Light in August


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A landmark in American fiction, Light in August explores Faulkner's central theme: the nature of evil. Joe Christmas - a man doomed, deracinated and alone - wanders the Deep South in search of an identity, and a place in society. After killing his perverted God-fearing lover, it becomes inevitable that he is pursued by a lynch-hungry mob. Yet after the sacrifice, there is new life, a determined ray of light in Faulkner's complex and tragic world.

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Oct 2, 2007

Racial Essentialism

This reader believes William Faulkner to be the greatest American novelist of the twentieth century. But Light in August, one of his canonical novels published in 1932, isn't one of my favorites. The early section is entirely dialogue-driven, the later exposition. Faulkner experiments with time structure and flashbacks, which in this case I found merely annoying. Cleanth Brooks claims it is one of his most briliant books, but the Southern author's use of punctuation and portmanteau (or compound) words here is often inconsistent.

The stories of Joe Christmas and Lena Grove are meant to parallel one another; both are outsiders, both are on a journey, and other major characters like Hightower, the defrocked priest, are marginalized figures in Jefferson as well. The novel clearly has a sort of thematic unity.

But what hasn't aged well since the Thirties is Faulkner's antique notions of race in the person of Joe Christmas, an obvious Christ-figure who is alternately driven by the impulses of his black or white blood (as though one can assign so easily behavioral motives and compulsions based on race and blood-lines), and I believe such racial essentialism is a serious limitation in this novel.

Brooks claims Joe Christmas isn't a racialized character--he shows hostility toward both communities after all--but clearly he is someone for whom racial identity or identities is problematic. The critic also asserts that the novel has a "happy ending" with Lena accompanied by Byron Bunch and her newborn on a journey of renewal (Christmas again?), but to me the closing feels appended and weakens or detracts from Christmas's story.

Indeed, the ending provide a kind of symmetry, since the novel opens with Lena on the road, and her story suggests the bonds of community versus their severances embodied by Christmas. And to Faulkner's credit, the awful castration scene was daring for its period; like Flannery O'Connor's stories, the novel's air of racial and religious hysteria does suggest the region's Bible Belt madness in symbolic terms. Faulkner must not have won any affection among his neighbors in Oxford, Mississippi with such representations.

Still, I was less taken by Faulkner's high rhetorical style in Light in August and prefer the novelist's excursions into history, memory, and blood-guilt when those themes are joined to familial lineage as they are in Absalom, Absalom! and The Sound and the Fury.

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