Prayer in William Faulkner's Light in August

Powerful Essays
"I decline to accept the end of man...I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance." -William Faulkner, Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech, 1949

William Faulkner illustrates many dimensions of prayer in Light in August: his characters avoid it, abuse it, embrace it, and blame it. In every case, Faulkner portrays prayer's power on the psyche. His fictional world seems Godless, yet his characters' struggle to prevail through prayer. Joanna Burden, Gail Hightower, and Joe Christmas exemplify three different approaches to prayer. Joanna turns toward prayer shortly before she is murdered; Hightower turns from it and finally feels liberated before his symbolic death; and Christmas, who is murdered in the end, prays throughout the novel. In comparing these three, Faulkner rejects pompous prayers and advocates for authenticity. Faulkner suggests that it is better to avoid prayer altogether, like Lena Grove, the happy pagan, than to be stunted by false prayer, like Hightower. To highlight these extremes, Faulkner fuses his novel with tensions between Judeo-Christianity and paganism, filling his characters with an urge to somehow find something permanent.

First, Joanna wrestles with her faith, but her shift toward prayer brings pride and prejudice. Faulkner's first mention of prayer in reference to Joanna actually comes through Joe: he observes her longing to meet God on her own terms and her struggle to do so: "She wants to prays, but she don't know how to do that either" (Faulkner 261). Faulkner inten...

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