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Light in August

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English Literature

When Lena Grove sets out from Alabama searching for the father of her unborn baby, she takes the reader on a journey through an American South filled with a whole cast of misfit characters. William Faulkner's 1932 novel, Light in August, tells her story along with the intersecting tales of various outcasts, characters who are marginalized and excluded from the unforgiving Southern society.

Light in August: A Novel by William Faulkner

Light in August is a Southern gothic, modernist novel written by American author William Faulkner and published in 1932. The book initially received mixed reviews from critics, but it is now regarded as one of Faulkner's most important works and one of the best American novels of the 20th century. The story takes place in Faulkner's fictional Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi, in the author's present-day, presumably the late 1920s. It consists of twenty-one chapters, and the non-linear novel sometimes shifts in time and place to tell the story of several key characters.

Southern gothic is a literary genre that uses gothic elements such as the horrific, grotesque, and macabre alongside characteristics of the Southern United States. William Faulkner is one of the Southern gothic genre's most important writers.

Summary of Light in August by William Faulkner

Light in August, Summer, StudySmarter
Light in August is a 1932 novel by William Faulkner. Pixabay.

Light in August begins with Lena Grove, a young woman who is pregnant but unwed. She is traveling from Alabama through Mississippi searching for Lucas Burch, the father of her unborn baby. Burch left Alabama looking for work. He promised Lena he would send for her when he was settled, but she decides to set off on her own when she doesn't hear from him.

The story then shifts to two men working in a planing mill in Jefferson, Mississippi. Joe Brown and Joe Christmas work together in the mill, but both quit following the success of their bootleg liquor operation.

When Lena arrives in Jefferson, she meets a kind man named Byron Bunch, who immediately falls in love with her. Joe Brown, who Lena realizes is actually the Lucas Burch she has been searching for, is being held in jail for the murder of a local woman named Joanna Burden.

The novel then shifts again to explore the pasts of some of the characters, including Gail Hightower, Jefferson's failed minister, and Joe Christmas, the (presumably) biracial business partner of Joe Brown and the chief suspect in Joanna Burden's murder.

Christmas and Joanna Burden were lovers, but when she is discovered with her throat slit, it is unclear if the murderer was Christmas or Joe Brown. Christmas is the one hunted down by Jefferson's townspeople, however. He is shot, killed, and castrated.

Meanwhile, Lena delivers her baby in the cabin where Christmas and Joe Brown lived, assisted by Gail Hightower. When Joe Brown/Lucas Burch sees Lena and his newborn baby, he again insists that he will take care of them, but he escapes at the first opportunity.

The novel ends with Lena, her baby, and Byron on the road again, searching for Lucas Burch.

Analysis of Light in August by William Faulkner

Let's analyse the novel in more detail.

Setting and Structure of Light in August

Light in August is set in Faulkner's fictional Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi, in Faulkner's present day, the late 1920s. The setting is important because Faulkner explores the stories of characters who are outcasts from Southern society based on their race, gender, and religion.

Modernist novels have a non-linear structure. The narrative often moves backward in time to tell the history of certain characters, and there are several key characters in place of a single protagonist.

Why do you think Faulkner uses flashbacks and a non-linear narrative in Light of August?

Important Themes in Light in August

Light in August, Religion, StudySmarter
Religion plays an important role in William Faulkner's Light in August. Pixabay.

William Faulkner explores many interesting themes in Light in August, including race, sex, religion, alienation, and identity.

Race

Light in August is set in the Jim Crow South, making race a key theme. In the novel, William Faulkner explores the social construction of race through the character of Joe Christmas. Racially ambiguous Christmas exists neither as a black nor a white man. His race is subject to his own perception and the perception of others. Sometimes he is seen as black and sometimes as white. However, this ambiguity means that there isn't a fixed place for him in society. The novel also explores the legacy of racism and slavery, with many examples of racially motivated violence and the ostracization of white people whom others regard as having inappropriate relationships with Black people, such as Gail Hightower and Joanna Burden.

Gender and Sexuality

Misogyny is rampant in the patriarchal South where Light in August is set. However, Faulkner also challenges and frustrates these expectations with characters such as the naively confident Lena Grove and the independent Joanna Burden. Sex in the novel is often accompanied by violence, disgust, or other grotesque elements. With Joe Christmas in particular, sexual encounters are often accompanied by violence, and menstruation and the female body provoke in him the urge to vomit.

Religion

In Light in August, Faulkner explores the destructive and violent power of religion. Many characters have fanatical, extreme views of religion. These views are used to justify the exclusion and marginalization of characters that don't conform to the church's expectations — for example, the pregnant and unwed Lena Grove or the Reverend Gail Hightower and his adulterous wife.

Alienation

Many of Faulkner's characters in Light in August are misfits that are therefore excluded from society. Lena Grove is a pregnant, unmarried young woman; Joe Christmas is biracial; Gail Hightower's congregation rejects him for his unconventional relationship with his wife; Joanna Burden, a woman from the north, is shunned for her involvement with African American people. By using these characters, Faulkner examines the unforgiving norms of 1920s Southern society and its tendency to ostracize and exclude those who stray from conventional society.

Identity

By delving into the pasts of key characters, Faulkner undertakes a complex study of identity and motivation. The novel examines how identity is constructed by environment and circumstance. Joe Christmas is again at the center of this debate as his identity fluctuates between black and white, changing depending on who views him and how and making it impossible for him to understand his own identity.

Light in August: Key Characters

  • Lena Grove is a young woman from Alabama who travels to Jefferson searching for Lucas Burch, the father of her unborn child. Although she has not heard from Burch since his departure, she remains convinced that he will accept her and their baby, and they will begin a family together.
  • Joe Christmas is a biracial man who works at a planing mill in Jefferson, Mississippi. He was named Christmas after being left on the doorstep of an orphanage one Christmas night. His racial ambiguity has resulted in his continued exclusion from the strictly segregated Southern society; he spends most of his life traveling and working various jobs. He is castrated and killed for the murder of his lover Joanna Burden.
  • Byron Bunch is another employee at the Jefferson planing mill. He is a kind-hearted yet otherwise unremarkable man who falls in love with Lena Grove and feels a certain responsibility towards her. He is also friends with Hightower, Jefferson's former reverend and local outcast.
  • Joe Brown/Lucas Burch is Lena Grove's lover before he moves to Jefferson to work in the planing mill. Although he promises to send for Lena, he seems to have no intention of resuming their relationship or caring for their baby. He sells bootlegged liquor with Joe Christmas.
  • Gail Hightower is the former minister of one of Jefferson's churches. More than twenty years previous, a scandal involving his wife (a series of affairs and finally her death by apparent suicide) resulted in his removal from the church. Although the other townspeople shunned him, Hightower remained in Jefferson, living alone on the outskirts of town. His only friend is Byron Bunch.
  • Joanna Burden is Joe Christmas' lover and lives isolated outside of town. The community ostracizes her for coming to Jefferson from the north and for her perceived inappropriate relationships with African American people.

Light in August: key Quotes

The folks in this town is so smart. Fooled for three years. Calling him a foreigner for three years, when soon as I watched him three days I knew he wasn't no more a foreigner than I am. I knew before he even told me himself." -Chapter 4

In Chapter 4, Joe Brown is suspected of murdering Joanna Burden. To divert suspicion, he blames Joe Christmas. Christmas has been passing as white in Jefferson, where people assume that he is a foreigner due to his unusual complexion. Brown's assertion that Christmas is Black immediately changes how the police perceive him, even though nothing at all changes about Christmas' physical appearance. Moving Christmas from the foreign category to the Black category draws attention to the social construction of race. Furthermore, Brown's claim that Christmas is not foreign, that he belongs in Jefferson as much as Brown does, highlights the paradoxical place of Black southerners belonging while being simultaneously marginalized and excluded from society.

Memory believes before knowing remembers. Believes longer than recollects, longer than knowing even wonders." -Chapter 6

The effect of memory and the past on the characters' present is an important theme throughout the novel. Chapter 6 begins with the story of five-year-old Joe Christmas growing up in an orphanage. In this quote, Faulkner refers to the memories and impressions that are formed subconsciously yet continue to influence the characters' identities and actions. The violence, pain, and neglect that Joe Christmas experiences in his childhood have consequences reaching into his adult life.

It is because so much happens. Too much happens. That's it. Man performs, engenders, so much more than he can or should have to bear. That's how he finds that he can bear anything. That's it. That's what is so terrible. That he can bear anything, anything." -Chapter 13

In Chapter 13, Byron Bunch comes to Gail Hightower looking for a place where Lena Grove can stay until she has her baby. Looking at him, Hightower becomes momentarily lost in the preceding existential contemplation. Light in August is full of characters who bear more than they should have to: Joe Christmas' violent past, Lena's pregnancy, the loss of Hightower's wife. The novel is essentially rooted in how these characters deal with their personal challenges. As Hightower says, the characters demonstrate that they can bear anything, but the question becomes how do they bear it and at what cost.

It seems to him that he has seen it all the while: that that which is destroying the Church is not the outward groping of those within it nor the inward groping of those without, but the professionals who control it and who have removed the bells from the steeples. He seems to see them, endless, without order, empty, symbolical, bleak, skypointed not with ecstasy or passion but in adjuration, threat, and doom." -Chapter 20

This quote is another reflection of the Reverend Hightower. Towards the end of the novel, he contemplates religion and his own failing in the church. The problem, he concludes, is not religion itself but rather those who control it. The church's gatekeepers have created an environment where religion is used to marginalize and exclude instead of worship and rejoice, as Reverend Hightower has learned from his own experience.

Light in August (1932) - Key Takeaways

  • Light in August By William Faulkner was published in 1932.

  • The novel takes place in Faulkner's fictional Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi.

  • Light in August tells the stories of several intersecting characters, including the pregnant yet unwed Lena Grove, the presumably biracial Joe Christmas, and the disgraced Reverend Hightower.

  • It is a modernist, Southern Gothic novel that uses flashbacks and a non-linear narrative structure.

  • Some important themes include religion, race, gender and sexuality, and alienation from society.

Light in August

Light in August was written in 1932.

There are several possible meanings for the title Light in August. The first could refer to the old Southern saying "to be light in August," which means to be pregnant, a possible reference to Lena Grove. Alternatively, the title could refer to a passage in which the Reverend Hightower sits contemplating the light of the setting sun. Finally, it could reference the house fire that burns the night that Lena arrives in Jefferson.

Light in August is a complex novel that explores many themes. However, a central topic is identity and belonging in the unforgiving environment of 1920s Mississippi. Many of the characters are misfits, excluded from society for reasons of race, gender, or religious discordance. Through his use of flashbacks, Faulkner explores the way the identity of these characters is constructed and affected by the society in which they live.

A central point of Light in August is the damage that religious and racial fanaticism cause in the Jim Crow era South. Joe Christmas and his struggle to understand and accept his biracial identity are key to this point. Christmas becomes an outcast because he does not fit into black or white society and, therefore, lives a life of violence and cruelty, both as victim and perpetrator.

Light in August is a Southern gothic, modernist novel.

Final Light in August Quiz

Question

What are some important themes in Light in August?

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Answer

Race, gender and sexuality, religion, identity, and alienation

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Question

What happens to Joe Christmas at the end of Light in August?

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Answer

He is shot, castrated, and killed.

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Question

What name does Lucas Burch go by in Jefferson?

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Answer

Joe Brown

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Question

Why does Lena Grove leave Alabama?

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Answer

She is searching for the father of her unborn baby.

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Question

What is the name of Jefferson's disgraced reverend?

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Answer

Gail Hightower

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Question

When was Light in August published?

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Answer

1932

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Question

What genre is Light in August?

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Answer

Southern gothic, modernist

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Question

Is Yoknapatawpha county a real place?

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Answer

No

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Question

Where does Light in August take place?

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Answer

Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi

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Question

Who wrote Light in August?

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Answer

William Faulkner

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