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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.
2. THE SOUTHERN PAST
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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Light in August seems to indict a harsh and punitive strain in Christianity, from the orthodox Calvinism of Simon McEachern to the ravings of Doc Hines and the unusual religious amalgam preached by Calvin Burden. In much of Light in August, the Christian religion is self-righteous and vindictive, and even racist and misogynist (antiwoman). Do you yourself know people whose religious views become an excuse for their personal prejudices?
But you could argue that Faulkner counterposes these distorted forms of religion to a more genuine religiosity. Gail Hightower's minister father refuses to own slaves and works as a doctor after the Civil War. Is Byron Bunch's Sunday choir an indication of his underlying piety or only one of his empty routines? Does the Reverend Gail Hightower retain any religious faith and, if so, is this faith responsible for whatever compassion he still shows?
Light in August also features much Christian symbolism. Does this symbolism suggest that Faulkner wants the Joe Christmas story to convey a Christian message? Or, on the other hand, is this juxtaposition of Christian symbolism with the life of a violent man meant to be one additional way of criticizing Christianity? Most readers think that the Christian symbolism emphasizes Joe's suffering and sacrifice without necessarily conveying a specifically religious message.
a. Community as Conformity
One way of interpreting characters like Joe Christmas, Joanna Burden, and Gail Hightower is as scapegoats. You could argue that the town of Jefferson punishes them for not conforming. Joe Christmas obeys neither the accepted code of behavior for whites nor the one for blacks. Joanna Burden acts like a Northerner by associating with and trying to help blacks. And Gail Hightower is unable to restrain his wife from behaving sinfully. Consequently the community has to punish them in order to reconfirm its own self-image as properly white, Southern, and Protestant.
b. Community vs. Isolation
But you could also argue that Faulkner is showing the perils of isolation from the community. All three of these characters seem warped. None tries to integrate into the community, so is their exclusion the community's fault? Moreover, Jefferson ultimately accepts Hightower; it never does anything worse to Joanna than ignore her; and it accepts Joe Christmas until he kills someone. And Joe Christmas's ultimate executioner is another outsider.
When you think about this theme, consider whether you yourself have ever felt torn between the perils of isolation and the danger of submerging your individuality in a group.
5. MALE-FEMALE RELATIONS
Joe Christmas is hostile to women. Lucas Burch flees women. Until Lena's arrival, Byron Bunch lives alone and tries to organize his life in such a way that he will continue living alone. Gail Hightower drives his wife to suicide. Joanna Burden never marries. But Faulkner doesn't contrast the solitary lives of these troubled characters with any happy, "normal" love relationships until his last chapter. Certainly the Hines and McEachern marriages are miserable, and the Armstids hardly seem loving. Even when Byron Bunch finally goes off with Lena Grove in what might have been a happy, romantic ending, she doesn't let him into her bed. Nonetheless, the relationship of the anonymous furniture dealer and his wife seems to suggest the possibility of happier love matches.
Joe Christmas doesn't know who he is. His uncertain racial identity affects every aspect of his life. Sometimes he claims to be white, sometimes black, but he rebels against both categories. Christmas roams the North and the South, the cities and the countryside, without ever settling into a fixed abode or a long-lasting human relationship. By contrast, Lena Grove never doubts her identity. Even when wandering alone among strangers, she is confident of her purpose, her destination, and even of her relationship with the shiftless Lucas Burch. She reveals a moment of doubt only when old Mrs. Hines confuses Lena's baby with Joe Christmas. Gail Hightower and Joanna Burden are neither as sure of their identities as Lena, nor as doubtful as Joe. Joanna is a Northern abolitionist who feels homesick whenever she leaves Jefferson, Mississippi. For two years she is cool and rational by day, while wildly passionate by night. Then she veers from the extremes of sensuality to those of self-denial. Hightower wants to do good in the world, while he also wants to ignore the world and to live in solitude. He lives in the past but often seems acutely concerned about the events of the present.
7. OTHER THEMES
Light in August has a number of subsidiary themes. Faulkner contrasts the characters' different attitudes to time: Hightower's life is frozen in the past, while Lena lives only in the present. Nature is an issue in the novel: the planing mills are gradually destroying the natural world of forests around them, and different individuals are defined by their differing attitudes to nature. For example, Lena Grove is the character most in touch with the natural. Fate seems to play a role in the lives of characters like Percy Grimm and Joe Christmas. Do any of the characters control their own destinies? Certainly Byron Bunch seems to take charge of his own life. Light in August touches on the problem of evil. The novel portrays widespread bigotry and violence. But Faulkner shows compassion for many of his evil-doing characters and counterposes them to good people like Byron Bunch. Martyrdom is another theme. Among the novel's martyrs are Joe Christmas, Gail Hightower, Joanna Burden, and possibly even Byron Bunch (who suffers and sacrifices for Lena Grove). And, finally, Light in August is concerned with the difficulty of establishing communication between people. Joe Christmas, for example, misunderstands the feelings of both Bobbie Allen and Joanna Burden and is surprised when they turn against him.