while Hightower is cast out of the church because of his wife's adultery and death. Both of these characters struggle against the societies in which they live but they also remain somewhat loyal to them, refusing to leave the town of Jefferson since it's the only town they've ever known. In this sense, they embody the struggle between the individual and his or her surroundings.

    Questions About Society and Class

    1. How does society influence the individual in Light in August?
    2. What kinds of labor do people perform in the novel? What kinds of jobs are available to the men in the book?
    3. Who are the loners in the novel? Who are the more community-oriented? Is there any psychological difference between these groups?
    4. How does gossip function in the novel?

    Chew on This

    The characters that don't conform to societal expectations are punished in one way or another.

    Happiness in Light in August is associated with living in society, not apart from it.

  • Religion

    Like other Faulkner novels, Light in August is kind of hard on religion. McEachern's strict Calvinistic beliefs leave no room for joy or fun, and seem to stifle individuality. The supposed gatekeeper of religion in the novel – Reverend Hightower – was defrocked due to his selfish, bombastic preaching style and his adulterous wife. Mr. Hines uses religion as an excuse to preach white supremacy. But, in contrast to these depictions, Byron Bunch doesn't advertise or preach, maintaining a quiet spirituality that sustains him throughout the novel.

    Questions About Religion

    1. What purpose does religion serve in the novel?
    2. What different kinds of religion do we see?
    3. How does religion influence how characters act in the book?
    4. How is Joe Christmas a Jesus Christ figure?

    Chew on This

    In Light in August, Byron Bunch is sincerely spiritual, while Doc Hines and McEachern use religion in cruel and self-serving ways.

    In Light in August, Faulkner argues that religion is used to justify racism.

  • Foreignness and 'the Other'

    Joe Christmas is like a litmus test for racial attitudes in Light in August. Some characters, like Joanna Burden, find themselves attracted to his difference, going so far as to turn it into a kinky sex thing. Others, like Percy Grimm, are motivated by their desire to extinguish community diversity in some attempt to keep America "pure." Christmas himself has to deal with ideas of the Other as well, because while he successfully passes as white he finds himself wandering to black neighborhoods and invading black churches. In these moments Christmas shows himself to be drawn to the other inside of himself.

    Questions About Foreignness and 'the Other'

    1. How is identity created in the novel? How is someone defined as an insider or a foreigner?
    2. How do people treat Christmas once they learn he's black?
    3. Who defines Joe Christmas's racial identity?
    4. What is it about Christmas that Joanna finds so attractive?

    Chew on This

    As a biracial man in 1920s Jefferson, Christmas will always be an outsider.

  • Gender

    Women in Light in August tend to be meek and relatively powerless, living in the shadows of their husbands. That said, the women in the novel are also generally more kind and caring characters than the men are. One woman, Joanna Burden, rubs against stereotypes of female propriety and the imperative to get married, as she has an illicit affair with Joe Christmas and is rumored to have had sex with many black men in her day. Her Yankee background and her physical isolation make her an outsider, for sure, but her sexual freedom may be the most provocative thing about her. Joe Christmas's interactions with women reveal his misogyny, as he's consistently unable to accept love from a woman, treating them with disgust, contempt, and violence.

    Questions About Gender

    1. Are there any strong women in the novel?
    2. Does anyone enjoy sex in this book?
    3. What is Christmas's attitude toward women and sex?
    4. What is the significance of Miss Burden's sexual behavior?

    Chew on This

    Lena and Byron Bunch are the most stable "couple" in the book.

    Joe Christmas is disgusted by anyone who cares about him.