What are some of the symbols in Light in August by William Faulkner?

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susan3smith eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The novel is rich in symbolism. A few symbols that come to mind that are present in most characters' stories are food, money, and the road.  Food, in the novel, seems to represent the characters' relationship to society.  Since each character is an outcast in some way, we see their perspectives on their status through food.  Christmas rebels.  He tells Byron to "keep your muck" when Bryon offers the starving Christmas his lunch at the planing mill.  He refuses to accept Mrs. McEachern's food, throwing it on the floor when she offers it to him.  At Burden's house, he again throws food against the wall, rebelling against Burden's increasing control of him.  Much can be learned about Christmas through the incidents that involve food.  He is rebellious, hostile, and alienated.  He will not accept handouts, charity in any way, and will not let himself be indebted to anyone.   Lena, on the other hand, accepts food offered to her by others, but she "et dainty." She is conscious of how she is viewed by others and though not completely comfortable eating with others, she stays serene and calm.  She even offers her sardines to another.  The way others react to her in these food incidents shows to some extent their judgment of her.  People are kind, but judgmental of her state as  pregnant and unwed.

Money symbolizes more a system of rewards and punishments. Christmas is bribed with a silver dollar at the orphanage, an act that leads to his subsequent lack of trust for women, whom he sees as unpredictable.  He stands up to McEachern when he sells his heifer and refuses to accept McEachern's beatings anymore.  And, of course, it is the reward money offered by Miss Burden's family that results in Christmas' ultimate capture and death.  But financial terms become much more symbolic of Faulkner's major ideas in Byron's discussions with Hightower.  Byron distinguishes good and bad men.  The bad men are the ones who do not pay the "bill." The good men are the ones who pay the bill when it comes around.  In this way, the bill represents man's responsibility to his fellow man.  The men with morals, like Byron, will attempt to act responsibly where there is a need, even if the need (or bill) is not his.

And of course the road is important in many of the stories as well:  Christmas goes in a circle; Hightower takes the short walk and  to Lena's cabin and back again; Lena and Byron head toward Tennessee at the novel's end.  Their paths in many ways mirror their progress, or lack of it, in finding the "light in August," or to "live in peace with his fellow man."  Christmas only goes round in circles and never really gets closer to this goal;  Hightower does come out of his isolation and returns a new man, but maybe too old and weak to do much else; Lena and Byron are moving on a path that will lead them to home and family.

user6171003 | Student

Light in August


1)The legacies of slavery and racism are central to Light in August. Joe Christmas spends his life haunted by his blackness, the status of which is never actually confirmed in the novel. The book suggests that in 1920s America, knowledge about someone's race was much more about perception, hearsay, and opinion than it was about objectivity.

2)Several characters in Light in August are haunted by history. Joanna Burden carries this in her name, as her family history is a burden that keeps her from ever being able to move out from under the shadow of her male ancestors. Similarly, Hightower allowed the myth of his grandfather to dominate his life, and he moved to Jefferson pretty much because he was obsessed with the heroic idea of this man. Interestingly, the characters who aren't so consumed by the past, Byron and Lena, are two of the only characters still standing at the end of the novel.

3)Characters in Light in August are distinguished from one another through how they perceive their free will. Christmas struggles with these concepts throughout the book, constantly referring to warring factions inside of himself – the black and the white, the violent person and the non-violent, the child and the man – and usually blaming others for his problems rather than admitting to his own choice in the situation. Hightower struggles with these things too, but eventually he comes to accept that he made certain decisions in life (he chose to ignore his wife, for example) which had certain effects (his wife cheated on him and died). Christmas is never able to take responsibility for killing Miss Burden because he believes he was compelled by something totally out of his control.

4)In a small town like Jefferson, everyone's up in everyone else's business, which makes privacy difficult. The town is also extremely judgmental, and Light in August is set in 1920s America, so things are a lot more conservative. This conservatism leads Joanna Burden and Hightower into their roles as outsiders – Joanna is an outsider because of her progressive views and because she never marries, while Hightower is cast out of the church because of his wife's adultery and death. Both of these characters struggle against the societies in which they live but they also remain somewhat loyal to them, refusing to leave the town of Jefferson since it's the only town they've ever known. In this sense, they embody the struggle between the individual and his or her surroundings.

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Light in August

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