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...
(The entire section is 1350 words.)
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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,...
(The entire section is 1040 words.)