Light in August
Throughout a career spanning nearly four decades, William Faulkner earned and enjoyed one of the most esteemed reputations of any twentieth-century novelist. Born in New Albany, Mississippi, in 1897, he is best known for a series of seminal novels that explore the South’s historical legacy, its fraught and often tensely violent present, and its uncertain future. These major works include the novels The Sound and the Fury (1929), As I Lay Dying (1930), Light in August (1932), and Absalom, Absalom! (1936), all set in Faulkner’s fictional Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi.
By creating an imagined setting, Faulkner enables his characters to inhabit a fully realized world that serves as a mirror to and microcosm of the South as a whole. Faulkner’s legendary county acts as a safe and distant, yet magnifying, lens through which he examines the practices, folkways, and attitudes that divided and united the people of the South since the nation’s inception. As Faulkner’s stories unfold, his characters attempt to eke out an emotional existence, but poverty, racism, violence, lack of education, and other factors conspire to lace their lives with tragedy.
Faulkner was particularly interested in the moral implications of history, depicting a time in which the South was emerging from the Civil War and Reconstruction and attempting to shake off the stigma of slavery. He portrays the South’s residents as being caught in competing and evolving modes, torn between a new and an older, more tenaciously rooted world order. Religion and politics frequently fall short of their implied goals of providing order and guidance and serve only to complicate and divide. Meanwhile, society—a repressive if not asphyxiating entity, with its gossip, judgment, and harsh pronouncements—conspires to thwart the desires and ambitions of individuals struggling to unearth and embrace their identities. Across Faulkner’s fictional landscapes, individual characters often stage epic struggles, prevented from realizing their potential or establishing and asserting a firm sense of their place in the world.
As he does in many of his novels, Faulkner takes a decidedly modernist approach in Light in August, abandoning a conventional, linear story in order to recount the inner lives and motivations of his characters. During a brief, fateful period of time in the book’s title month, the lives of various characters overlap and intersect in the town of Jefferson, Mississippi. Along the way, time is fractured, shifted, and manipulated, as events are recounted from one perspective, then revisited from an entirely new angle, integrating the complexity of another—often seemingly unrelated—character’s viewpoint. Ultimately, no one approach emerges as reliable or as the complete, full version of what transpires. Instead, a multiplicity of subjective voices emerges, dissecting and relating events, sometimes erroneously or in a biased manner.
Similarly, Faulkner refrains from using a single, unified narrative voice. His long, sinuous sentences attempt to replicate the leaps and erratic bounds of his characters’ often stream-of-consciousness thought patterns. He employs colloquialisms, regional dialect, compound words of his own invention, monologues, unconscious thought, and various asides to create a complex and richly textured world as various and uncontainable as the real world itself.
Light in August is steeped in violence, preoccupied with the distortions and distractions of religion and racism—perhaps influenced by the fact that Faulkner started the novel soon after his wife, Estelle, gave birth to a daughter who died after only a few days in January 1931. Using the working title Dark House, Faulkner explored and plumbed the often dark interior spaces of his characters, who are wounded in various ways by their forays into the world. Dogged by guilt, shame, and humiliation, they strive—some ceaselessly, others successfully, and still others for naught—for forgiveness, salvation, and a place to call their own.
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