Major Themes in Faulkner's Light in August

Major Themes in Faulkner's Light in August

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Major Themes in Faulkner's Light in August  

  Faulkner's Light in August is a metaphor.

In fact it is many metaphors, almost infinitely many. It is a jumble of allusions,

themes, portraits, all of them uniquely important, many of them

totally unrelated. In fact no 20th century writer has even

approached the sheer quantity of symbolism Faulkner packed into

every page, with, perhaps, the exception of James Joyce who went so

far as to surpass Faulkner in this regard. So obviously it would be

foolish to attempt to trace every line, follow every branch to its

root, one could spend a lifetime dissecting the book in this

manner. Fortunately, in the midst of this menagerie of wonders,

there are dominate themes. There are veins of meaning that permeate

throughout. Chief among them; Faulkner's study of 20th century

man's search for identity, and his compassionate portrait of the

origins of evil.

         I have come from Alabama a fur piece (Faulkner, p.3). The

reader begins the book in this manner, following the simple-minded

and determined Lena as she travels, neither coming nor going,

simply moving. Immediately the book draws into her past, relating

events leading up to this point, explaining her motives. One gets a

definite feel for her character, and settles into her narrative,

but as soon as this happens, the book switches gears, turning

instead to a vague character, Joe Christmas. With little

introduction, or warning, the book reels into Joe's past, catching

the reader totally unaware and throwing off the entire continuity

of the book. Faulkner's desire for unity and coherence in the

pattern is not as strong as is his desire for truth to individual

response (Reed, p.123). Thus Lena is a frame, she serves only to

accentuate Christmas's story, by contrast. Faulkner demands the

reader follow, and realize this.

         So we now see Christmas's childhood. From the beginning,

Christmas is two things. One, he is a totally clean slate in that

he has no idea whatsoever of his past, his origins. He is neither

predestined to good nor evil, simply born. By this same token,

Christmas is left confused. Because he has no idea of his origins,

he has no idea of self, even to the extent of not being sure of his

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race. Christmas is thoroughly alone in the world, irredeemably

separate from everyone.

         "Well, here I am" (Faulkner, p.134). This is the first thing

The boy Christmas says. A fitting statement on his utter aloneness.

While Christmas is emotionally alone, he is not left alone by

others. Light in August reiterates its themes by a series of

different dramatic scenes acted by different examples of the same

types (Gold, p.41). McEarhern and the dietitian are essentially the

same: Authority figures who try to force on him their own ideas of

who he is, or who they want him to be. And the two, identical,

dramatic scenes acted by different examples of the same types, are

these: When Christmas is carried off by the insane janitor, and

when Christmas faints after spending hours standing while McEarhern

tries to force him to learn a pointless Catechism. Both scenes

involve Christmas's inability to resist, as authority figures try

to determine who he will be. Both scenes end with Christmas being

more confused than ever, yet more unwilling than ever to commit to

either picture of himself.

          The dietitian does all in her power to convict Christmas of

being a Negro, and then, his foster father, McEarhern, tries to

force on Christmas an ideology totally foreign to him. McEarhern

uses extreme Calvinism to mold Christmas into a purely moral

person, while the dietitian tries to force Christmas into a state

of immorality, or at least portray him as such. Forces beyond his

control work against him, trying to force him in ways he is not,

sending him in contradicting paths.

         Inevitably he rebels against these forces, finding refuge in

immorality, a whore, and later going so far as to strike out

against his oppressor, his own father, killing him. This final act

of defiance is not so much an act of pure malice, but rather an

irrepressible reaction to the extreme Calvinism. So extreme

morality has led Christmas to an act of extreme immorality. And

this is where the downward spiral begins.


                           The youth upon it's back rode lightly,

                           balance lightly, leaning well forward,

                           exulting perhaps at that moment as Faustus

                           had, of having put behind now at once and

                           for all the Shalt Not, of being free at last

                           of honor and law........He cried aloud "I

                           have done it! I have done it! I told them I


         (Faulkner, p.228)



         Now Christmas is freed from all morality. When Christmas kills

his adopted father he becomes completely immoral. Caring nothing

for those around him Christmas has completed his journey from

innocent boy to uncaring man. Almost wholly as a reflex to the

cruelty of those around him, Christmas has become completely

detached from society. This is further compounded by his lack of

identity, also a result of the actions of others, and is symbolized

by the fact that he is unaware of whether or not he is black. He

drifts through town after town, aimlessly searching for identity,

accomplishing nothing.

         Christmas meets Joanna and for awhile the reader senses that

he may undergo some type of transformation. It seems likely that

Christmas will finally reconcile himself, but Joanna betrays him by

trying to force her own ideas of who he is onto him, another

reenactment of the scenes before follows, only this time ending in

Christmas once again killing the person trying to change him.

         The book ends with yet one more transformation for Christmas,

this time from the uncaring being he was before, to a being of pure

hatred and loathing. Such transformations always occur after the

aforementioned scene is reenacted, pushing Christmas further

towards evil, culminating in his bursting into the negro church.

Starting life as a pure, Christ-like baby, Christmas undergoes a

brutal series of confused scenes, that end in him "entering the

negro church as Satan and that is what he has become. Man perverts

the best in himself continually." (Gold, p.42). Christmas is drawn

into evil, by a world that would never let him be anything else.

Christmas symbolizes the cause and demonstrates the effect of man's

falling. His dual coloring is an ironic emblem for the divided

society in which he moves (Gold p.42).

         Finally, Christmas is killed by Grimm, the embodiment of the

"divided society" that created him. This is the final reenactment

of the reoccurring scene. Only this time, Christmas can no longer

resist, and is destroyed. He is force to succumb to the "absurdity

that Faulkner finds in human life" (Satre, p.198).


Works Cited

Faulkner, William.  Light in August. New York: Vintage Books, 1987 pp. 3-228.

Blotner, Jospeh.  Faulkner in the University, Class Conferences at

         The University of Virgina. Charlottesville, VA: University

         Press of Virginia, 1959 p. 139.

Gold, Joseph.  William Faulkner: A Study in Humanism From Metaphor

         to Discourse. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1966

         pp. 41-42

Reed, Joseph.  Faulkner's Narrative. New Haven: Yale University

         Press, 1973  p. 123


The student may wish to begin the paper with the quote below:

 "...a man's future is inherent in that man..."

                                             -Faulkner in the University. p.139    




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