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Micah Reader in February 2017 by Brenda Levenson
Published in 1932, Light in August is considered one of William Faulkner’s best novels. The complex plot has the inevitability of a Greek tragedy, the characters doomed from the beginning, as they are pursued by the legacy of slavery and the devastation of the Civil War. Pathological fear of the Negro and of miscegenation is the curse that lives on.
The two main figures of the novel never meet. Faulkner describes the first, Joe Christmas, as a man “who didn’t know what he was…. The most tragic condition a man could find himself in, not to know what he is and to know that he will never know.” As antithesis to Christmas, Lena Grove is an earth mother figure who faces life with an existential attitude. Along with Joe Christmas, the Reverend Gail Hightower and Joanna Burden are outsiders in the mythical town of Jefferson, Mississippi, leading our readers to discuss alienation as well as the symbolism of the names the author chose.
Christmas grows up in an orphanage, but still a boy, he is adopted by the McEachern couple, Simon McEachern’s intention being “to use him as free labor,” as one reader put it. McEachern is a sadist whose brutal treatment of Christmas goes hand in hand with his zealous Christianity and church attendance. Christmas eventually escapes, finds work at a mill, and this being the prohibition years, he supplements his income as a bootlegger. His path will soon meet that of Joanna Burden, the descendant of an abolitionist New England family who settled in the South during Reconstruction with the intention of repairing the sins of slavery. She continues the work of her forbearers by extending financial help and counseling to “negro” colleges by day, while engaging in wild sex with Christmas at night.
The relationship between the two lovers led our group into a brief discussion. Was Joanna a beneficent mentor to Christmas as some saw her, or a woman acting upon her conviction of the inferiority of people of color, and her self-assumed duty to “raise” them to a higher level? Christmas, who is believed to be half black, is “conflicted within himself,” one reader noted, “white outside, black inside.” He is also a proud man who resists Joanna’s efforts to force him into a blackness he rejects. How their “passionate affair” ends left us confused, and perhaps this was how Faulkner intended it to be.
Lena Grove is the ultimate survivor. Gail Hightower had retreated from religion and life after realizing that his unattainably high goals collided with a church “that is being destroyed by the professionals who control it and who have removed the bells from its steeples…. [a church] endless, without order, empty, bleak, appointed not with ecstasy or passion but with threat and doom,” writes Faulkner. In the absence of a doctor, Hightower delivers Lena’s baby, and in the act of bringing life he is himself reborn.
Faulkner is never judgmental. Percy Grimm’s horrific act, and the demonic figures of “Doc” Hines and Simon McEachern force us to confront the human condition in all its horror, and to examine our own attitudes towards the abominations of the world.
Our readers invoked the tempo of the writing and the marvelous rhythm of the language. As a young man Faulkner spent a year in Paris and parts of Europe, and was influenced by Joyce and by Proust, neither of whom he is known to have met. As in “Ulysses” one is seduced by the music of the sentences and becomes immersed in the stream of consciousness that harks back to both Joyce and Proust.
Back in the United States, Faulkner spent most of his life in Oxford, Mississippi. Writing Light in August among neighbors who were replicas of the characters he portrays in the book required moral courage. Faulkner received the Nobel Prize for literature in 1949, and was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1963, a year after his death. Light in August is a powerful attack on bigotry, racism and fanaticism.