Sunday 14 December 2014

Reading the Classics: Light in August by William Faulkner

I know I haven't posted a book review for ages. It's not that I haven't been reading, but I became completely bogged down by the modernist classic Light in August. It's one of the set texts for my online course, The Fiction of Relationship, otherwise I might have been tempted to abandon it.

In the end I'm glad I didn't, even though it was often a struggle; based in the American Deep South of the 1930s, Light in August is deeply imbued with the racism and misogyny of this place in time.

The novel concerns itself with a number of disconnected characters; beginning with Lena Grove, a young, pregnant white woman on the road from Alabama in search of Lucas Burch, father of her unborn child. It's clear he's run out on her, yet she has a simple faith that she'll find him before the baby is born. Burch is confused with a similarly named man, Byron Bunch, by the folks Lena meets on her travels and she heads for the sawmill in Jefferson where Bunch works.

The focus then shifts to Joe Christmas, an ostensibly white man working at the same mill, who doesn't really know who he is. Adopted at birth, he's described as 'parchment' coloured, passes for white but believes himself to have some black heritage. It seems he can't help but confess this to the women he sleeps with and word gets around. In the meantime, he develops a relationship with Joanna Burden, the descendant of Yankee abolitionists. He's living on her property and selling bootleg liquor, along with his business partner Joe Brown, who happens to be Lucas Burch under an assumed name.

When Joanna is horribly murdered, it sets off a train of events which leads to Christmas being hunted down, implicated by Brown but defended by Bunch and the disgraced priest Gail Hightower. Finally, he is condemned in the cruelest way by the townsfolk, for whom his most heinous crime is to be the deceitful possessor of black blood.

According to course tutor Professor Weinstein, Faulkner initially intended Hightower to be the central character and conscience of this novel, but Christmas somehow took over. Faulkner explores Christmas's formative years in detail, delving back into his early days at the orphanage:
Memory believes before knowing remembers. Believes longer than recollects, longer than knowing even wonders. Knows believes remembers a corridor in a big long gabled cold echoing building of dark red brick sootbleakened by more chimneys than its own, set in a grassland cinderstrewn-packed compound surrounded by smoking factory purlieus and enclosed by a ten foot steel-and-wire fence like a penitentiary or a zoo, where in random erratic surges, with sparrow-like childtrebling, orphans in identical and uniform blue denim in and out of remembering but in knowing constant as the bleak walls, the bleak windows where in rain soot from the yearly adjacenting chimneys streaked like black tears. 
For Christmas, the past has an unerasable hold on the present. He is a man out of phase, living in the sewer of his own impulses, sensing
something is going to happen, something is going to happen to me
It seems his body is the site where violence takes place, rather than his mind consciously deciding on it. In his rages he watches himself in slow motion; with the black girl who has been paid to initiate him in sex, we learn
He was moving because his foot touched her. Then it touched her again, because he kicked her.
Christmas has problems with women. He's more at ease with being beaten by his foster father Mr McEachern, than with Mrs McEachern's timid attempts to soothe and care for him. When offered food, he rejects it as 'women's muck' as if also rejecting feminine love and kindness. He cannot bear the pattern of women's lives, reacting so violently to being told about menstruation that he goes out and shoots a sheep like a ritual sacrifice. He runs away when his first lover Bobbie can't sleep with him because she's 'sick', yet ultimately rejects the almost manlike Joanna Burden for being too old to bear children, telling her 'you're not any good any more.'

By contrast with Christmas, Lena Grove is the life force of Light in August. She's unmarred by guilt at her situation and is tranquil and serene. Her thinking is undeveloped, indeed Faulkner has been criticised for 'essentialising' her as a 'breeder'. Her unborn child is the novel's 'ticking bomb', the linear timeline cued to its birth.

Faulkner's work is stamped by trauma and shock, peopled with characters who are outsiders in a small community, nursing psychological and physical wounds. Light in August explores the connections there may be between its disparate central characters and between the forces of life and death. As the novel progresses, new relationships are forged. The birth of Lena's child draws Hightower and Bunch into life, and even though Lena and Christmas haven't met, she contemplates the notion, through encountering his grandparents, that he may be the real father of her child.

Light in August dwells much longer on the forces of death and evil though, than on the redemption of a child's birth. Having lived a violent, displaced life, rejecting love and doling out hatred, Christmas faces an end which many have compared to the crucifixion of Christ.

Professor Weinstein describes this as one of Faulkner's more accessible works, written before he fell under the influence of James Joyce and his stream of consciousness. But I found Light in August to be the very antithesis of its title; dark, full of bleakness and frequently opaque. There may be eloquent writing but there is also a great deal of confusion and ugliness.

At the beginning of his lectures, the good professor suggests there is great value in reading books whose ideology you don't believe in, because you learn a lot. There's also the benefit of reading a book considered a classic and deciding what you think of it yourself. Ultimately, these are the reasons why I'm glad I battled my way to the end of this difficult novel.

Light in August is published in the UK by Vintage Classics.


  1. Hi, i noticed that your quote says "grassland cinderstrewn-packed" whereas my version says "grassless", is it the revised edition? (Mine isn't)

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