Light in August’s main protagonist, Joe Christmas, also stands as one of the novel’s most enigmatic characters. An angry man, he is a shadow figure who walks the fringes, treading neither lightly nor comfortably in both the black and white worlds. When Joe first appears, he provokes a healthy amount of curiosity on the part of the mill workers, accompanied by contempt for his smug aloofness and other disarming qualities. Though Faulkner provides many details of Joe’s life and character over the course of his tale, Christmas still remains a distant, inscrutable figure, closed and elusive. At the mill he is a cipher, a blank slate onto which others project their own biased and subjective notions of who they think the mysterious man truly is. Many believe that he hails from an unknown foreign country.
Several loose correlations connect Joe Christmas’s life to that of Jesus. The two figures share the same initials, Joe was left on the orphanage steps on Christmas, and Joe is in his early thirties when he is killed in the standoff in Hightower’s kitchen. But these suggestions of similarity are loose and gestural, allowing Faulkner to complicate and darken the moral nature of his protagonist. Faulkner’s characterization of Joe Christmas challenges and ultimately subverts any Christlike comparisons. Any attempt to see Joe Christmas as a martyr is complicated by his life of violence and his general contempt for humanity. He emerges as a classically flawed and conflicted modern antihero. A brooding loner, he is a man without an identity. Unaware of his birth name, much less his racial heritage, he wanders in a futile search for a place where he can belong. Whereas Jesus’ life inspired emulation and praise, Joe Christmas generates little sympathy from those around him. The grim conditions that surrounded his upbringing do little to explain or dismiss his compulsive need to inflict harm on others—and, in two cases, to go so far as to take a life. Christmas’s attempt to reclaim and establish his identity in the world is marred by a disdain for the very people who could possibly provide him with the comfort he seeks.
Superficially, in light of the muted references to biblical imagery that Faulkner includes in the novel, Lena suggests Mary journeying to Bethlehem—but Mary as a lost, wide-eyed teenager. Instead of a stable, she gives birth to her son in a rustic cabin, eventually moving on with her surrogate Joseph, Byron Bunch, in tow. But that is where the comparison ends: more than anything, Lena can be seen as a simple embodiment of the novel’s life force. Whereas Joe Christmas brings violence and death to Jefferson, Lena brings her developing child and a flinty determination to find the baby’s father. She replaces Christmas and supplants his presence in the novel, giving birth to her son on a cot in the simple shelter that once housed the twin criminal Joes.
Whereas Joe Christmas is the classic tragic Faulkner figure, doomed to struggle and fail, Lena represents another Faulkner type, often reserved for select female characters in his fictional worlds. She is the wanderer, the young innocent, believable in her determination to make her baby legitimate. Lena is a survivor, yet she does not struggle against the challenges and the deprivation that she faces. At the same time, she does not allow her poverty, naïveté, and lack of education to conspire against her. She accepts suffering with little resistance, facing it head-on, withstanding it, and then continuing on her way. Her wanderings frame the narrative: at the beginning, she enters Jefferson alone. Then in her brief, symbolic stopover, the birth of her son offers a brief glimmer of hope to a town marked by murder and racial discord. Lena then takes to the road again, accompanied by her infant and older protector and admirer, embracing the freedom that once characterized Joe Christmas’s years of wandering.
Much of Reverend Hightower’s characterization centers around his quirky if not obsessive fixation on his grandfather’s Confederate cavalry unit. Though the dust and thundering charge of the unit have long dispelled, the hoofbeats and clamor still echo in Hightower’s memory. They serve as a powerful reminder of humans’ uneasy relationship with the past—its burden and ubiquitous presence. Through the figure of Hightower, the past becomes a living entity that is never escaped or left behind. Nor are its hard-won lessons always heeded, as violence and racial divide grip Jefferson and its environs almost as profoundly as in the days of the Civil War. Hightower’s life stands as a grim reminder of the fact that, for many, there is no fresh start, no hope for a new direction or change. His wife’s erratic behavior and subsequent suicide trigger a process of gradual decline, as Hightower bears the guilt and stigma of the scandal. He punishes himself—and the community at large at the same time—by refusing to admit total defeat in leaving town after he has been stripped of his duties.
In light of personal setback and unexpected disappointment, Hightower’s life stands as a testament to the recovery and reassertion of dignity and personal pride. Pride takes on a double meaning in Hightower’s tangled stream-of-consciousness musings. He attempts to reclaim the pride of self, his self-respect and self-esteem, while resisting vanity, a proud resistance against the vicious gossip and rumors that course through the community. In his musings and ruminations, Hightower stands as the moral or philosophical center of the novel. In the midst of the tragedy and ill circumstances that have marked his life, he is able to salvage greater strength, self-awareness, and wisdom. Along the way, he is also able to confront and lay to rest the family ghosts and the legacy of the painful past that haunts him still.
Inert, worn dull by years of routine and six-day work weeks, Byron Bunch lives in a detached and insulated world designed around the avoidance of entanglement—personal, emotional, or otherwise. When Lena arrives at the mill in Jefferson, her plight triggers an instinct in Byron to reach out and to engage, finally, the life of another. There is no doubt that Byron is a good man: he lives an honest, upstanding life and directs the choir at a rural church each Sunday, returning for the start of his shift the following morning. But it is a sanitized, hollow goodness, achieved through inaction and a regimented life free of any temptation or challenge. He has lived a moral life by avoiding rather than engaging the world around him. His growing attachment to Lena parallels a gradual awakening in Byron as he attempts to turn from the man he once was—the man who has protected himself too stringently from experiencing pain, sorrow, or conflict.
Bunch’s friendship with Hightower not only providers a much-needed source of inspiration and challenge to Byron but also adds a new layer of moral and philosophical complexity to his life. Byron turns to his friend for counsel and wisdom and in turn is able to reveal his own desires and intentions through his dialogues with the defrocked minister. Hightower casts doubt on the purity of Byron’s sentiments in reaching out to selflessly help Lena and questions his supposed disinterest or lack of ulterior motive in improving her situation. Byron is forced to resolve his feelings for Lena—confronting both public opinion and his own selfishness—to conclude, in the end, that he is an honorable man who has chosen to live a more fully engaged and fully present life. Byron’s willingness to fight Joe Brown, to be beaten by the larger man, is the visceral reawakening that he needs. It reveals finally his resolve to be involved in the life of another and his willingness to risk personal injury. Byron is determined to stand by Lena and deal with the conflicting emotions and vulnerabilities that he experiences in loving another. In the end, Byron may still have much to learn when it comes to courting and caring for Lena, but he has at last found a freedom and a purpose to his life hitherto avoided or ignored.