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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The idea of fate allows Christmas to shirk responsibility for killing Miss Burden.
Men in the novel are far freer than women.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
As a biracial man in 1920s Jefferson, Christmas will always be an outsider.
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.
Lena and Byron Bunch are the most stable "couple" in the book.
Joe Christmas is disgusted by anyone who cares about him.