Study Guide

Light in August

by William Faulkner

Light in August Themes

Themes

Gail Hightower recognizes the forces that control the lives of so many characters in Light in August. After he has been forced back into life by delivering Lena's baby and attempting to save Joe Christmas, Hightower meditates by his window, listening to music from a church in which he used to preside:

Listening, he seems to hear with 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?

The idea of people being crucified and, in turn, crucifying others is a key to the emotional melodrama and tragedy of the novel, in which the major characters—except for the comic, life-affirming characters, Lena and Byron—are victimized by others and, in turn, victimize themselves and others. This victimization is the result of binary, either/or, thinking about such matters as race, sex, eating, and religion. The favored terms in these matters are white over black, male over female, fasting over eating, and saved or elect over damned.

Gail Hightower, Joanna Burden, and Joe Christmas are each cast in the role of childhood victim and victimizer. Faulkner develops the role most fully in Joe Christmas, less fully in Joanna Burden, and least fully in Hightower. Joe is victimized by his grandfather, Doc Hines, and his foster father, Simon McEachern. Doc Hines is particularly important, since he is a religious fanatic who unites his religious fundamentalism with white racial supremacy and disgust at female sexuality. Simon McEachern is a mountain of ice, but he never connects race and religion. At the orphanage Doc isolates Joe with his gaze and leads Joe to connect damnation and rejection by others with being black. The dietitian makes the connection of race, justice, and sex in Joe's mind when she calls him a black bastard after he uncomprehendingly witnesses her affair with the intern. Instead of punishing Joe for eating her toothpaste, as he expects, she rewards him. Simon McEachern's fanaticism make being damned more attractive to Joe than being elect or saved. Although Joe resists McEachern, he also resists his foster mother's surreptitious offerings of food and mercy from her husband's male religious justice. Joe's pursuit of sexuality, whether with the black girl in early adolescence or later with Bobbie Allen, helps unite damnation with being black in his mind. Bobbie echoes the dietitian in calling Joe a Negro after McEachern insults her by calling her a harlot. Fifteen years later, Joanna tries to force Joe to pray, renounce sexuality, and declare himself a Negro—unwittingly duplicating the influences of Doc Hines and McEachern; and Joe rebels as he did before. To declare himself Negro, when in truth he does not know what he is, challenges Joe's whole life. Love, food, and security are not sufficient to make Joe give up the burden of his life. Joe's razor thrust at Joanna is an echo of his blow to McEachern's...

(The entire section is 1350 words.)

Light in August Themes

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...

(The entire section is 1040 words.)