Light in August

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Light in August
William Faulkner

Author Biography
Plot Summary
Historical Context
Critical Overview
Further Reading


While William Faulkner's complex novels drew mixed critical responses in the 1930s, two events in the 1940s helped inspire a fresh look at his work and a subsequent reevaluation of his literary talent: the appearance of Malcolm Cowley's edition of The Portable Faulkner in 1946, which included Cowley's astute analysis of Faulkner's work, and the awarding of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1949 to Faulkner, followed by his stirring acceptance speech. As of 2006, more scholarly work was being done on Faulkner than on any other American author, which attests to his work's relevance to modern readers. In the early 2000s, he was considered one of America's finest authors.

Light in August, published in 1932, is one of his most highly acclaimed works. The novel traces the experiences of three main characters: Lena Grove, who is searching for the father of her unborn child; Gail Hightower, an elderly minister who seeks a measure of peace in his troubled existence; and Joe Christmas, who spends his life struggling to deal with his belief that he is part black. As Faulkner weaves together the stories of these three characters, he explores the devastating effects of racism and religious fanaticism. Inevitably, however, the novel's tragic elements are juxtaposed with resilience and optimism, especially in its closing pages. Light in August thus becomes an apt illustration of this famous passage from Faulkner's Nobel Prize address: "I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance."

Author Biography

William Faulkner was born in New Albany, Mississippi, on September 25, 1897 to Murry Falkner, and Maud Butler Falkner. His father held various positions, including a railroad worker, factory owner, and business manager.

William Faulkner's great-grandfather, William Clark Falkner, (Faulkner added the "u" in 1918) was an accomplished author, lawyer, and Confederate army officer who became the inspiration for Colonel John Sartoris in Sartoris (1929) and The Unvanquished (1938). Faulkner modeled Sartoris's son, Bayard, who appears in these two novels as well as The Town (1957), after his grandfather, John Wesley Thompson Falkner. Faulkner also fictionalized in his stories the events surrounding his great-grandfather's murder on a street in Ripley, Mississippi. Faulkner's immediate family was much less eccentric and notorious than his ancestors.

After showing academic promise in his early years, Faulkner soon lost interest in his studies and developed a passion for football, writing, and drawing. He dropped out of Oxford High School in Mississippi and began working as a bookkeeper in his grandfather's bank. During this time, he continued writing and began to read and study avant-garde literature. He tried to enlist in the U.S. Air Force at the onset of World War I but was rejected due to his short stature.

After returning to Oxford, Faulkner began working at a post office where he spent most of his time writing poetry. In 1919, he enrolled at the University of Mississippi and subsequently had several poems and a short story published by the student newspaper. He dropped out, however, before obtaining a degree but after winning the university's annual prize for the best poem. On August 6, 1919, his first poem, "L'Apres-midi d'un faune," was published in The New Republic. Later that year, his short story "Landing in Luck" appeared in the Mississippian.

Soon after, Faulkner met author Sherwood Anderson, who encouraged his artistic endeavors. Faulkner did not get much response to his first book, The Marble Faun, a collection of verse published in 1924. Anderson helped him find a publisher for his first novel, Soldier's Pay (1926), which earned some critical but no popular success.

On June 20, 1929, Faulkner married his childhood sweetheart, Estelle, who was married before and had two children when she returned to Oxford. The couple had two children of their own, one of whom died in infancy. By the early 1930s, after the publication of The Sound and the Fury (1929), As I Lay Dying (1930), and Light in August (1932), Faulkner was heralded as a brilliant author. Yet the general public found his work too dark and complex. Struggling financially, he agreed to write Hollywood screenplays, including To Have and Have Not (1945) and The Big Sleep (1946). He continued writing lucrative screenplays along with his fiction for the next few decades.

While scholarly appreciation for his work remained high, by the mid-1940s, all of Faulkner's books were out of print. The publication of The Portable Faulkner in 1946, however, which included editor Malcolm Cowley's study of Faulkner's mythical Yoknapatawpha County, sparked new and intensified interest in Faulkner, which led to his reputation in the early 2000s as one of the most important writers of the twentieth century.

Faulkner died of a heart attack on July 6, 1962, in Byhalia, Mississippi. His major awards include the O. Henry Memorial Short Story Award in 1939, 1940, and 1949, the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1949, the National Book Award in 1951 for Collected Stories, the Legion of Honor of the Republic of France in 1951, the National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize in 1955 for A Fable, and the Pulitzer Prize in 1963 for The Reivers, a Reminiscence.

Plot Summary

Chapters 1-2

When Light in August opens, Lena Grove has been walking for four weeks from Alabama to Jefferson, farther from her home than she has ever traveled. After living in a tiny room in her brother's house in the small town of Doane's Mill for eight years after her parents died, she began to sneak out of the bedroom window at night until she found herself pregnant. Even though Lucas Burch had left town six months before her brother found out, Lena refused to reveal his name.

Deciding not to wait for him to come for her, Lena sets out to find Lucas. On the road, Mr. Armstid, a farmer, decides to bring her home for the night. She later admits to him and his wife that she is not married but makes excuses for Lucas, insisting that such a good natured fellow as he needs some time to settle down. The next morning Armstid drives her to the town store and informs the men there that she needs a ride to Jefferson.

Byron Bunch thinks about the time three years earlier when he first met Joe Christmas at the lumber mill where he works in Jefferson. Joe did not speak to anyone, and no one spoke to him for months. Another stranger who came to the mill named Brown revealed that Joe lived in the woods on Joanna Burden's estate. After three years, Joe suddenly quits his job at the mill. Rumors circulate that he and Brown are selling whiskey and that they both are living in the cabin on Miss Burden's place.

One Saturday afternoon, Byron is alone at the mill since the others have gone to watch the fire that is consuming Miss Burden's house. Lena appears looking for Burch, and Byron falls in love with her. Byron soon realizes that the man she is looking for is Brown and, in order to prevent her disappointment, provides her with only a few minor details about him.

Chapters 3-5

The narrative shifts to Reverend Gail Hightower, a defrocked minister who now struggles to make a living by selling greeting cards. He had been the town's Presbyterian minister but lost his church after "his wife went bad on him." She was killed in Memphis one night after either jumping or falling from a hotel window. The townspeople heard rumors that there was a man in the room with her and that they both were drunk.

Believing that Hightower drove his wife to commit suicide, the townspeople refused to come back to his church, so he was forced to resign. After he did not fire his housekeeper when he was warned about being alone in his home with a black woman, he was severely beaten by members of the Ku Klux Klan. Eventually, the townspeople began to ignore him and left him alone.

Byron tells Hightower about Lena, whom he has just set up at the boarding house, and they wonder who started the fire at the Burden house. A man passing by saw the fire and found Brown drunk inside the house. Upstairs, he discovered Miss Burden, almost decapitated. Byron informs Hightower that Brown and Joe have been selling whiskey from her property and that Joe is part black.

That night, Brown appears in town claiming Joe killed Miss Burden and demands the reward that has been promised for information about the murder. He tells the sheriff that she and Joe had been living "like man and wife" and that Joe is of mixed race. Byron believes that Brown set the house on fire and hopes that if he gets the money, he will marry Lena.

The narrative then goes back to the night before the murder, as Joe thinks about his complex and brutal two-year relationship with Joanna Burden. He is angry that she lied about her age and never told him that women can lose their sexual desire after going through menopause. He is also incensed that she tried to pray over him. Filled with the desire to "smell horses … because they are not women," and hearing strange voices in his head, he walks the next day to the black community on the outskirts of town and confronts some residents with a razor in his hand. Later, that night, he kills Joanna.

Chapters 6-7

The narrative flashes back to when Joe was five and living in an orphanage "like a shadow … sober and quiet." One day, he sneaks into the washroom and eats some toothpaste that belongs to the young dietician who works at the orphanage. As the dietician enters the room with a man, he hides behind a curtain and begins to feel ill from the toothpaste. When the couple begins to have sex, Joe throws up and so is discovered. Thinking that he had been spying on her, the woman screams, "you little n―bastard!"

Over the next few days, she becomes desperate as she waits for him to tell the matron about what she was doing in the washroom. Determining that the janitor, who readers later discover is Joe's grandfather, hates Joe as well, the dietician tells him what happened. The janitor snatches him the next morning, afraid that he will be sent to a black orphanage. The police catch him, however, and bring Joe back.

The woman who runs the orphanage determines that Joe needs to be placed at once and finds a farming couple, Mr. and Mrs. McEachern, who agree to adopt him. Mr. McEachern, who is characterized by his cold eyes, vows to make Joe "grow up to fear God and abhor idleness and vanity."

Three years later, the battle of wills between Joe and Mr. McEachern has intensified, as evinced in an incident when the latter tries to force the boy to learn his catechism. When Joe refuses, Mr. McEachern beats him. Feeling pity for the boy, Mrs. McEachern brings him a tray of food that evening but he dumps it in the corner. An hour later, he eats the food alone in his room, "like a savage, like a dog."

When Joe is fourteen, a group of friends and he gather one afternoon at a sawmill where they take sexual turns with a black girl who sits in the shadows. When it is Joe's turn, he begins to beat her and the others pull him off. At home, McEachern whips him for fighting.

Chapters 8-9

One night, when Joe is eighteen, he climbs out his window using a rope. He wears the new suit that he had hidden in the barn, bought with the money he gained from selling his calf. McEachern had given the calf to Joe to teach him responsibility. Joe sneaks out that night to meet Bobbie, a waitress he met in town, and to take her to a dance at the local schoolhouse. He wishes that McEachern would try to stop him.

Joe's relationship with Bobbie began a year earlier when he and his father went to the restaurant one day. Joe was immediately drawn to her, but his father determined that the place was disreputable and so never went there again. When Joe turned eighteen, he returned with a dime in his pocket. After ordering pie and coffee, he discovers that he does not have enough to pay for both. Bobbie covers for him, insisting that she had made the mistake in the order. Out on the street, "his spirit [is] wrung with abasement and regret."

Joe returns to the farm where he works hard, almost feverishly. His father notices and decides to reward him with the calf, although he insists that he probably would regret his action when Joe falls back "into sloth and idleness again." One month later, Joe goes to town with a half dollar that his mother gave him. When he tries to leave the coin for Bobbie to repay her for her kindness, the men in the restaurant make fun of him. On the street, however, Bobbie shows him her appreciation for his thoughtfulness.

A week later, he meets her after climbing out of his window at night. She tells him that she is "sick," and at first, he does not understand that she is trying to explain that she is menstruating. When he finally understands, he strikes her and runs away into the woods where he vomits. A few days later, he meets her again and drags her into the woods where they have sex.

Joe soon begins to steal money from his mother that he uses to buy presents for Bobbie. One night, when they are lying together in her bed, he tells her that he thinks that he is part black, but she refuses to believe him. One night Joe catches her with another man, strikes her, and then breaks down. Bobbie tells him that she thought he knew she is a prostitute.

Mr. McEachern sees Joe slip out the window the evening of the dance and follows him. When he spots Joe dancing with Bobbie, he approaches them and demands, "away, Jezebel!… Away harlot!" He turns to Joe and begins hitting him, convinced that the face he hits belongs to Satan. After Joe crashes a chair over his head, Mr. McEachern falls unconscious to the floor. Bobbie, enraged by Mr. McEachern's words, turns on Joe, blaming him for putting her in this situation.

Media Adaptations

  • Random House produced an audio version of the novel, read by Scott Brick, in 2005. As of 2006, no film versions had been made.

Joe leaves for home, exalting in the thought that he has killed his stepfather, which he had sworn to do. He takes the money Mrs. McEachern has been saving so that he can marry Bobbie. When he goes to her house, though, Bobbie is still livid, screaming at him, "Getting me into a jam, that always treated you like you were a white man." Joe is amazed that she turns on him after he has committed murder and stolen for her. After Bobbie tells the others in the house that Joe is part black, one of the men beats him, and they all leave him there on the floor.

Chapters 10-12

For the next fifteen years, Joe travels across the country, working as a laborer, miner, prospector, gambler, and soldier. After a prostitute tells him that she does not mind sleeping with blacks, he practically beats her to death. He then relocates to Chicago where he lives in a black community. At thirty-three, he ends up in Mississippi and spots Miss Burden's house. After discovering that she lives alone, one night, half starved, he breaks into her kitchen where she discovers him.

As they begin their relationship, they talk very little. Even after a year, he still feels like a robber when he comes to her at night, "to despoil her virginity each time anew." He takes her violently, but she does not resist. One night she opens up to him, telling him of her own mixed-race ancestors. Her brother and grandfather had been killed in town by an ex-slaveholder and a Confederate soldier over a dispute concerning black voting rights. As a result of that incident, coupled with the fact that they were from New England, the town hated her and her remaining family members, seeing them always as outsiders, or worse, carpetbaggers. Joe responds, "Just when do men that have different blood in them stop hating one another?"

Joanna's fanatically religious father told her that her brother and grandfather were "murdered not by one white man but by the curse which God put on a whole race before" any of them was born. He insisted that blacks were "a race doomed and cursed to be forever and ever a part of the white race's doom and curse for its sins." She tells Joe, "None can escape" this curse, and she admits, "I seemed to see [blacks] for the first time not as people, but as a thing, a shadow in which I lived, we lived, all white people." Joe admits that he does not know for sure if he is black but concludes, "If I'm not, damned if I haven't wasted a lot of time."

Soon after, Joe feels as if he is in "the second phase" of their relationship, "as though he had fallen into a sewer." She experiences a "fierce urgency that concealed an actual despair at frustrate and irrevocable years," which produces in her extreme emotions of rage and lust. He determines that he is in danger of being corrupted by her. As "if she knew somehow that time was short," she begins to talk about wanting a child and a few months later, she tells Joe that she is pregnant.

In the last phase, Joanna tells Joe that she wants him to get a degree from a black school and then to take charge of her finances. At this point, she has lost her sexual desire and so will not let him touch her. Joe stops coming to the house for a few months, and when he returns, she appears to have become an old woman. When he realizes that she is not pregnant, that she has begun menopause instead, he strikes her and tells her that she is "not any good anymore." Joanna responds, "Maybe it would be better if we both were dead." One night three months later, she asks Joe to pray with her, but he refuses. She pulls out a revolver, intending to shoot him and then herself, but he grabs the gun and then slices her throat. Afterwards, he escapes by stopping a car and demanding a ride.

Chapters 13-14

The townspeople, along with the sheriff, come out to watch the fire burn out. After seeing evidence that someone has been living in the cabin on the estate, the sheriff interviews a local black man. When the man insists that he does not know who lives there, the sheriff's deputy whips him until he admits that he has seen two white men there but does not know who they are. Another man on the scene reveals that everyone in town knows that Joe and Brown live there.

Brown soon finds the sheriff back in town and demands the thousand dollar reward for the information he has about the murder. The sheriff tells him that if he catches Joe, he can have the reward and takes him to jail "for safekeeping." The sheriff then arranges for dogs to track Joe. That night, the boy who gave Joe a ride after the murder tells his story to the sheriff. His father wants to claim the reward.

Byron discusses Lena's situation with Hightower, noting that Brown has changed his name to keep her from finding him. Hightower says that she should go back to her people, but Byron disagrees and notes that she wants to go out to the cabin and wait for Brown. Byron knows that if he tells Brown that Lena is there, he will run. Hightower suggests that is what Byron wants Brown to do and chides him for it, insisting that the devil is influencing his behavior.

Later, Byron takes Lena out to the cabin and pitches a tent near it so he can help her when the baby comes. Hightower tries to convince him to leave, arguing that he will be sinning if he tries to interfere with Lena and Brown and claiming, "It's not fair that you should sacrifice yourself to a woman who has chosen once and now wishes to renege that choice. It's not right…. God didn't intend it so when He made marriage." Byron, however, does not listen to him.

The sheriff discovers Lena living in the cabin on the Burden estate but decides to leave her and Byron alone, claiming, "I reckon they won't do no harm out there." A few days later, a black man tells the sheriff that the night before at a revival meeting in a church twenty miles away, a white man interrupted the service by attacking the preacher and cursing God. Some of the church members tried to restrain him but were not successful, and the man fled. The next morning the sheriff arrives at the church with bloodhounds and finds an "unprintable" note addressed to him, stuck into a plank on one of the walls. Joe is able to elude the trackers and catches a ride to neighboring Mottstown.

Chapters 15-16

A poor, elderly couple named Hines had lived in Mottstown for thirty years when Joe was captured there. Mr. Hines, who came to be known as Uncle Doc, was secretive, "with something in his glance coldly and violently fanatical and a little crazed," which kept people away from him. He and his wife lived off of the little money he earned, working at odd jobs in town and the food that black women would bring to them. Every Sunday he traveled around the county, holding revival services in black churches where he would at times "with violent obscenity, preach to them humility before all skins lighter than theirs." The black members believed that he had gone crazy after being touched by God.

On the afternoon that Joe is captured, Doc is in town and witnesses the frenzy surrounding the incident. At one point, when he comes face to face with Joe, Doc strikes him and rages, "Kill the bastard!" Later, he declares that he has a right to kill him himself. Mrs. Hines, who witnesses her husband's outbursts, becomes increasingly suspicious about Joe and asks her husband what he did with their daughter's baby. She insists that she be brought to Joe so that she can get a good look at him. Afterward, she and Doc go to Jefferson where Joe has been sent—Doc to lynch him and Mrs. Hines to prevent him.

Byron tells Hightower that Joe has been captured and that his grandparents have been found. Later, he brings them to see Hightower, and Mrs. Hines admits that Doc took Joe to an orphanage after he was born because their daughter was not married. She did not see Joe for the next thirty years. Hines also murdered Joe's father when he caught his daughter trying to run away with him before the baby came. He would not let his wife go for the doctor when his daughter was in labor, and as a result, she died.

Mrs. Hines thinks that Joe's father was Mexican, but Hines insists that he had black blood. Hines explains that he became a janitor at the orphanage to keep an eye on Joe. Byron asks Hightower to say that Joe was with him on the night of the murder, but Hightower refuses.

Chapters 17-18

The next morning, Lena's child is born, and Byron realizes that he must tell Brown. When Hightower instructs Lena to send Byron away because her child is not his, she admits that she has already refused Byron's marriage proposal and she would still do so.

Byron decides that he will leave as soon as Lena and Brown reunite. He convinces the sheriff to send Brown out to the cabin without telling him that Lena is there. Brown goes, thinking that is where he will pick up his reward money. When he sees Lena, his face registers "shock, astonishment, outrage, and then downright terror." Byron watches the cabin after Brown goes in and soon sees him running out the back. In an effort to defend Lena's honor, Byron catches up with him and challenges him to a fight, even though he admits, "now I'm going to get the hell beat out of me." Two minutes later, Byron is on the ground bleeding, and Brown is gone. On his way back to Lena, he hears that Joe has been killed.

Chapters 19-21

Joe escapes and flees to Hightower's house. After knocking Hightower out with a pistol he has stolen, he crouches behind a table, waiting for the sheriff to come for him. Percy Grimm, a local, patriotic zealot, insists that it is his responsibility to preserve order and so recruits some men to go after Joe. He finds Joe at Hightower's. Hightower tries to convince Grimm that Joe was with him the night of the murder, but Grimm refuses to listen and shoots Joe. While Joe is clinging to life, Grimm castrates him, and Joe dies.

Soon after, a traveler picks up Lena, her child, and Byron, who insist that they are looking for Brown but do not seem to know or care where they are going. When Byron tries to join Lena under the blanket in the back of the truck, Lena wakes up and declares, "aint you ashamed." Mortified, Byron gets off the truck and does not catch up with them until the next day. At the end of the book, the two continue on as Lena expresses her amazement over how far she has traveled.


Bobbie Allen

Bobbie Allen, Joe's first girlfriend, is a waitress and a prostitute. She is small, "almost childlike," looking much younger than her years, which makes her seem approachable to Joe. Yet, a closer look would reveal that her size was due to "some inner corruption of the spirit itself: a slenderness which had never been young."

At first, she is patient with Joe as she gently educates him about women and sexuality. The corruption of her spirit, however, emerges during the dance when Mr. McEachern accuses her of being a harlot. Her wounded pride causes her to lash out at Joe and to betray his trust in her and their future together.

Martha Armstid

Lena stays the night in Martha Armstid's home on her way to Jefferson. Martha's appearance and the work she does in her kitchen are described as savage. She has "a cold, harsh, irascible face," which is "like those of generals who have been defeated in battle." She is a bitter woman who tells her husband that he "never lifted no hand" raising their kids, but she is kind enough to give Lena some money. Her presence at the beginning of the novel illustrates the harsh reality of a woman's life in the South during the first part of the twentieth century, a reality that Lena eventually has to face.

Mr. Armstid

Armstid picks up Lena along the road and, pitying her, takes her back to his home for the night.

Miss Atkins

Twenty-seven-year-old Miss Atkins is the dietician at Joe's orphanage. Willing to do anything to save her position, she turns against Joe, who she thinks saw her having sex with a man in the washroom. Her guilt and fears of retribution cloud her judgment, causing her to misread Joe's intentions. Convinced that Joe is torturing her by waiting to tell about the incident, she tries to malign him to the janitor, convinced that others are as racist as she. As a result, Joe is eventually forced to leave the orphanage.

Lucas Brown

Lucas Brown, also known as Lucas Burch, is notorious for his tendency to tell stories, and so the people of Jefferson "put no more belief in what he said that he had done than in what he said his name was." Unfortunately, Lena does not see this quality in him and so he is able to con her into believing that he would marry her and provide for their family. Lucas "liv[ed] on the country, like a locust," waiting to land on any opportunity that he could work to his advantage. Others knew that "he'd be bad fast enough … if he just had somebody to show him how." He is loyal to no one, including Lena, whom he deserts, and Joe, whom he turns in for the reward money.

Byron Bunch

Unassuming Byron Bunch is "the kind of fellow you wouldn't see the first glance if he was alone by himself in the bottom of an empty concrete swimming pool." He is a hard worker who has little in his life except for his six-days-a-week job at the mill and the choir he directs on Sundays until Lena comes to Jefferson. Hightower, whom he visits two or three nights a week, is his only friend in town. Lena initially mistakes Byron for Brown. The juxtaposition of the two characters in this way highlights their differences.

After Lena comes to town, Bunch proves himself to be an honest and decent man. Initially, he tries to think of ways that he can keep Lena and Brown apart, but his conscience, along with some prodding from Hightower, forces him to place Lena's needs above his own. Even though he is in love with Lena, he tries to reunite her with Brown because Brown is the father of her child. When Brown deserts her again, Byron's protective nature emerges as he demands justice for Lena and challenges Brown to a fight that he knows he will lose. By the end of the novel, he leaves with Lena, taking an active role in plotting the direction of his life.

Lucas Burch

See Lucas Brown

Joanna Burden

Although Joanna Burden was born in Jefferson and has lived there all of her life, she is considered an outsider because her family came from New England during Reconstruction. The townspeople label her a Yankee and a "n―lover," and they all gossip about the improper relationships she has with blacks. Her brother and father were killed in town during an argument about voting rights for blacks, and she has continued their legacy of helping blacks, most notably through her financial support of black schools and colleges.

She remains aloof in her isolated existence on the edge of town. Her personality has a certain duality, one side feminine and "the other the mantrained muscles and the mantrained habit of thinking … [with] no feminine vacillation." Her attitude toward blacks is based on the fanatical notions about race that have been passed down by her grandfather. Like him, she sees the black race as the white man's curse, her "burden," and so feels responsible for their welfare.

The rigid strictures of her faith have caused her to repress her sexuality until Joe appears. She then indulges in her passions with a sense of wild abandon. As Joe notes, she experiences "the abject fury of the New England glacier exposed suddenly to the fire of the New England biblical hell." When she loses her sexual desire during menopause, her religious beliefs become intensified. In effort to absolve herself and Joe for their promiscuity, and perhaps in response to her inability to have children, she tries to kill them both.

Joe Christmas

In the orphanage, Joe is a lonely child, shunned by the other children who think him strange and of mixed blood. Never knowing who his parents are or whether he is part black, Joe is consumed with a life-long search for a sense of identity and place but is never able to alleviate his profound sense of loneliness or self-hatred. "Doomed in motion, driven by the courage of flagged and spurred despair," Joe is never able to establish sustaining connections. He continually feels as if there is a "black abyss which had been waiting, trying, for thirty years to drown him."

After he leaves the orphanage, Joe is influenced by McEachern, who fills his head with visions of sin and retribution and little tolerance for the weakness of others. McEachern also passes on his sexism and his propensity for violent outbursts. Mrs. McEachern tries to temper her husband's harsh treatment of Joe, but Joe rejects her offers of comfort. His fear of becoming weak prevents him from acknowledging her 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." Misreading her intentions, Joe declares, "she is trying to make me cry," and he continually rejects her overtures toward him.

He develops a thick skin and a menacing air while living with his adoptive parents and after Bobbie's betrayal. The others at the mill notice that "he carried with him his own inescapable warning, like … a rattlesnake his rattle" and worked with a "brooding and savage steadiness." His father has taught him that the world is brutal and harsh; Bobbie has taught him that feelings of love are a sign of weakness and can be deceptive.

He tries to live in both white and black worlds but is not comfortable in either. His confused sense of himself emerges in his relationships with both races, illustrated when he moves to Chicago and lives with blacks: "he had once tricked or teased white men into calling him a negro in order to fight them, to beat them or be beaten; now he fought the negro who called him white." In Chicago, he tries "to breathe into himself the dark odor, the dark and inscrutable thinking and being of negroes, with each suspiration trying to expel from himself the white blood and the white thinking and being." Yet, he becomes enraged when Joanna gives him the opportunity to get a law degree from a black college and to carry on her work in the black community.

By the end of the novel, he appears to be tired of searching; he passively commits suicide when he runs to Hightower's home and is killed, holding a gun that he never fires.

Percy Grimm

Percy Grimm, born and raised in Jefferson, is a patriotic zealot, who was too young to serve in World War I and always regretted it. His guilt and his need to prove himself spur him to fight anyone he perceives shows any disloyalty toward his country. He harbors "a sublime and implicit faith in physical courage and blind obedience," and along with his belief in the superiority of Americans, he is convinced that "the white race is superior to any and all other races." When Joe escapes jail, Grimm insists on taking a lead role in preserving order in the town, and he convinces the sheriff to deputize him. His monomaniacal beliefs cause him to think he has the right to kill Joe, but not before he castrates him.

Lena Grove

Byron insists that Lena has "eyes that a man could not have lied to if he had wanted," although Brown does so on more than one occasion. Like Byron, Lena is trusting and sympathetic. She refuses to believe that Brown has deserted her and is willing to give him several chances to make good on his promises. She also shows a remarkable resiliency and adaptability. When she eventually recognizes that Brown will never acknowledge his responsibilities toward her and their child, she accepts Byron's offer of companionship and support and suggests that they might be able to share a future together.

Lena's experiences contrast with Joe's. In contrast to Joe's circle of violence and eventual tragic death, Lena becomes a life force in the novel through her optimism and resilience as well as through the birth of her child. She overcomes her hardships with her ability to adapt to her circumstances without regret or bitterness.

McKinley Grove

McKinley Grove, Lena's brother, is a hard man whose character, "except a kind of stubborn and despairing fortitude and the bleak heritage of his bloodpride had been sweated out of him." When he discovers Lena's pregnancy, he calls her a whore.

Reverend Gail Hightower

Fifty-two-year-old Gail Hightower was minister in one of Jefferson's principle churches. Twenty-five years ago, he was defrocked, due to a scandal involving his wife, and he has been an outcast in the town ever since. His only friend and confident is Byron. His present philosophy is that "all that any man can hope for is to be permitted to live quietly among his fellows." His fear of change is recognized by Byron when he notes that Hightower stays in town "because a fellow is more afraid of the trouble he might have than he ever is of the trouble he's already got." He concludes that "it's the dead folks that do him the damage … that he can't escape from."

Hightower had failed his wife, the main "dead folk" whom Byron mentions, because of his overweening self-interest and inability to live in the present. Like many of the main characters in the novel, Hightower was damaged by his strict religious upbringing, specifically his father's stern refusal of affection or kindness. As a result, he turned to the church and immersed himself in a fictional past with his grandfather, a Confederate raider. His self-absorption causes him to ignore the needs of his wife who eventually, after a series of affairs, commits suicide.

After the scandal forced his resignation from the ministry, Hightower is resilient and tenacious as he refuses to allow the townspeople to drive him away from his home. Yet, he becomes self-satisfied in this position, living as a martyr until Byron forces him back to the present and an involvement with humanity through a connection to Joe and Lena. Through his relationships with them, he is able to regain a measure of pride and dignity, and he becomes a kind of moral touchstone for Byron.

Eupheus Hines

At the end of the book, Faulkner reveals that Eupheus Hines is Joe's grandfather and also the janitor who kidnapped him from the orphanage. The people of Mottstown, who consider him quite mad, call him Uncle Doc and determine that he has "a face which had once been either courageous or violent—either a visionary or a supreme egoist." After his history is revealed, however, he proves himself to be the latter in each category. Another one of Yoknapatawpha County's religious fanatics, he considers his daughter to be a whore and so will not send for the doctor when she goes into labor. He also uses his beliefs to justify murder and kidnapping, insisting that Joe is God's abomination and that he, Hines, is the instrument of God's will.

Mrs. Hines

Mrs. Hines has allowed herself to be dominated by her husband throughout their marriage, refusing even to rebel against his authority as her daughter lay dying because he would not allow a doctor to care for her during childbirth. When she discovers that Joe is her grandson, however, she defies her husband and does everything she can to prevent him from harming Joe. Her profound grief over the loss of her daughter and her grandson causes her mind to break after the birth of Lena's child. In a delusional state, she believes that Lena's child is her own lost grandson, Joe.

Mrs. McEachern

Mrs. McEachern, Joe's stepmother, has "a beaten face" and "looked fifteen years older than the rugged and vigorous husband." Under her husband's strict hand, "she had been hammered stubbornly thinner and thinner like some passive and dully malleable metal, into an attenuation of dumb hopes and frustrated desires now faint and pale as dead ashes." She does, however, try to gain a measure of power regarding the treatment of Joe. She would never openly defy her husband, but after he doles out his harsh punishment to Joe, she often tries to ease her son's suffering.

Simon McEachern

Simon McEachern, Joe's adopted father, tries to justify his sexism and authoritarianism through the tenets of his faith, specifically his belief in divine retribution. Insisting his actions are the result of God's direction, he promotes a "rigid abnegation of all compromise," and so he beats Joe when he does not obey him. McEachern is a ruthless man who has never known either pity or doubt. Joe learns to match his father's stubbornness with his own. Simon's wife, however, has been broken by his iron will and his lack of sympathy or charity.


Destructive Righteousness

The community of Jefferson is predominantly Presbyterian or Calvinist, following the strict doctrines of predestination and of original sin, which become its excuse for the persecution of others. Characters in the novel who adopt this puritanical point of view refuse to forgive human frailty or to act with charity. The stern and implacable Eupheus Hines and Simon McEachern, extreme versions of this type of righteousness, insist that they are the representatives of the wrathful God, and so they take it upon themselves to determine Joe's fate. When these two men are disobeyed or thwarted on their path to redemption, they become violent, using Old Testament scriptures as justification. One of the great ironies of the novel is the fact that Joe is named "Christmas" and becomes the character most pursued and ultimately destroyed by Christian faith.

Joanna Burden's faith is just as fanatical but has a different focus. She has been taught through her strict religious upbringing that blacks are God's cursed race and so their torment can never be eased. As her name suggests, she becomes obsessed with the "burden" this ideology places on whites who suffer from the resulting guilt. Her relationship with Joe reflects this sense of righteousness as she struggles to redeem him. Her own guilt over her masochistic sexual relationship with Joe, coupled with his refusal to allow her to impose her spiritual vision on him, eventually results in her death.

Percy Grimm displays a patriotic righteousness as he envisions himself not as God's representative but as America's. Due to their promotion of their own rigid rules of conduct, the people of Jefferson "accepted Grimm with respect and perhaps a little awe … as though somehow his vision and patriotism and pride in the town, the occasion, had been quicker and truer than theirs." Grimm's patriotism, like the others' religious righteousness, convinces him that he has the right and obligation to persecute Joe for breaking the rules of a racist white society.

When she discovers that she is pregnant, Lena Grove faces the consequences of religious righteousness when her brother throws her out of the house, but later she is able to exist outside the strict boundaries of its doctrine. She is accepted in Jefferson as an unmarried, pregnant woman, most likely because she has been abandoned by Brown and she tries to convince him to marry her. When she cannot accomplish that goal, she leaves with Byron, moving beyond the reach of the town's rigid views of sexuality.

Topics for Further Study

  • Choose one of the themes discussed in the fiction section and write a poem or a short story that explores that theme in a different way.
  • Read another one of Faulkner's works, like Sanctuary, that is set in Jefferson and prepare a PowerPoint presentation about how the setting in each becomes an important part of the work.
  • Research and write a report analyzing attitudes toward blacks in the South during the time that the novel was written.
  • The novel has never been filmed, probably due to the complexity of its narrative. How would you depict the novel's disrupted chronology and the intertwined stories in a film? Write a screenplay of a portion of the novel that cuts back and forth between at least two characters.


Misogyny, or the hatred of women, is generated by religious fanaticism and male insecurity, and it often results in violence. Hines allows his daughter to die in childbirth because he spurns her as a whore. When her mother tries to go for a doctor, he aims his shotgun at her and warns, "get back into that house, whore's dam."

McEachern teaches Joe a similar view of women, which is evident in his response to his discovery of menstruation. Like Hines who regards this biological function as "God's abomination of womanflesh," Joe, when told about it by his friends, becomes outraged that women's "smooth and superior shape in which volition dwelled [was] doomed to be at stated and inescapable intervals victims of periodical filth." His obsession with this function turns to outrage. A few weeks later, he shoots a sheep and covers his hands with its blood as it is dying.

Joe's belief that women's biology and sexuality are an abomination results in his attacks on a young black girl and on Bobbie. He savagely beats the black girl with whom his friends encourage him to have sex, and he strikes Bobbie when she tells him that she is menstruating. His attitude toward sex becomes evident when his retreat into the woods after hitting Bobbie becomes a phallic landscape: "he entered, among the hard trunks … hardfeeling, hardsmelling," where he envisions "a diminishing row of suavely shaped urns in moonlight, blanched. And not one was perfect. Each one was cracked and from each crack there issued something liquid, deathcolored, and foul." This image of female sexuality causes him to vomit. Ironically, the cessation of menstruation, with its accompanying reduction of sexual desire, is one of the factors that prompt him to kill Joanna.

Joe also rejects feminine compassion as evident in his treatment of Mrs. McEachern, whom he considers an enemy. He refuses to accept her offers of comfort in response to her husband's cruel treatment of him, as when she brings him food after a severe beating, insisting that she wants to weaken him with her pity. As a result, he feels no remorse when he steals money from her.

His self-hatred becomes evident when he beats almost fatally a white prostitute who is not upset when he tells her that he is part black. The thought of a white woman agreeing to have sex with a black man sickens him so much that he stays ill for two years. Joe's misogyny appears to stem from his own victimization by a society that values neither blacks nor women.


The characters' failure to recognize the humanity and rights of blacks, coupled with their sense of righteousness, leads to Joe's persecution and ultimate destruction. The people of Jefferson have been able to ignore successfully the blacks who live on the margins of their town as long as they keep their distance from the white population. Joe becomes dangerous to them when he crosses this line, so he must be destroyed. Their fear of any black encroachment into white territory is illustrated in their response to Joanna and her ancestors' civil rights activities when they ostracize the former and kill the latter.

The town accepts Eupheus Hines's involvement with the black community because they determine him to be "an old man" whose behavior is "harmless"; however, if a young man acted similarly, he would have been "crucified." As a result, "the town [blinded] its collective eye" to the black women who brought food to Hines and his wife, probably from the white homes in which they cleaned and cooked. The town will not look away, though, when they are told that Joe is black and has murdered the white woman with whom he had a sexual relationship.


Disruption of Chronology

The events in this plot are not presented in chronological order. Many of the characters are glimpsed through extended flashbacks, which disrupt the sequential order of events. This technique conveys to what extent the past is present in and continues to affect the characters' lives. Most of the characters are revealed through flashback or stories they tell about their past and about their ancestors' lives. This structure emphasizes the point that the current state of affairs is shaped by past events, and it highlights the novel's insistence on determinism, a philosophy that asserts that acts that appear to be freely chosen are actually determined by forces that lie beyond the individual's control, such as the will of God or natural or social laws.

Faulkner provides glimpses of Joe Christmas, Gail Hightower, Joanna Burden, Percy Grimm, and Eupheus Hines in present time but then flashes back to important parts of their pasts that explain their behavior. Readers see the effect of the past most clearly in the character of Joe, who cannot escape the influence of his time in the orphanage or of his life with the McEacherns. His experiences during these two periods shape his character and propel him toward his tragic destiny. Gail Hightower is also negatively affected by the past as he endlessly relives the glory of his grandfather's cavalry charge. This obsession prevents him from living in the present, effectively destroying his marriage and eventually his reputation and branding him an outcast. Joanna Burden's upbringing in a rigid Calvinist environment influences her relationship with Joe and ultimately leads to her murder.

The stories of two main characters, Lena and Byron, however, are not told through flashbacks, except for Lena's very brief one that names Brown as the baby's father and notes her departure from her hometown. B. R. McElderry Jr., in his article on the novel's narrative structure in College English, insists: "It is important that the Lena-Byron story is told in chronological sequence, just as it developed. This is the simple narrative thread that gives a recurrent sense of forward motion." The two main story lines of the novel, involving Lena and Byron and Joe and Joanna, fuse when Lena appears at the top of the hill overlooking Jefferson and watches Joanna's house burn. Lena and Byron escape from the destruction symbolized by that fire, while Joe and Joanna are consumed by it.


Yoknapatawpha County and its seat, Jefferson, comprise a fictional setting that Faulkner used in fifteen novels and several short stories. The county is bordered by the Tallahatchie River on the north and the Yoknapatawpha River on the south. Frenchman's Bend, a poverty-stricken village, is nearby as well as plantations, farms, and tenant farmer shacks in the countryside surrounding it. Its citizens, past and present, include Indians, wealthy landowners, farmers, poor whites and blacks, and carpetbaggers. For inclusion in the first edition of Absalom, Absalom! (1936), Faulkner created a map of the county, identifying himself as sole owner and proprietor. Giving these works a shared setting creates a rich geographical and ancestral framework, which emphasizes to what degree these separate publications are related to each other. The construct also reinforces Faulkner's own sense of how individuals' lives are determined by their ancestors and by the geography within which they live.

Light in August focuses on four main settings: the town, the mill, the Burden estate, and the Hightower home. The two homes, where most of the action takes place, are set on the outskirts of Jefferson, and their remoteness highlights Joanna's and Hightower's separation from the community. The juxtaposition of the Burden home and the estate's slave shack where Joe lives reinforces the novel's class and racial divisions.

Historical Context


American literature written in the 1920s and early 1930s was dominated by a group of writers who were disillusioned by World War I (1914–1918). This group, which would come to be known as the modernists, reflected the zeitgeist, or spirit, of their age—a time when, in the aftermath of war, many Americans had lost faith in traditional institutions such as the government, social institutions, established religions, and even in humanity itself.

Modernism became one of the most fruitful periods in American letters. Modernist authors such as Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and John Dos Passos became part of what Gertrude Stein called the Lost Generation, creative people who witnessed the horrors of war and who struggled to survive despite having lost their values and ideals. The spirit of the Roaring Twenties, or the Jazz Age as F. Scott Fitzgerald called this period, was reflected in Modernist themes. On the surface, the characters in many of these works lived in the rarified atmosphere of the upper class. They drank, partied, and had sexual adventures, but underneath the glamorous surface there persisted a sense of the meaninglessness at the heart of their existence. Other modernists such as William Faulkner and playwright Eugene O'Neill focused on lower-class Americans whose sense of meaninglessness was compounded by their economic limitations.

Each modernist writer focused on separate ways to cope with the loss: some characters tried to drown a sense of emptiness in the fast-paced, alcohol-steeped life of the 1920s; some tried to overcome a profound sense of isolation through relationships; and some attempted to overcome meaninglessness through personal acts of courage. Hemingway's men and women faced a meaningless world with courage and dignity, exhibiting grace under pressure, while Fitzgerald's sought the redemptive power of love in a world driven by materialism. Faulkner's characters tried to establish a sense of identity as well as ties to family, all the while pressed by the social burden of Southern history. All ultimately had difficulty sustaining any sense of fulfillment and completion in the modern age.

Modernists experimented with different narrative styles to convey their themes. They abandoned traditional notions of narrative structure that suggest that stories have a specific beginning, middle, and end. Instead, they often started their stories in the middle, jumped back and forth in time, and left their endings ambiguous, suggesting that this structure more closely resembles reality. They felt that human interaction rarely started at the beginning of the story and rarely achieved closure at the ending of the story.

Influenced by the theories of Sigmund Freud, modernists pondered the psychology of their characters, often articulating both subconscious and conscious motivations. To accurately reflect these levels of consciousness, modernists employed stream-of-consciousness narratives (a way of telling a story by presenting the associative sequence of thought in consciousness) and replaced traditional omniscient narrators with subjective points of view that allowed often a narrow and distorted or multiple vision of reality.

Oxford, Mississippi

Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County, with Jefferson City as its county seat, is based on his hometown, Oxford, Mississippi, and Lafayette County, where he observed the region's people, architecture, typography and geography, and incorporated these into his fictional landscape. The region in which Faulkner lived had a long history similar to that of Yoknapatawpha County; it was steeped in the legacies of the Civil War and in racism.

Some specific details in Light in August are taken from actual sites in Oxford, including the southward-looking statue of a Confederate soldier, the stores located on the square, the hill on which Lena stands when she first sees Jefferson, the ditch in which Joe hides from Percy Grimm, and most of the route Joe travels from the barbershop through Freedman Town. The cabin on Joanna Burden's property in which Joe lives and Lena gives birth is a pre-Civil War slave cabin. Yet, Jefferson does not have the University of Mississippi, and it has a higher percentage of Presbyterians than did Oxford, which enabled Faulkner to explore in more detail his religious themes.

Compare & Contrast

  • 1930s: After a decade of buying on credit, Americans find themselves in the grips of a severe economic depression. African Americans are hardest hit by the Depression, which leaves half of their population out of work.

    Today: Economic policies, such as unemployment compensation, are designed in part to prevent the country from falling into a severe depression that would yield the kind of national devastation Americans experienced in the 1930s.
  • 1930s: Racial violence increases in the South during the Depression (1929–1940). For example, lynchings increase from eight in 1932 to twenty-eight in 1933. Some lynching results as blacks challenge the racially prejudicial Jim Crow laws, which are designed to deny African Americans their legal rights. These laws mandate segregation, make it difficult for blacks to vote, and stall efforts by blacks to gain economic, political, and social equality.

    Today: Racial discrimination is against the law. Many African Americans hold positions of power and prestige in the United States. Yet more subtle forms of discrimination persist, involving housing, employment, and promotion.

Critical Overview

In the decades after Light in August was published, the novel suffered from the same critical response as did much of Faulkner's works. Scholars were split over Faulkner's literary merit: some praised him for his compelling vision and artistry while others condemned him for his obscurity and bleak vision of humanity. Warren Beck, in a 1941 article for College English, argues that condemnation of Faulkner "seems based chiefly on two erroneous propositions—first, that Faulkner has no ideas, no point of view, and second, that consequently he is melodramatic, a mere sensationalist." He cites one example of this type of criticism when he quotes a reviewer who claims that in Light in August, "nothing is omitted, except virtue."

After Malcolm Cowley's publication of The Portable Faulkner in 1946 and Faulkner's winning the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1949, Faulkner's popularity increased, and scholars again found much to praise in his works. During the late 1940s and early 1950s, Faulkner began to be regarded as one of the twentieth century's most important authors and Light in August as one of the best novels of the American South.

B. R. McElderry Jr, in his College English article on the novel's narrative structure, writes, "it is doubtful if any of the [other major novels] combines so richly the easy natural comedy and the violent tragedy of which Faulkner at his best is a master." McElderry concludes that there are problems with the novel's structure, especially with the characterization of Joanna Burden and Hightower. "Yet when the difficulties of the structural problems are fairly confronted, the achievement overshadows such defects."

Harold Bloom, in his study of Faulkner in Genius, insists that the novel is one of Faulkner's greatest works, arguing that the relationship between Joe and Joanna "is the most harrowing, and yet testifies to what most typifies Faulkner's uncompromising genius for characterization."


Wendy Perkins

Perkins is a professor of American and English literature and film. In this essay, she examines the tensions between community and individual in the novel.

Byron Bunch, the inconspicuous mill worker in William Faulkner's Light in August, becomes the moral conscience of the novel as he observes the townspeople of Jefferson City and declares, "people everywhere are about the same." Byron not only offers astute judgments of the citizens of the city; he also notes their harsh, even brutal treatment of individuals who do not fit into their notions of community. Revealing his understanding of group dynamics, he insists that for those who live in a small town like Jefferson "evil is harder to accomplish." As a result, "people can invent more of it in other people's names. Because that was all it required: that idea, that single idle word blown from mind to mind." This type of group response becomes an important agency in Light in August as Faulkner explores the disastrous effects the community can have on the individual who tries to establish a sense of independence.

Donald M. Kartiganer, in an article on Faulkner for The Columbia Literary History of the United States, concludes that in the community of Jefferson, which is the setting for Light in August as well as that of many of Faulkner's works, "the codes of honor and courage, the respect for an old frontier individualism, give way … to rules of propriety and a crushing conformity." This conformity, he argues causes "a fundamental split within Jefferson's social fabric between white and black, group and individual … The violence that inevitably ensues, [claims] its nonconformist victims." The victims of this intolerance in Light in August are Joe Christmas, Joanna Burden, and Gail Hightower.

An ideal community could create a sense of wholeness by recognizing and sustaining each individual's separate identity. Jefferson, however, with its seemingly inescapable ties to its southern past, is far from that ideal. The tensions that arise between the individual and the community in this city are the result of deep-seated racism and Calvinistic righteousness. These factors cause the townspeople to view those who do not conform to their values and rules as members of another group, either of blacks or of sinners. The townspeople see Joe as a black man and a sinner. This otherness convicts the nonconformist, who must be marginalized and/or punished.

Joe's exclusion from the community begins as a result of a combination of racism and righteousness when his grandfather takes him to the orphanage. Eupheus Hines's refusal to accept a grandson born out of wedlock and fathered by a dark-skinned man initiates a pattern of isolation that Joe is forced to endure for the rest of his life.

The sense of separation he experiences as an orphan is heightened in the orphanage where the other children shun and taunt him with racial epithets, believing him to be of mixed blood. In order to save her reputation after Joe discovers her sexual indiscretion, Miss Atkins plays on the communal racism when she spreads the rumor that he is black and thus effectively precipitates his removal from the orphanage and into the hands of the brutally self-righteous Simon McEachern.

After he kills McEachern and is rejected by Bobbie, Joe tries unsuccessfully to become a part of white and black communities, but after he arrives in Jefferson, he appears to have accepted his role as an outsider. Prior to Joanna Burden's murder, the townspeople regard Joe as a stranger but leave him alone because they assume he is white and they are put off by his imperious and often menacing demeanor. After Brown insists that Joe is of mixed race and has killed Joanna, however, their attitude changes dramatically. The fact that a murder has been committed, heightened by rumors of the crime of a black man engaging in a sexual relationship with a white woman and his arrogant disregard of his socially abhorrent behavior, all convince local people that Joe must be destroyed.

Faulkner illustrates the townspeople's attitude when Joe is captured after walking in plain sight in the center of Mottstown. The community is appalled that he is "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." Joe acts, they argue, "like he never even knew he was a murderer, let alone a n― too." Jefferson's rampant racism fosters a hatred in Percy Grimm so intense that he feels justified in castrating the dying Joe.

What Do I Read Next?

  • Joseph Blotner's Faulkner: A Biography (1974) presents a fascinating chronicle of Faulkner's life and an insightful analysis of his work.
  • Faulkner's Sanctuary (1932) also takes place in the fictional Jefferson City.
  • Faulkner's novel The Sound and the Fury (1929), which focuses on the lives of members of a southern family, is considered to be Faulkner's most complex and successful work.
  • F. Scott Fitzgerald's celebrated novel, The Great Gatsby (1925), employs similar stylistic techniques to those of Light in August, most notably a disruption in chronology that reveals the importance of the past and reinforces the focus on a search for identity.
  • Joel Williamson's The Crucible of Race: Black-White Relations in the American South since Emancipation (1984) examines the interaction between blacks and whites in the South and the resulting tensions between the two races.
  • Flannery O'Connor's short story "Revelation," which can be found in Flannery O'Connor: The Complete Stories (1971), explores the question of racism in a religious context.

Joanna Burden, another marginalized citizen of Jefferson, is not the victim of violent intolerance, but her ancestors were when they stood up for black voting rights in town. As a result of her grandfather and brother's actions and her own work with blacks in the area, she has become an outcast. Joanna understands that the community feared her family's and her own support of black rights would stir up "the negroes to murder and rape" and threaten "white supremacy." As a result, they call her "N―lover" in town and refuse to "[allow] their wives to call on her." Joanna, like Byron, understands group dynamics and so is more generous toward her neighbors, insisting that her father "respect[ed] anybody's love for the land where he and his people were born and [understood] that a man would have to act as the land where he was born had trained him to act."

The intensity of their animosity toward Joanna, however, emerges after her murder when the townspeople swarm to the site of the fire: they "knew, believed, and hoped that she had been ravished too: at least once before her throat was cut and at least once afterward." Yet, "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." And so, hearing rumors that a black man had killed her, "some of them with pistols already in their pockets began to canvass about for someone to crucify."

Ironically, Joanna's fate is sealed by her own participation in group mentality. Like the members of her community, she sees blacks not as individuals but as a group. Influenced by the religious dogma of her ancestors, Joanna regards Joe only as one of a doomed race and ultimately as a sinner who refuses to kneel down with her and pray for absolution. As a result of this limited view, and her own belief that she too has sinned, she tries to kill them both. In a violent reaction to her attempts to control him, Joe kills her.

In another observation of group dynamics, Byron suggests that often "what folks tells on other folks aint true to begin with." The town's treatment of Reverend Gail Hightower proves his point. After Hightower's wife returned from the sanatorium, the righteous women in Jefferson began to spread disparaging rumors concerning Hightower's relationship with his wife and "the town believed that the ladies knew the truth."

The rumors intensify after Hightower's wife dies under suspicious circumstances to the point that no one in town attends his Sunday sermons, which eventually forces him to give up his ministry. The town's response to Hightower turns violent when he determines to keep his black cook. After stories spread about the two, the community agrees that Hightower "had made his wife go bad and commit suicide because he was not a natural husband … and that the negro woman was the reason." As a result, Hightower was viciously beaten.

After Hightower refuses to leave Jefferson, eventually "the whole thing seemed to blow away, like an evil wind," and the community decided to let him be: "it was as though the town realized at last that he would be a part of its life until he died, and that they might as well become reconciled." Byron analyzes the community's treatment of Hightower when he likens the situation to "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."

While the narrow-minded bigotry and righteousness of the community of Jefferson damages or destroys the lives of many of the novel's central characters, the townspeople do offer some support to Lena as she searches for the father of her unborn child. They do not try to ostracize her for her illegitimate pregnancy, most likely because she is trying, in their view, to rectify her sin by marrying Brown. However, she and Byron eventually leave Jefferson, more perhaps to get away from the restrictive values of the community than to find Brown.

Joe's violent death at the end of the novel appears to force the community to recognize the effects of its rigid codes. As the people who have followed Joe to Hightower's home witness his last breath, Joe "seemed to rise soaring into their memories forever and ever." The narrator insists, "They are not to lose it, in whatever peaceful valleys, beside whatever placid and reassuring streams of old age, in the mirroring faces of whatever children they will contemplate old disasters and newer hopes." In this sense then, Joe becomes a Christlike figure, who begins the process of redemption for a community that has allowed its prejudices and fears to repress its sense of humanity.

Source: Wendy Perkins, Critical Essay on Light in August, in Novels for Students, Thomson Gale, 2007.

C. Hugh Holman

In the following excerpt, Holman proposes that unity is manifest in Faulkner's novel through the "paralleling of character traits" and "actions" of Joe Christmas and Christ.

The nature of the unity in William Faulkner's Light in August, in fact, even the existence of such unity, has been seriously disputed by his critics. The debate has ranged from Malcolm Cowley's insistence that the work combines "two or more themes having little relation to each other" to Richard Chase's elaborate theory of "images of the curve" opposed to "images of linear discreteness." Those critics who see a unity in the novel find its organizing principle in theme or philosophical statement—"a successful metaphysical conceit," a concern with Southern religion, the tragedy of human isolation, man's lonely search for community—but they fail to find a common ground for the unity they perceive because they neglect properly to evaluate the objective device which Faulkner employs in the novel as an expression of theme. That device is the pervasive paralleling of character traits, actions, and larger structural shapes to the story of Christ. Viewed in terms of this device the novel becomes the story of the life and death of a man peculiarly like Christ in many particulars, an account of what Ilse D. Lind has called "the path to Gethsemane which is reserved for the Joe Christmases of this world." However, that account is in itself perverse, "a monstrous and grotesque irony," unless the other strands of action in the book—the Hightower story and the Lena Grove story—are seen as being contrasting portions of a thematic statement also made suggestively by analogies to the Christ story. This essay is an attempt to demonstrate that such, indeed, is the basic nature of the novel and that it has a unity which is a function of its uses of the Christ story.


The parallels between Christ and Joe Christmas, the leading character in the novel, have not gone unnoticed. However, although many critics have commented in passing on their presence, they have usually been dismissed as casual or irresponsible. But the publication of A Fable, with its very obvious and self-conscious use of Christian parallels in highly complex patterns, forces us to accept Faulkner's concern with the Christ story as profoundly serious, and recent criticism has also shown us that such a concern is not a late occurrence in his work. Furthermore, in a recent interview, Faulkner has talked very directly about the use of Christian materials in A Fable and the function that he feels that such material has in a novel. He said:

In A Fable the Christian allegory was the right allegory to use.

Whatever its [Christianity's] symbol—cross or crescent or whatever—that symbol is man's reminder of his duty inside the human race. Its various allegories are the charts against which he measures himself and learns to know what he is…. It shows him how to discover himself, evolve for himself a moral code and standard within his capacities and aspirations…. Writers have always drawn, and always will, of the allegories of moral consciousness, for the reason that the allegories are matchless.

Apparently Faulkner intends to use parallels to Christ as devices to invest modern stories with timeless meanings; and Christian allegory, when it appears in his work, may justifiably be viewed as a means of stating theme. Dayton Kohler correctly says, "Faulkner's treatment of Hebraic-Christian myth is like Joyce's use of the Homeric story in Ulysses and Mann's adaptation of Faustian legend in Doctor Faustus." It is a pervasive and enriching aspect of the total book, and we expect to see it bodied forth, not only in fragments and parts, but in the complete design.

Light in August consists of three major and largely separate story strands, what Irving Howe has called "a triad of actions." These strands are the story of Joe Christmas, his murder of Joanna Burden, and his death, together with long retrospective sections that trace his life in considerable detail from his birth to the night of Joanna's death; the story of Gail Hightower, his reintroduction into life through Lena Grove and Joe Christmas, and his death, together with retrospective and narrative sections on his marriage and his ministry; and the story of Byron Bunch and Lena Grove, of her search for the father of her illegitimate child, and of its birth. These strands are tied loosely together by the accident of time, some interchange of dramatis personae, and by the almost mechanical device of having characters in one strand narrate events in another. Lucas Burch, the father of Lena Grove's bastard child, is Joe Christmas' helper and would-be betrayer. Byron Bunch, Lena's loving slave, is a friend of Hightower, narrates much of the Joe Christmas story to Hightower and is himself the retrospective narrator for a good deal of Hightower's early story. Joe Christmas' grandmother attempts, with Bunch's assistance, to persuade Hightower to save her grandson, and Joe turns to Hightower in the last moments of his life. Hightower assists at the birth of Lena's child, and Joe's grandmother confuses Lena with her daughter Milly and Lena's child with Joe as a baby. However, these links are not sufficient to tie the triad of actions into "a single action that is complete and whole."

A certain mechanical unity is imposed upon the novel through Faulkner's establishing the action of the story in the ten days between Joe Christmas' killing Joanna Burden and his being killed by Percy Grimm. However, the significance of these present actions is to be found in the past, and the bulk of the novel actually consists of retrospective accounts of that antecedent action. Faulkner attempts to preserve a sense of present action as opposed to antecedent action by the device of telling in the present tense all events that are imagined to be occurring in a forward motion during these ten days, and in the past tense all retrospective and antecedent events.

Also there are three distinct bodies of material in the book: formal Protestant religion, sex, and the Negro in Southern society. Each of the story strands deals predominantly with one of these matters but contains the other two in some degree. The story of Joe Christmas is centered on the problem of the Negro in Southern society; the Gail Hightower story is centered in the Protestant church; and the sex element is the controlling factor in the story of Lena Grove, her search for the father of her child, and Byron Bunch's love for her. The interplays of these materials among these separate story strands help to knit the parts of the novel into a whole, but these bodies of material and the stories constructed from them find their most meaningful thematic expression as contrasting analogues of the Christ story.


The most obvious of the Christ analogues is in the story of Joe Christmas. Faulkner establishes numerous parallels between Joe Christmas and Christ, some of which are direct and emphatic and some of which are nebulous, fleeting, almost wayward. Strange dislocations in time occur; events in Christ's life have multiple analogies and are sometimes distributed over long periods of time. The parallels often seem perverse and almost mocking, yet they all seem to invite us to look at Joe Christmas as a person somehow like Christ in certain aspects. Around his birth and his death events are closely parallel to those in Christ's life; in the middle period of his life the analogies grow shadowy and uncertain.

Joe is the son of an unmarried mother, and the identity of his father is hidden from him and from the world. He is found on Christmas day on the steps of an orphans' home, and he is named Joseph Christmas, giving him the initials JC. His grandfather says that God "chose His own Son's sacred anniversary to set [His will] a-working on." When he is five, his grandfather spirits him away by night to Little Rock to save him from the orphanage authorities who have discovered that he has Negro blood. After he is returned, he is adopted by the Simon McEacherns, and upon his first entering their home Mrs. McEachern ceremoniously washes his feet. The stern Calvinism of Simon McEachern represents the accepted religious order of Joe's world, an equivalent of the Pharisaic order of Christ's, and Joe achieves what he later senses to be manhood and maturity when at the age of eight he sets himself against the formal codification of that order by refusing to learn the Presbyterian catechism. He rejects three temptations: Mrs. McEachern's food and the feminine pity which it represents; the Negro girl whom he refuses when he is fourteen; and McEachern's attempt by means of a heifer to purchase Joe's allegiance to his orthodox conventions. He also rejects food three times, as Robert D. Jacobs has pointed out. Once, when he is taken into Mottstown at the age of eighteen by his foster father, Joe goes to a restaurant where he meets Bobbie Allen and begins to learn about the larger world of which he is a part, the restaurant being a kind of carnal temple and Bobbie and its owners being priests of that world.

His middle years are cloaked in obscurity, but at the age of thirty he comes to Jefferson, and there he is first introduced to us as a man with a name that is "somehow an augur of what he will do." He is rootless, homeless, "no street, no walls, no square of earth his home." For three years he works in Jefferson. At first he works in the sawmill with Brown who is later to betray him, and Faulkner refers to them as "master" and "disciple." He becomes the lover of a nymphomaniac, Joanna Burden, who, after reveling for a while in depravity, when sex is no longer interesting to her, tries to convert him to the Pharisaic religious order.

Then one Friday night he kills her, striking in self-defense against her use of a pistol to force him to subscribe through prayer to her religion. He flees, and he is betrayed, although ineffectually, by his "disciple" Brown for $1000. On the Tuesday of his week of flight, the day of Holy Week on which Christ cleansed the temple, he enters a Negro church and, using a table leg, drives out the worshippers. On Thursday night, the night of the Last Supper, he finds himself in the cabin of what he calls a "brother" and a meal mysteriously appears before him. Jacobs observes that "this Christ has no disciple except himself and always must eat alone." Faulkner says, "It was as though now and at last he had an actual and urgent need to strike off the accomplished days toward some purpose, some definite day or act." The next morning he frantically questions to learn the day of the week, and, finding it to be Friday, sets his face steadfastly toward Mottstown. Although up to this time he has been walking, he now enters the village riding with a Negro in a wagon drawn by mules. First he gets a shave and a haircut; then a man named Halliday recognizes him and asks, "Aint your name Christmas?" Faulkner reports, "He never denied it. He never did anything." Halliday hits him twice in the face, so that his forehead bleeds. His grandfather, who, being a stern Calvinist, speaks for the Pharisees, tries to incite the crowd to violence, shouting, "Kill him. Kill him." The mob, however, leaves him to the "law." He is moved from Mottstown to Jefferson, another legal jurisdiction, and the Mottstown sheriff yields his responsibility happily. In Jefferson he is guarded by volunteer National Guardsmen, who spend their time gambling. He escapes from the sheriff in the town square, runs to a Negro cabin where he steals a pistol, and then runs to the home of the ex-minister Hightower, where he is shot by the leader of the Guardsmen, a self-important soldier. As he is dying, the Guardsman takes a knife and mutilates him, so that "from out the slashed garments about his hips and loins the pent black blood seemed to rush like a released breath." And Joe Christmas, at thirty-three, as Gail Hightower had earlier prophesied that he would, becomes "the doomed man … in whose crucifixion [the churches] will raise a cross."

These parallels have been dismissed as insignificant, I believe, because critics have looked for a theological Saviour, whose death becomes an effective expiation for man's guilt, and viewed in these terms Joe Christmas is a cruel and irreverent travesty on Christ. However, Faulkner has defined the function of allegory to be a chart against which man can measure himself and learn "to know what he is." And Christian allegory uses Christ as "a matchless example of suffering and sacrifice and the promise of hope" (Paris Rev., p. 42). The Christ to whom Faulkner parallels Joe Christmas is not the Messiah of St. Paul's epistles but the suffering servant of Isaiah, who is described thus:

he hath no form nor comeliness; and when we shall see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him.

He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not….

He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth: he is brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so he openeth not his mouth.

He has taken from prison and from judgment: and who shall declare his generation: for he was cut off out of the land of the living: for the transgression of my people was he stricken. (Isaiah liii.2-3, 7-8)


The central fact in this story of the suffering servant Joe Christmas is his belief that he bears an imperceptibly faint strain of Negro blood, an ineradicable touch of evil in the eyes of the society of which he is a part and in his own eyes as well. This Negro blood exists for him as a condition of innate and predetermined darkness, a touch of inexorable original sin, a burden he bears neither through his own volition nor because of his own acts. In the lost central years of his life his sense of this innate damnation leads him to shock his many women with confessions of his Negro blood. At last he finds a woman who is not shocked.

She said, "What about it?… Say, what do you think this dump is, anyhow? The Ritz hotel?" Then she quit talking. She was watching his face and she began to move backward slowly before him, staring at him, her face draining, her mouth open to scream. Then she did scream. It took two policemen to subdue him. At first they thought that the woman was dead.

He was sick after that. He did not know until then that there were white women who would take a man with a black skin. He stayed sick for two years.

It is from this aspect of himself that Joe runs in such fatal and precipitant flight down "the street which was to run for fifteen years."

Hightower equates this Negro blood in Joe to "poor mankind"; and Joe, running from the Negro quarter of the town, sees it as the "black pit," and thinks, "It just lay there, black, impenetrable…. It might have been the original quarry, abyss itself." It is this black blood that stands between Joe and a natural life. It is his own knowledge of it that stands between him and his becoming "one with loneliness and quiet that has never known fury or despair." And it is this black blood which, in Joanna Burden's impassioned view of the "doom and curse" of the Negro, casts a "black shadow in the shape of a cross."

Gavin Stevens believes that Joe Christmas' actions, after he escapes in the town square, were the results of a series of conflicts between his black blood, which is a form of evil, and his white blood, which represents his humane and good impulses. This conflict reaches its climax when the black blood leads him to strike the minister to whom he had run for help, but, Stevens says:

And then the black blood failed him again, as it must have in crises all his life. He did not kill the minister. He merely struck him with the pistol and ran on and crouched behind that table and defied the black blood for the last time, as he had been defying it for thirty years. He crouched behind that overturned table and let them shoot him to death, with that loaded and unfired pistol in his hand.

After Percy Grimm shoots Joe down, he mutilates him, and then, with the crowd watching, "the pent black blood" rushes from him. Faulkner says:

It seemed to rush out of his pale body like the rush of sparks from a rising rocket; upon that black blast the man seemed to rise soaring into their memories forever and ever. They are not to lose it, in whatever peaceful valleys, beside whatever placid and reassuring streams of old age, in the mirroring faces of whatever children they will contemplate old disasters and newer hopes. It will be there, musing, quiet, steadfast, not fading and not particularly threatful, but of itself alone serene, of itself alone triumphant.

This is Joe Christmas' crucifixion and his ascension, and this outrushing and ascending stream of black blood becomes his only successful act of communion with his fellowmen. Through it, a symbol of his Negro qualities shed for sexual reasons in the house of a man of religion, Joe Christmas becomes one of "the charts against which [man] measures himself and learns to know what he is … a matchless example of suffering and sacrifice …" (Paris Rev., p. 42).

Joe's life is also shaped by sexual distortions, perversions, and irregularities. His mother was unmarried; his grandfather's righteous anger at her impurity and at what he believes to be the Negro blood in Joe's father makes him kill Joe's father and refuse his mother the medical assistance which would have prevented her death at his birth. Thus this anger sends Joe into the world an orphan. His accidental witnessing of the illicit relations between an orphanage dietician and an interne results in the dietician's learning of his Negro blood and in his being adopted by the McEacherns. At fourteen, when Joe's turn comes in a group assignation with a Negro girl, he is repelled by the "womanshenegro" and it is against "She" that he struggles and fights, until "There was no She at all." Significantly this early sexual experience is allied in Joe's mind with the Negro.

The menstrual period becomes for him a symbol of darkness and evil. Learning about it from boys' conversation, "he shot a sheep…. Then he knelt, his hands in the yet warm blood of the dying beast, trembling…. He did not forget what the boy had told him. He just accepted it. He found that he could live with it, side by side with it." This blood sacrifice he is to duplicate himself in his death. But three years after killing the sheep, when he confronts the idea again in connection with Bobbie Allen, it fills him with horror. "In the notseeing and the hardknowing as though in a cave he seemed to see a diminishing row of suavely shaped urns in moonlight, blanched. And not one was perfect. Each one was cracked and from each crack there issued something liquid, deathcolored, and foul." This image of the urn is to appear crucially in each of the major story strands.

Woman thus becomes for Joe a symbol and source of darkness and sin, the dark temptress who is viewed with revulsion alternating with attraction. Joseph Campbell expresses such a duality in attitudes toward women in terms that might have been designed to define Joe's feeling when in his study of religion and mythology he says:

Generally we refuse to admit within ourselves or within our friends, the fullness of that pushing, self-protective, malodorous, carnivorous, lecherous fever which is the very nature of the organic cell….

But when it suddenly dawns upon us, or is forced to our attention, that everything we think or do is necessarily tainted with the odor of the flesh, then, not uncommonly, there is experienced a moment of revulsion: life, the acts of life, the organs of life, woman in particular as the great symbol of life, become intolerable.

Simon McEachern's harsh and grimly puritan ideal of chastity drives Joe to the prostitute Bobbie Allen, appropriately named for the hard-hearted heroine of the Southern folk version of the Scotch ballad "Barbara Allen." And this cheap and cruel woman is Joe's closest approach to love and acceptance, and she at last turns upon him, screaming against his Negro blood.

This pattern of unhappy if not unnatural sex reaches its climax for Joe Christmas with the puritanical nymphomaniac Joanna Burden. In a sense, the ministry that Joe performs during his three years in Jefferson is to call to life in this cold, barren woman the primitive sex urge; as he expresses it, "At least I have made a woman of her at last." But what he awakens in her is not a natural urge, but an unnatural and perverted one, for she was too old to bear children, too old to serve the purposes of nature. Faulkner says, "Christmas watched her pass through every avatar of a woman in love…. He was aware of … the imperious and fierce urgency that concealed an actual despair at frustrate and irrevocable years…. It was as though he had fallen into a sewer." Having perverted his "ministry," she finally denies it and attempts to force him into her sterile religious patterns. It is then that he kills her in an act of self-defense, for she had tried to shoot him; and in an act of spiritual self-preservation, for he could live only by refusing to pray with her; but in an act of suicide, for he could not himself long survive her killing.

It is in the Joanna Burden episode that the sex material of the Joe Christmas story reaches its fullest statement. It is in her episode, too, that the union of this material with the idea of Joe's Negro blood is most clearly stated, for Joanna is the daughter of a Northern father in a Southern town. From her childhood she had been taught that the Negroes were "A race doomed and cursed to be forever and ever a part of the white race's doom and curse for it sins" and that "in order to rise, you must raise the shadow with you … the curse of the white race is the black man who will be forever God's chosen own because He once cursed Him!" She first befriends Joe because he is a Negro. And when the flames of her sexual desires die out she wishes to send him to law school and to have him administer her numerous charities for Negro people, but this involves an acceptance of his Negro status, and such acceptance is intolerable to Joe.

Joanna serves adequately to link these two matters, sex and the Negro, to religion, for she is a conventionally devout person, and when she attempts to shoot Joe, thus forcing him to kill her, it is because he refuses to join her in her return to religion through prayer.

The formal Protestant religion, an aspect of which Joanna represents, has been haunting Joe from before his birth. His grandfather Eupheus Hines is a half-made religious zealot with a special and spiteful hatred of women, of what he calls "abomination and bitchery." He believes that God speaks directly to him, telling him how to execute His vengeance on earth. In the narrow, vindictive, cruel God to whom Eupheus listens may be seen the primitive Protestant Old Testament Jehovah of anger and jealousy. The Negro has been singled out for the special wrath of this God, and Hines goes about as a quasi minister to Negro congregations preaching to them of God's disfavor. He becomes a kind of perverted and evil divine father for Joe, and he pursues passionately his desire to destroy his grandson. Although his religion is unorganized and brutally primitive, he seems to speak on the lowest level of the religious order and attitudes of Joe's world.

Simon McEachern, Christmas' foster father, into whose hands he is committed when he passes from the orphanage and Hine's control, is a Presbyterian elder. He attempts to instill through grim authority the cheerless pattern of Calvinistic conduct and belief. His only weapon is the flail, and to him love is a deplorable weakness. The crucial occurrence in Joe's relationship with him comes when McEachern attempts unsuccessfully to force Joe to learn the Presbyterian catechism. Finally Joe strikes McEachern down in murderous rage when his foster father comes between him and the closest thing he has known to love, Bobbie Allen.

When Joe is running away after killing Joanna, he re-enacts Christ's cleansing of the temple by interrupting a Negro church service and driving out the worshippers with a table leg. His grandmother, anxious to give him a respite from the punishment he is to suffer, turns to the disgraced Presbyterian minister Hightower and asks him to give Christmas an alibi for the time of Joanna's murder. She tells Joe to go to the minister. When he escapes in the town square, he turns first to a Negro cabin and then to Hightower, but he strikes the minister down, as he has struck down the others who have symbolized church to him.

Significantly, organized religion is represented by the Presbyterian Church rather than the Baptist or the Methodist, both of which are numerically superior to the Presbyterian in Faulkner's country. Yet Faulkner is remarkably ignorant of the government and instruction of that church. He gives it an episcopal government quite contrary to the government by elders from which it gains its name. He seems naïvely ignorant of how the catechism is learned, for he has Joe Christmas standing silent with the book in his hands, as though the catechism were a litany to be recited rather than a group of answers to be repeated to questions. However, the Presbyterian Church is the doctrinal church of the Protestant sects, the church of unrelenting Calvinism. As such, it represents the Pharisaic order and is an example of what man does in codifying into cold ritual and inhumane form the warm and living heart of religion.

It is against the dead order of his world as it is defined by this formal religion that much of Joe's rebellion is directed. He defines himself by rebellion against McEachern's catechism and grim and inhumane morality, against Joanna Burden's attempt to force him into her religious patterns, against a symbol of the organized church when he strikes out in flailing anger against the Negro congregation, and against the ex-minister Hightower when he strikes him down. He is pursued and harried by the organized church of his day in a way suggestive of that in which Christ was pursued and harried by the Pharisees.

Joe Christmas is like Christ, so many of whose characteristics his creator has given him, in that he bears our common guilt, symbolized by his Negro blood, that he is denied by the world, and that he is ultimately offered as a blood sacrifice because of the "original sin" he bears. But he is not Christ; he is a rebelling and suffering creature, embittered, angry, and almost totally lacking in love. In his ineffectual death is no salvation. He is a futile and meaningless expiation of his "guilt."

Source: C. Hugh Holman, "The Unity of Faulkner's Light in August," in PMLA, Vol. 73, No. 1, March 1958, pp. 155-66.

B. R. McElderry Jr.

In the following essay, McElderry argues that the importance of narrative structure in Light in August is often overshadowed by a focus on Faulkner's symbolism.

Light in August is now regarded as one of Faulkner's major novels, and it is doubtful if any of the others combines so richly the easy natural comedy and the violent tragedy of which Faulkner at his best is a master. Consider the perfection of the brief dialogue early in the novel when Lena Grove confronts Byron Bunch at the lumber mill, expecting to find her pseudo-husband:

"You ain't him," she says behind her fading smile, with the grave astonishment of a child.

"No ma'am," Byron says. He pauses, half turning with the balanced staves. "I don't reckon I am. Who is it I ain't?"

Or consider the terrible scene in Hightower's kitchen, when Joe Christmas, the escaped murderer, is cornered and castrated by that incipient storm-trooper, Percy Grimm:

When the others reached the kitchen they saw the table flung aside now and Grimm stooping over the body. When they approached to see what he was about, they saw that the man was not dead yet, and when they saw what Grimm was doing one of the men gave a choked cry and stumbled back into the wall and began to vomit. Then Grimm too sprang back, flinging behind him the bloody butcher knife.

Light in August was first published in 1932, and it is interesting to speculate on how differently Faulkner's reputation might have developed if this novel had been quickly reprinted in the Modern Library—instead of Sanctuary, included in that series the same year, and thus for a long time the most easily accessible of Faulkner's novels. Not until 1950 was Light in August added to the Modern Library, and most of the serious discussion of the novel has appeared within the past ten years. Interpretation has frequently been concerned with symbolical implications. Thus Richard Chase wishes to persuade us that "linear discrete images," such as a picket fence, the identical windows in a streetcar, and rows of identical houses "stand for modernism, rationalism, applied science, capitalism, progressivism, emasculation, the atomized consciousness and its pathological extensions" (KR, X, Autumn 1948, 540). Meanwhile, too little attention has been given to the extraordinary structural problems which Faulkner solved in Light in August.

What, essentially, is the story of the novel? How does Faulkner tell it? And why did he tell it the way he did? If we look at the beginning and ending, usually positions of great emphasis, we might say that this is the story of Lena and Byron. They meet, Byron at first sight falls in love with Lena, he helps her, she refuses him, he arranges for her seducer Brown (or Burch) to see her again, and he vainly fights the escaping Brown. In the last chapter, which has the quality of an epilogue, Byron is doggedly faithful to Lena, and her eventual acceptance of him is implied. In essence, this is a simple small-town idyll, with a touch of comic irony. Lena never deceives Byron, for when they meet it is obvious that Lena is pregnant and deserted by her lover. Yet for Byron there is no meanness or cheapness in her. His help to her is a gift. He never shows any resentment at her reluctance to allow him to take the place of the vanished and worthless Brown. The comic tone of the last chapter is the contribution of the furniture dealer, the rank outsider ignorant of previous episodes, merely trying to make a good story for the amusement of his wife. It is important that the Lena-Byron story is told in chronological sequence, just as it developed. This is the simple narrative thread that gives a recurrent sense of forward motion.

The word recurrent is deliberate, for during most of the novel (Chs. 3-19) we are chiefly occupied with the Joe Christmas story, which is told in violently non-chronological order. Clustered about the Joe Christmas story are the four stories or sub-stories of (1) Joe's partner Brown (or Burch), of (2) Joanna Burden, the benefactress and mistress murdered by Joe Christmas, of (3) the Hineses, grandparents of Joe, and of (4) Hightower, the unemployed, discredited preacher. Three levels of time are used. There is the present, which begins with the report of Joanna Burden's murder (Ch. 4). This present action is continued by the sheriff's investigation of the crime, Christmas's arrest, escape and death (Chs. 13-19). By time and coincidence the major action concerning Christmas is related to the Lena-Byron action, through Byron's friend Hightower. The second time level is the immediate past in which Christmas committed the crime: part of Ch. 2 explains Brown's (or Burch's) association with Christmas; Ch. 5 tells the quarrel between Brown and Christmas on the night of the murder; Chs. 10, 11, and 12 tell the story of Christmas's relationship with Joanna over a period of three years, including the murder and Christmas's flight. The third level of time is the remote past, which gives distance and perspective to our knowledge of three characters. The early life of Hightower, the unfrocked preacher, is given in Chs. 3 and 20, the boyhood of Christmas in Chs. 6-9; and the story of Joanna Burden's abolitionist family is interjected into Christmas's early acquaintance with her in Ch. 11. Through the Hineses the circumstances of Christmas's birth are brought out in Chs. 15-16.

Deprived of the vitalizing force of description and dialogue, such a structural synopsis seems more confusing than the novel itself, but the elements of the structure are at least underlined: the contrast of major and minor action; the intertwining of present, immediate past, and remote past. How are these elements combined and made to function? What advantages accrue from this structure to set over against the loss in clarity involved in departure from a straight chronological sequence?

An important consideration is the relation between the enveloping—though minor—Lena-Byron story and the central Joe Christmas story. It is a chronological accident that they come together at all, for Lena arrives in Jefferson on the very day that the murder is discovered. There is a startling contrast between the simplicity of the one action and the devious complexity of the other that is appropriate to the characters involved. Each story helps to make the other more acceptable. Since Faulkner shows that he can tell a story simply, it is reasonable to suppose that the complexity of the Joe Christmas story is deliberate and accountable. And since the author demonstrates a strong liking for complexity, it is natural to accept his simple episodes as genuinely simple, not artificially simplified. There is, too, the obvious contrast of love and hate. Joe Christmas is a loveless person. In youth he distrusts the kindness of Mrs. McEachern as he later does that of Joanna. He is not at home with whites or Negroes, with men or women. Lena and Byron, on the contrary, are lovers. They supply the circle of humanity which Christmas stands outside of. Both stories are, if you like, implausible, but their implausibility is minimized by their contrast.

The first link between the two actions is an incidental mention in Ch. 1 of the fire at the Burden place. The next link is in Ch. 4, when Brown's confused story, retold to Hightower by Byron, and from this we learn what the town first finds out about the murder. This leads backward in Ch. 5 to the day and evening Christmas spent preceding the murder, with his concluding thought: "Something is going to happen. Something is going to happen to me." Now at this point we already know what is going to happen. We know that Joe is going to murder Joanna Burden. But we do not know why he will, and this is a spring of interest powerful enough to carry us through five chapters of Joe's early life and one of Joanna's before we come back to the night of the murder in Ch. 12. Ch. 13 then begins on the morning after the murder and the fire. With our own superior knowledge we watch the sheriff struggling to piece together the bits of evidence. The spring of interest now is in wondering how long it will take the Sheriff to catch up to the understanding of the crime which we as readers already possess. The flight and capture of Joe Christmas is next suggested in a series of scenes. Then in Ch. 15 the Hineses are catapulted into the action. The spring of interest now becomes surprise rather than suspense. We the readers, who felt we knew the whole story of Christmas now learn that his grandfather took him to the orphanage because of his supposed Negro blood, a "fact" Christmas later came to suspect. But the Hineses do not merely support the idea that Christmas has Negro blood. Their own conflict creates a new suspense about Christmas, now prisoner in the county jail. Hines tries to incite the lynching of his own grandson. and his wife tries to prevent him. Next there is the desperate proposal that Hightower give a false alibi for Christmas, Hightower's refusal, Christmas's unexpected and hopeless break away from the Sheriff, and his violent death in Hightower's kitchen.

The slow shift from minor to major action, the strategic use of the reader's responses, and the solid delineation of Joe Christmas are triumphs of narrative structure. Yet two important characters seem insufficiently developed: Joanna Burden and Hightower. The full focus of attention is turned on Joanna in only two chapters; elsewhere she is incidental. In these chapters Faulkner tells first of the seduction of Joanna, then the tangled earlier history of the spinster, the last of a New England abolitionist line, perversely settled in the South. After Colonel Sartoris killed her half-brother and grandfather, Joanna lived in isolation, using her income to support Negro schools. At forty-one, after Joe possesses her, she turns into a nymphomaniac, determined to possess him completely by adding religious sanction to their relationship. The climax of Ch. 12 is Joanna's melodramatic attempt to compel Joe to pray with her at the point of a gun. It is this gesture which precipitates the murder, though the murder itself is implied rather than described at this point. Joanna's behavior seems to me convenient to Faulkner's purpose of accounting for Joe Christmas's action, but not sufficiently developed to be acceptable in itself as a convincing portrayal of Joanna.

The objection to Hightower is of a different kind. Like Joanna, it is true, Hightower is a character isolated by a peculiar family history, and in fiction as in life, an isolated character is harder to judge than one in close and familiar association with other people. The episodes of his life fit into no ordinary pattern. If the fictional character is vivid we tend to accept him as at least an interesting possibility. Years before our story opens, the scandal regarding Hightower's wife had lost him his church and had ostracized him from the community, yet he refused to leave it. Living on without purpose, he is nevertheless represented as developing an attitude of intense compassion. "Poor man, Poor mankind," he says when he first hears the story of the murder. His assistance at the birth of the Negro baby, and later at the birth of Lena's child, illustrates this idea. He listens with compassion to the strange story of the Hineses, even though he vigorously refuses to give the false alibi for Christmas. (Ironically, when Percy Grimm has cornered Christmas, Hightower vainly shouts the alibi he had earlier refused to give.) Like Joanna, the unfrocked preacher is convenient to Faulkner's action, but unlike her, Hightower sometimes seems the mouthpiece of the author. Before the Hineses come in, Hightower is represented as thinking:

Listening [to Protestant music], he seems to hear within it the apotheosis of his own history, his own land, his own environed blood: that people from which he sprang and among whom he lives who can never take either pleasure or catastrophe or escape from either, without brawling over it. Pleasure, ecstasy, they cannot seem to bear: their escape from it is in violence, in drinking and fighting and praying; catastrophe too, the violence identical and apparently inescapable. And so why should not their religion drive them to crucifixion of themselves and one another? he thinks.

In this and many other passages, the design of the author seems too palpable, to use Keats's adjective. Finally, in Ch. 20, there seems to be an attempt to magnify the importance of Hightower beyond his significance in the action. Before discussing this chapter further, however, I wish to set it in its context.

The peculiar structure adopted by Faulkner permits the maximum of variety in tone and texture in the last three chapters of the novel. At the very end of Ch. 18 the news of Joe Christmas's death comes to Byron Bunch in the flattest and least circumstantial tone of country gossip. "What excitement in town this evening?" says Byron, and the countryman, still disappointed that he himself had missed the excitement, replies: "I thought maybe you hadn't heard. About an hour ago. That nigger, Christmas. They killed him." Ch. 19, which follows immediately, is a typical Faulknerian time complication. Instead of taking us at once to the murder, Faulkner begins with various opinions on why Christmas had taken refuge in Hightower's house. This leads into the scene at the railroad station, where Lawyer Stevens is putting Christmas's grandparents on the train for Mottstown and promising to send the grandson's body to them for burial. As it happens, a friend of Stevens, a college professor, alights from this very train, and it is to the professor that Stevens gives four pages of his own theory that Mrs. Hines saw an irrational hope in the preacher and confided it to Christmas when she visited him in the jail, just before his escape. Stevens theorizes shrewdly:

And he believed her. I think that is what gave him not courage so much as the passive patience to endure and recognize and accept the one opportunity which he had to break in the middle of that crowded square, manacled, and run. 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. It was not alone all those thirty years which she [Mrs. Hines] did not know, but all those successions of thirty years before that which had put that stain either on his white blood or his black blood, whichever you will, and which killed him. But he must have run with believing for a while; anyway, with hope. But his blood would not be quiet, let him save it.

This passage illustrates Faulkner's remarkable capacity to reveal the complexity just beneath the seeming simplicity of the surface. It is the revelation of complexity that generates a strange yet believable intensity. Concreteness and abstraction are cunningly blended. There is the picture of the manacled man making the sudden break in the crowded square, there is the sense of his running in "stride," "breath," and "thud of the heart." But running with him are "years, acts, deeds committed or omitted," abstractions not bare for us, but richly prepared for in the previous accounts of the orphanage, the McEacherns, Barbara Allen, and Joanna Burden. The structure of the narrative has placed us inside these abstractions. We understand the difference between belief in freedom and mere hope of it.

At the end of Stevens's account there is a break in the chapter and a shift in tone to a straightforward account of Percy Grimm, born too late for World War I, but now the young captain of the National Guard company. Percy seems the personification of civic responsibility, of law and order, forcing the sheriff to permit Legionnaires to act as special guards over the weekend. On Monday afternoon Percy instantly interprets the deputy's shots as announcing Christmas's escape. Then follow four pages of as sharply told pursuit as I know. Minutes later—seconds, perhaps—Percy follows Christmas into Hightower's house. Hightower's protest and false alibi enrage him, and the disciplined intelligence by which Percy pursued gives way to blood lust. Shooting through the overturned kitchen table behind which Christmas cowers, Percy mortally wounds him. Then seizing a butcher knife, he castrates the living man. For many writers this crude act of violence would be the ultimate effect, but not for Faulkner. In the sentences which picture the dying Christmas an inner tension is created which surpasses the physical violence.

He just lay there, with his eyes open and empty of everything save consciousness, and with something, a shadow, about his mouth. For a long moment he looked up at them with peaceful and unfathomable and unbearable eyes. Then his face, body, all, seemed to collapse, to fall in upon itself, and from out the slashed garments about his hips and loins the pent black blood seemed to rush like a released breath. It seemed to rush out of his pale body like the rush of sparks from a rising rocket; upon that black blast the man seemed to rise soaring into their memories forever and ever. They are not to lose it, in whatever peaceful valleys, beside whatever placid and reassuring streams of old age, in the mirroring faces of whatever children they will contemplate old disasters and newer hopes. It will be there, musing, quiet, steadfast, not fading and not particularly threatful, but of itself alone serene, of itself alone triumphant. Again from the town, deadened a little by the walls, the scream of the siren mounted toward its unbelievable crescendo, passing out of the realm of hearing.

The seemingly disjointed organization of this chapter has justified itself. Every necessary explanation has been made earlier. When the shattering climax comes, the print on the page renders the concentrated experience.

Ch. 20, with its long account of Hightower's early life, is structurally much less effective. Miss Hirshleifer, whose analysis of this novel (Perspective, II, Summer 1949) has been much praised, says that it "is not anticlimactic after Christmas's death, but the vital philosophical counterpart of it" (p. 233). I agree that this was probably Faulkner's intention, but I think the chapter fails for most readers to overcome this sense of anticlimax. First, as to the intention. Hightower though discredited and isolated, is the conscience that broods over the action of the novel. He is also the link between the Lena-Byron and the Joe Christmas action. Through his suffering, Hightower has learned compassion: "Poor man. Poor mankind," he says, and when Christmas takes refuge in his house, Hightower instinctively shouts the false alibi he had earlier refused to give. As this action illustrates, Hightower's compassion came too late in life to be effective. Even as a boy, he idealized not the earnest peace-loving father, but the swashbuckling grandfather. Hightower's religion was thus corrupted from the beginning by his dreams of a past military glory, so corrupted that even his marriage was poisoned—though Hightower's wife was certainly frustrated and neurotic before her marriage. It is the corruptness of Hightower's religion, the pitiful lateness of his mature compassion, that represents the sickness in the spiritual life of Jefferson. Needing a religion of wisdom and compassion, the community gets all too often, even from a "good" minister like Hightower, a religion of dynamic hatred, intolerance, and frustration. And thus the brutalities of the Joe Christmas story can occur.

The foregoing statement is doubtless too simple. But I think that it gives the general direction of Ch. 20, and justifies Miss Hirshleifer's insistence that it is not anticlimactic. Yet in my first reading of the novel I missed this meaning, or at any rate found it obscured by a great deal of elaboration that did not seem pertinent. The reason, I think, is that in trying to avoid the obvious ways of registering this idea, Faulkner has overreached the reader (this one, anyway) as, in a sense, Shakespeare never overreaches the reader or spectator. With the tremendous climax of Ch. 19, the reader is almost literally in a state of shock. As he turns the page to begin the next chapter, I think he expects to find out what happened next—at least what happens to Hightower, for he already knows that Lawyer Stevens put the Hineses on the train for Mottstown that very evening, promising to send the body of Joe Christmas to them for burial. Ch. 20 begins:

Now the final copper light of afternoon fades; now the street beyond the low maples and the low signboard is prepared and empty, framed by the study window like a stage.

He can remember how when he was young, after he first came to Jefferson from the seminary, how that fading copper light would seem almost audible, like a dying yellow fall of trumpets dying into an interval of silence and waiting, out of which they would presently come. Already, even before the falling horns had ceased, it would seem to him that he could hear the beginning thunder not yet louder than a whisper, a rumor, in the air.

This leads into Hightower's memories of his childhood, his father, his grandfather, his mother, and the old Negro slave. Now I can very well believe that being involved in an event like the killing of Joe Christmas would cause a man, particularly an isolated and introspective man like Hightower, to remember his early life, to reconstruct and search for a meaning in the whole pattern of his being. But for me the transition is too abrupt, the long chapter digresses too much from natural reminders of the immediate past. There are one or two references to Hightower's bandaged head. That is all. There is no answer even to the obvious question: When Byron returned to town for Lena, did he go to see Hightower? It seems to me that Faulkner's narrative judgment is less sound in Ch. 20 than in Ch. 19. Nevertheless, this may be a defect in the reader rather than in Faulkner. Once the intention of the Hightower chapter becomes clear, or when the chapter is read as an episode partially detached from its structural context (that is, as an account of Hightower's youth) it is memorable. The little boy fingering the coat his father wore in the army is a fine detail, and so is the remark of the old slave: "No suh…. Not Marse Gail. Not him. Dey wouldn't dare to kill a Hightower." And I would not want to sacrifice the wonderful vision of the wheel merging the faces that represent Hightower's experience in a swirling confusion that announces his death as he looks out the window. Whether Ch. 20 is satisfactory or not in the general strategy of the novel, it offers a remarkable contrast in tone and texture to the violence of Ch. 19.

The final chapter strikes still another note, the unexpected one of comedy. In the Lena-Byron action, which must now be concluded in harmony with the opening of the novel, and with the characters of Lena and Byron, all the elements of a conventional ending are present. Now that Brown has run out on her a second time, there is really nothing for Lena to do but reward the patient and devoted Byron. Granted her easy acceptance of what life brings her—a lover, a baby, a ride in a wagon—we may doubt whether she would ever have shown any reluctance or delay in taking such an obviously good mate as Byron. But regardless of when she accepts him, the prospect is that the last chapter will be a conventional footnote, with an intimation of happy wedded bliss. Faulkner is not the man to be trapped into any such tame conclusion. Instead of winding up the Lena-Byron story himself, that is in his own voice, he invents a traveling furniture dealer, a rank outsider who knows nothing of the previous history of this strange pair—or trio, if you count the baby. The furniture dealer, telling the story to his wife, doesn't really have to explain the story he tells, because he can't be expected to understand it. He simply tells what he saw and what he heard, with a few shrewd guesses. Within these limits he is so good a storyteller that he entertains the reader as well as his wife. Lena's persistence in the search for the worthless Brown, and her reluctance to take Byron may in fact be implausible. Seen through the furniture dealer's eyes, they seem merely comical illustrations of the unfathomable perversity of women. The furniture dealer sets down Lena's reluctance to her childlike interest in travel, and Lena's final comment bears him out: "My, my. A body does get around. Here we aint been coming from Alabama but two months, and now it's already Tennessee."

In this paper I have not tried to show that the narrative structure of Light in August is perfect. Joanna Burden remains convenient rather than convincing, Hightower is too obtrusive, and the fusion of major and minor actions may be called ingenious rather than inspired. Yet when the difficulties of the structural problems are fairly confronted, the achievement overshadows such defects. In 1939 George M. O'Donnell called the novel "confused" and "malproportioned." Richard Rovere (1950) and Irving Howe (1951) both found it loose in structure. These judgments do not take into account the difficulty of the problems Faulkner faced, and the resourcefulness of his solutions. If the structure of the novel is firmly grasped, we may find that the story itself is more interesting than paraphrases of its supposed symbolic meaning.

Source: B. R. McElderry Jr., "The Narrative Structure of Light in August," in College English, Vol. 19, No. 5, February 1958, pp. 200-07.


Beck, Warren, "Faulkner's Point of View," in College English, Vol. 2, No. 8, May 1941, pp. 736-49.

Bloom, Harold, "William Faulkner," in Genius: A Mosaic of One Hundred Exemplary Creative Minds, Warner Books, pp. 565-68.

Faulkner, William, Light in August, Vintage, 1987.

Kartiganer, Donald M., "William Faulkner," in Columbia Literary History of the United States, edited by Emory Elliott, Columbia University Press, 1988, pp. 887-909.

McElderry, B. R., Jr., "The Narrative Structure of Light in August," in College English, Vol. 19, No. 5, February 1958, pp. 200-207.

Further Reading

Martin, Timothy P., "The Art and Rhetoric of Chronology in Faulkner's Light in August," in College Literature, Vol. 7, No. 2, Spring 1980, pp. 125-35.

Martin analyzes Faulkner's use of time in the novel and compares it to other modernist works.

McMillen, Neil R., Dark Journey: Black Mississippians in the Age of Jim Crow, University of Illinois Press, 1990.

McMillen studies the treatment of blacks in Mississippi between 1890 and 1940 and chronicles their response to the segregation and racism they experienced during this period.

Toomey, David M., "The Human Heart in Conflict: Light in August's Schizophrenic Narrator," in Studies in the Novel, Vol. 23, No. 4, Winter 1991, pp. 452-69.

In this study, Toomey argues that the narrative could be read as Hightower's interior thoughts.

Volpe, Edmond L., A Reader's Guide to William Faulkner, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1964.

Volpe divides his study of Faulkner's major works and style into three sections. The first traces thematic and stylistic patterns, the second contains close readings of Faulkner's nineteen novels, and the third traces the actual chronology of events within some of the more difficult works.

Williamson, Joel, William Faulkner and Southern History, Oxford University Press, 1993.

Williamson places Faulkner's texts along with Yoknapatawpha County in a cultural and historical context, focusing on the presentation of race, class, sex, and violence in the works. Williamson also includes biographical details that reveal Faulkner's own philosophy and experience with these subjects