Faulkner's Light in August - Themes

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Light in August - Themes


The Southern concern with racial identity is one of Light in August's central themes. When people think that Joe Christmas has even a trace of black ancestry, they treat him completely differently from the way they treat white people. Many of the characters in Light in August seem twisted by their preoccupation with race. Joe Christmas, Joanna Burden, Nathaniel Burden, Doc Hines, and, ultimately, Percy Grimm are among these. But even many of the characters who don't share this mania assume that treating blacks inhumanly is acceptable. The Jefferson sheriff, Watt Kennedy, seems a decent man, yet he whips a randomly chosen black in an interrogation that was unnecessary in the first place.


Two of Light in August's five major characters live in the shadow of their dead ancestors. But you could interpret their relation to these forebears in different ways. On the one hand, you could point to a pattern of decline and say that the present doesn't live up to the heroic days of yesteryear. On the other hand, you could say that the problems of the present come from a failure to shake off the burdensome grip of the past. Here is how you could argue each point of view.

a. The Heroic Past

Gail Hightower's grandfather was a robust lover of life, and his father was a helper of his fellow human beings. But Hightower fails both his wife and his congregation and spends the rest of his life cut off from other people.

Though Joanna Burden's forefathers were not originally from the South, their emigration to Jefferson makes them part of the Souths history too. And like Gail Hightower, Joanna compares badly to both her father and grandfather. They were rebellious wanderers and vigorous family men. She spends most of her time in her house, feels homesick whenever she leaves Jefferson, and never marries or has children.

b. The Burdensome Past

Gail Hightower's problems stem from his obsession with his grandfather, who was not even worth this worship. After all, he died stealing chickens. Likewise, Joanna Burden is the victim of the stern religion and patronizing racism that her father taught her and that he learned from his father before him.
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