Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
Yoknapatawpha County (YOK-nuh-puh-TAW-fuh). Imaginary Mississippi county in which William Faulkner set all his fiction from his third novel on. A map of the county that he drew for his novel Absalom, Absalom! (1936) provides details about where the events in his novels occur. These details make it clear that Yoknapatawpha corresponds to Mississippi’s real Lafayette County, in which Faulkner lived. Light in August is also set in Yoknapatawpha, with Lena Grove leading the action into Jefferson at the beginning and out at the end.
Jefferson. Seat of Yoknapatawpha. Almost all the action of the novel set in the present takes place in and around Jefferson. Byron Bunch and Joe Christmas work at the sawmill, Reverend Hightower lives on a quiet street, Byron Bunch and Lena live in the boardinghouse, and Joanna Burden lives on the outskirts of town. Lena literally walks into Jefferson in the beginning of the novel and walks out again at the end, providing the frame for the rest of the events. As she enters the town, a fire burns in the distance—at Joanna Burden’s house, where Joanna has been murdered. The rest of the novel provides the background explaining what has led up to this moment.
Reverend Hightower observes the town through his window and receives news of the outside world through his visitor, Byron Bunch. Hightower’s carefully maintained isolation...
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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...
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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...
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Stylistically, Light in August is easier to read than some of Faulkner's other novels. It does not have, for example, the time shifts of The Sound and the Fury or the multiple narrators of Absalom, Absalom! However, Faulkner has written a novel with three major characters—Joe Christmas, Joanna Burden, and Hightower—with three strains of action and multiple flashbacks into their past lives. While the roughly ten-day action in the present traces events from the time of Joanna's murder to the murder of Joe Christmas, Faulkner exercises considerable skill in attempting to keep his novel moving and its plots integrated.
The first three chapters—dealing respectively with Lena, Joe Christmas, and Hightower—are held together by a common narrative point-of-view character, Byron Bunch. Byron is also used to describe Christmas's racial background to Hightower and Lena's entry into Jefferson in Chapter 4. Chapter 5 deals with the day before Joanna's murder and uses Joe as a point-of-view character to determine where the action is to take place. Chapters 6-12 are a flashback of Joe's past; he enters Jefferson in Chapter 10, while Chapters 11-12 describe Joe's relationship to Joanna and her background and the immediate aftermath of her murder, although never does Faulkner describe the deed itself.
Chapters 13-20 return the action to the town and Hightower. While Joe's activities during his pursuit are described, his plight as an...
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Ideas for Group Discussions
In Light in August Faulkner explores Southern, and sometimes American, values regarding race, sexuality, regional origin, and religion.
1. Faulkner's early title for the manuscript of Light in August was "Dark House." Why is this title appropriate? Is the final title of the novel more effective than the original?
2. In early drafts of the novel, the story began with Hightower, not Lena Grove. What is the effect of having Lena begin and end the novel?
3. Byron Bunch is one of the few important characters in the novel who does not have a past. Even Lena, who is almost a symbolic character, has one. Why do you think Faulkner does this? How would the novel change if Byron's life was traced from birth or childhood, as it is for other major characters?
4. Robert Heilman, in Tragedy and Melodrama, sees tragic characters torn between the contradictory impulses and values of a dilemma. No right choice exists, but choices must be made. He sees melodrama as a deterministic situation in which characters are under the control of other characters or are swept up in natural or historical events over which they have no control. In melodrama, which can be political, unlike tragedy, one might wish to reform the social inequities, such as racism, that ruin a character's life. Are the fates of Joe Christmas, Joanna Burden, and Gail Hightower tragic or melodramatic?
5. Describe the comic actions in Light...
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Through a fictional community's response to those who defy its values, Light in August dissects Southern, and sometimes American, values regarding race, sexuality, regional origin, and religion, as the story moves from the turn of the century to the 1920s. In Joe Christmas the community of Jefferson, Mississippi, faces a man unsure of his racial origin, who rebels against any attempt to make him fully black or white. In Joanna Burden the community faces a woman whose family supported the abolitionist movement and continues to support Negro causes. In Gail Hightower the community faces a minister whose identity is trapped in a romantic Civil War fantasy which so overshadows the present that he fails to recognize the needs of his wife and his congregation. In Lena Grove the community faces an unwed pregnant woman supposedly pursuing the man who seduced and abandoned her.
For a community that defines itself as white, Christian, Southern, and either virginal or married, William Faulkner has arranged tests of its humanity that are, in effect, diagnoses of human weakness. Unlike Joe Christmas, Gail Hightower, and Joanna Burden—all of whom are violently rejected by the community—Lena Grove, pregnant and unwed, elicits sympathetic treatment from the town. Because Lena accepts the community's judgment and turns the other cheek, her community judges to treat her with compassion. In rebelling against community values, Joe Christmas, Gail Hightower, and...
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Compare and 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.
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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.
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As a victim of Southern racial, religious, and social mores, Joe Christmas cries out for social reform in a way that does not appear in Faulkner's earlier novels, The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying, and Sanctuary. In many interviews with students and teachers, Faulkner has described reading the work of Charles Dickens every year, and though many of the narrative and symbolic features of Light in August seem closer to another Faulkner favorite, Joseph Conrad, Dickens's great social novels, such as Bleak House, might have served as models for Light in August. Like Dickens, Faulkner was dealing with a large group of characters in Light in August, and some of the tricks of caricature that Dickens employed to make his action manageable seem to be used by Faulkner, such as his symbolic naming of characters—Joe Christmas, Lena Grove, Gail Hightower, and Byron Bunch. These names recall similar characters by Dickens, such as Krook, Lady Dedlock, Tulkinghorn, Turveydrop, and Mrs. Jellyby in Bleak House. While Dickens politically attacked the evils of the Chancery Court in England by describing what happens to its victims, Faulkner does something similar with race and religion in the stories of Joe, Joanna, and Hightower in Light in August.
With this novel, Faulkner is already moving away from the stream-of-consciousness technique, inspired by James Joyce, that he used in the first two narratives of The Sound...
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Several characters in Light in August appear in other Yoknapatawpha novels and short stories. Joanna Burden's relatives appear briefly in The Unvanquished, where they are shot by John Sartoris, and many characters Lena encounters on her journey to Jefferson appear in The Hamlet and other Snopes short stories and novels. Gavin Stevens appears in the Snopes trilogy, Knight's Gambit and Intruder in the Dust, as well as a number of short stories, although usually in a more sympathetic role.
Faulkner treats racial bias in several novels, but especially in Go Down, Moses; Absalom, Absalom!; and Intruder in the Dust. A collection of linked short stories that compose a novel, Go Down, Moses focuses on the McCaslin family from the pre-Civil War era to shortly before World War II. Ike McCaslin, who becomes aware that his ancestors not only owned slaves but enslaved their own children begotten by slaves, attempts to live free from this stain; but he is only partially successful. Absalom, Absalom! shows the extremity of the color line as four character-narrators examine the Sutpen family before and after the Civil War, and the racism that separated father from son as well as brother from half-brother. Intruder in the Dust, which is set around World War II, is a racial melodrama, in which a black man, Lucas Beauchamp, is framed for murder and nearly lynched. Saved by a white adolescent and an old...
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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.
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Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Brooks, Cleanth. “The Community and the Pariah.” William Faulkner: The Yoknapatawpha Country. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1963.
Feldman, Robert L. “In Defense of Reverend Hightower: It Is Never Too Late.” College Language Association Journal 29, no. 3 (March, 1986): 352-367.
Inge, M. Thomas, ed. The Merrill Studies in “Light in August.” Columbus, Ohio: Charles E. Merrill, 1971. Good collection of articles on Christ imagery and symbolism, myth and ritual, and the “Frozen Moment,” which clarifies Faulkner’s use of contradictions like movement and motionlessness. Also includes reprints of contemporary reviews.
Karl, Frederick R. William Faulkner, American Writer: A Biography. New York: Ballantine Books, 1989. An interpretation of Faulkner’s life revealed with psychological, emotional, and literary precision. Focuses on the strengths on which Faulkner relied in his growth as a great American writer of the twentieth century. Includes an excellent bibliography, chronology, and notes.
Kazin, Alfred. “The Stillness of Light in August.” In Faulkner: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Robert Penn Warren. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1966.
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Bibliography and Further Reading
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.
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...
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