“Hightower sits again in the attitude of the eastern idol, between his parallel arms on the armrests of the chair. ‘Go away, Byron. Go away. Now. At once. Leave this place forever, this terrible place, this terrible, terrible place’….”

Reading Faulkner feels like thunder. Writing a review of Light in August feels a bit like reviewing the fallout from a thunderstorm. I felt that I was most impressed by the feeling of destiny that ran through the novel. It wasn’t the same feeling of destiny that one senses in archetypal mythology, where the hero and the villain are moving toward a climactic moment where each fall on the other side of the moral battle with good ultimately triumphing over evil. Rather, the characters in Light in August are living out a destiny of desperation, the destiny of broken psyches and unfulfilled lives.

There is the Reverend Hightower, the displaced minister who is psychologically stuck in the glory of Civil War battlefields, unable to ever truly forge a connection with others or with himself. There is Byron Bunch, who misplaces his love. Then there is Joe Christmas, the man who was beaten as a boy by his legalistic Christian who adopted him. Joe is half white and half black in the post-Civil War South, a world where there is no space for gray.

Outsiders. They drift and search. I was fascinated by how they carved out spaces for meaning and feeling in irregular and abnormal places. Hightower finds solace and escape every evening as he watches the sunset, transported back in time, he rides with his Grandfather. Joe Christmas finds a home, of sorts, and something that resembles love. Byron firmly believes that he has found love. In each escape, in each space, the characters do find a meaningful grounds for hope, but eventually life descends upon them and forces them to confront the reality of their displacement and the source of their despair. Faulkner, of course, brings this all to a head at the same time, at the end of the novel, a perfect storm.

Naturally, I was also intrigued by the religious and racial commentary. I felt that Faulkner’s post-Civil War South was, itself, a macro version of displacement, a violent displacement, a displacement resolved in and through violence. The South, itself, now displaced, displaces others. The characters of the dominant culture insist that their problems are with race or religion. So there is Mr. McEachern, the abusive father to Joe, fighting Satan in the name of righteousness, battling against the Satan in Joe, or the Devil who is Joe. Then there is Joe’s lover, Joanna Burden, who must engage the curse that she believes the negro race has brought upon the white. As a young girl, she is haunted by ferocious visions of white babies with black crosses, cursed by the black race.

So it is with the whole of society. They exorcise their own inner demons by naming them in the forms of others. Once named, they can destroy. Yet the violence does not purge, it only forces the living to reckon with the ghosts of the past. Says Byron, “A fellow is more afraid of the trouble he might have than he ever is of the trouble he’s already got. He’ll cling to trouble he’s used to before he’ll risk a change. Yes. A man will talk about how he’d like to escape from living folks. But it’s the dead folks that do him the damage. It’s the dead ones that lay quiet in one place and don’t try to hold him, that he can’t escape from.”

3 thoughts on “Review of Light in August by William Faulkner

  1. I’ve read three of the Faulkner novels, found them all powerful, but remember only the one I just read: Absalom Absalom. Having read it, I’ve given more thought to the importance of the ordeal: as experienced, as remembered, as written, as read. Ordeals can pass across generations, continuing to affect those who never experienced the ordeal in real time. There’s something about Nietzsche’s eternal return and Freud’s return of the repressed in Faulkner’s stories: the same ordeal keeps coming back, again and again. Is there any way of dealing with it head on, consciously focusing on it, formulating it so that it can have its say with clarity and precision? If so, does bringing the ordeal into sharp focus in the present give it even greater power, or by having its say does the ordeal finally lay itself to rest, having become part of life without having to haunt life from the grave?

    The Christian tradition reserves an important place for the ordeal, Jesus’s death being the prime exemplar, although presumably resurrection too is an ordeal, getting back up out of the tomb, still bearing the scars, and walking among those who tormented and denied you…

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  2. Your comment and Faulkner’s violent South make me think of the scapegoat motif. Whites can deal with their problems by periodically sacrificing a black man. It is almost like that is the reason why the black man exists. So, in the novel, when Joe Brown’s story and alibi begin to fall apart, he plays the race card: Joe Christmas is part black. Well, that does it. Christmas being part black clears up any discrepancies and holes in Brown’s story and turns the attention to Christmas, who is presumed guilty, by virtue of being part black. But it isn’t even quite like that, from my impression. It’s more like the scapegoat theme. If there is a black man nearby to bear the guilt, then that’s what is going to happen, regardless of who is guilty.

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  3. The part-black theme proves central likewise to Absalom Absalom. Sutpen, the main character, is a West Virginia hillbilly who wants to establish himself as the great white plantation-owning master in Mississippi. He marries young, then sets aside his wife and son because he finds out later that, even though she looks white, she has some black blood. Sutpen remarries a verifiable all-white woman, has two kids, builds his plantation. Then, as fate would have it, the young man who woos his daughter turns out to be the son from his prior marriage. Is Sutpen more worried about the incest or the racial mixing if his disowned part-black son marries his daughter? Suffice it to say this is a tragic tale that doesn’t go well for anyone.

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