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Light in August - Style
Chapter 6, opening paragraph:
Knows remembers believes a corridor in a big long garbled cold echoing building of dark red brick sootbleakened by more chimneys than its own, set in a grassless cinderstrewnpacked 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 sparrowlike 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 blacktears.
Faulkner's style may give you trouble at first because of (1) his use of long, convoluted, and sometimes ungrammatical sentences, such as the one just quoted; (2) his repetitiveness (for example, the word "bleak" in the sentence just quoted); and (3) his use of oxymorons, that is, combinations of contradictory or incongruous words (for example, "frictionsmooth," "slow and ponderous gallop," "cheerful, testy voice"). People who dislike Faulkner see this style as careless. Yet Faulkner rewrote and revised Light in August many times to get the final book exactly the way he wanted it. His style is a product of thoughtful deliberation, not of haste. Editors sometimes misunderstood Faulkner's intentions and made what they thought were minor changes. Recently scholars have prepared an edition of Light in August that restores the author's original text as exactly as possible. This Book Note is based on that Library of America edition (1985), edited by Noel Polk and Joseph Blotner.
In some of his more difficult passages, Faulkner is using the technique called "stream-of-consciousness." Pioneered by the Irish writer James Joyce, the most extreme versions of this device give the reader direct access to the full contents of the characters' minds, however confused, fragmented, and even contradictory those contents may be.
But Faulkner develops his own, more structured variety of stream of consciousness. In his densest paragraphs, he often lets his characters fall into reveries in which they perceive more deeply than their conscious minds possibly could. His characters connect past and present and reflect on the meaning of events and on the relationships between them in a manner that sounds more like Faulkner himself than like the characters in their usual states of mind.
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For example, in the Chapter 6 opening just quoted, Joe Christmas is entering the long retreat into memory from which he only emerges after he has killed Joanna Burden. He is just beginning to sort things out, and the free-flowing, emotionally charged jumble of images suggests the workings of his unconscious mind. But Faulkner also uses words and makes observations more sophisticated than you would usually expect from Joe Christmas. This combination is part of what makes his style unique.
Of course, for characters' conscious thoughts, Faulkner uses the style they would use when speaking. And in such passages he puts the thought inside single quotation marks or in italics. For example, in the novel's opening paragraph, "Lena thinks, 'I have come from Alabama: a fur piece. All the way from Alabama a-walking. A fur piece.'" The single quotes seem to indicate thoughts formulated in words. Italics, as in the passage that follows the sentences just quoted, often seem to suggest thoughts not quite so explicitly verbalized. Note also Faulkner's ability to use brief passages of dialogue to make a large variety of Southern characters come to life as individuals. See, for example, Chapter 1's conversation between Armstid and Winterbottom.
Some readers have suggested additional reasons for Faulkner's style. He may use a grand style to elevate characters that are themselves either quite humble (for example, Lena Grove), quite brutal (Joe Christmas), or almost pathetic (at times Gail Hightower and Byron Bunch). Others say that Faulkner likes to force readers to absorb many contradictory feelings all at once. He wants you to see the meaningful connections between a large variety of human experiences. Faulkner himself once said that he wanted to put the entire "world" on a "pinhead." Looked at this way, his all-encompassing sentences create a style appropriate for a novel with three different plots and a host of seemingly unrelated characters. And Faulkner's use of oxymorons may create a tension that mirrors his characters' and his region's often unresolved conflicts.
Certain images recur especially often in Light in August. Ghosts, phantoms, and shadows sometimes suggest the past that still seems to haunt several of the characters. At other times these same phantoms reinforce our sense that many of the characters are not fully alive. Images of circles abound, for example, the wheel of Hightower's final vision, the circle that Christmas thinks his life forms, the circle of the urn that Faulkner associates with Lena Grove. Faulkner often uses the image of the mirror to suggest the ways the different characters reflect each other. Finally, you might note the particular attention Faulkner pays to descriptions of motion and of sound.