‘It is because a fellow is more afraid of the trouble he might have than he ever is of the trouble he’s already got. He’ll cling to trouble he’s used to before he’ll risk a change.’
Byron Bunch thinks these words near the end of Chapter 3, when his growing friendship and intimacy with Reverend Hightower is initially traced. Eventually, Byron, out of curiosity, asks the minister why he chose to stay in Jefferson “almost within sight of” the scene of his humiliation at the hands of his parishioners, who turned their backs on him in the wake of his personal crisis upon his wife’s death. Hightower avoids the question and turns the tables, interrogating Byron about his habit of working at the mill every Saturday night instead of enjoying his leisure in town like the other men. Both men conclude facilely that it is simply “life,” that it is the course their individual destinies have taken. But both know that such a pat and simple-minded response is an elaborate avoidance of the fear, loneliness, isolation, and inability to reenter and embrace life that underlies each of their existences. Byron uses the exchange as the occasion to meditate on the nature of personal risk and the potentially harmful self-exposure involved in seeking and embracing change.
Isolation and emotional detachment are among the numerous defense mechanisms that both men employ in their approaches to their individual lives. Each engages in a strategy of emotional risk management. Hightower, by cloistering himself and cutting himself off from the outside world, believes that he is minimizing the risk that tragedy or disappointment will ever be visited on his doorstep again. This somewhat paranoid reaction and fear of the unknown comes as a response to the tension and wide gulf that exists in Light in August between the individual and the community. In a world in which the past brings a conflicted legacy of personal and public shame, individuals such as Byron and Hightower, subject to the harsh criticism and censure of the community at large, choose to avoid any situation or course of action that might compromise their sense of self.
Memory believes before knowing remembers. Believes longer than recollects, longer than knowing even wonders.
These sentences form the opening of Chapter 6, as young Joe Christmas is about to sneak into the dietician’s room at the orphanage to steal more of her toothpaste. Memory—and the long shadows it casts, influencing and altering the present and the future—is one of the central concerns of Faulkner’s multifaceted inquiry into the moral fiber of his characters. Both the quotation and the passage it introduces are characteristic of Faulkner’s rambling, free-associative style. At times, his descriptions and commentaries take on the quality of a prose poem, a tumbling series of images and impressions that cumulatively enacts and approximates the fleeting, half-formed images that constitute, in this case, a five-year-old’s earliest memories and sensory impressions.
For many of Faulkner’s characters, the past represents an inheritance of struggle, pain, humiliation, and shame—a legacy that the characters spend the rest of their lives trying to outrun and deny. The history of abuses and neglect that punctuate Joe’s formative years forms a record of memory more powerful than any literal, “objective” recounting of the events that make up his life. Faulkner argues that a fleeting moment—an incident as random as a little boy stealing a squirt of toothpaste—can have implications that reach far beyond the moment. The cold and oppressive hallways of the orphanage form a psychic space that Joe carries with him, in memory, for the rest of his life. Whether the characters consciously recognize or acknowledge the events that shape their lives, they retain their memories, permanent and inalterable. Beyond recollection and wonder, beyond the rational consideration of the events that mark Joe’s life, lies the more potent and inescapable history of scars, both psychic and physical, that he bears. It is collectively these memories, and the slights and abuses they represent, that make him who he is and that conspire to drive him to his tragic end.
Perhaps he realised that he could not escape. Anyway, he stayed, watching the two creatures that struggled in the one body like two moon-gleamed shapes.
This passage, referring to Christmas’s escalating affair with Miss Burden in Chapter 12, perfectly captures the psychic schism present in many of the novel’s characters. Faulkner strove to populate his novels with complex personalities—presences that cannot be reduced to simple, one-dimensional summation. His style and technique testify to the fact that no one version of the truth, no one set of explanations or motivations, is sufficient to explain what lies behind his characters’ often complicated and multifaceted drives and needs.
Joe Christmas is a man trapped by circumstance and by his own feckless desire to leave his past and his crimes behind him. He feels that he should extricate himself from the physical longing that binds him increasingly to Miss Burden, but he cannot. He begins, instinctively, in thinking of his sudden residence on the Burden property, to “see himself as from a distance,” unable to do anything but bear witness to Miss Burden’s physical and emotional trials. As Joe gets to know his lover more intimately, he sees a gender divide in Miss Burden—both a male and a female presence struggling for supremacy over her. Moreover, a spiritual and physical struggle splits Miss Burden. By accounts contained and invulnerable, reckless and sexually vulnerable, she fights against her own rational nature, struggling over her need to be strong and independent on one hand and her need to surrender physically and spiritually to Joe on the other. In Faulkner’s world, individuals struggle not only against community, society, and the past but also against themselves and their unstable, often fluid senses of identity.
[H]e believed with calm paradox that he was the volitionless servant of the fatality in which he believed that he did not believe. He was saying to himself I had to do it already in the past tense; I had to do it. She said so herself
This description is found toward the end of Chapter 12, when Christmas, seated in the garden and listening to the town clock chime ten and then eleven at night, has ultimately resolved to kill Miss Burden. The passage mirrors the frenzied, incoherent, and contradictory thoughts of a man who lashes out by choice, driven by an irrational and compulsive need to destroy his own happiness and that of others. Joe’s all-consuming desire for revenge and violence is a bestial, primal, almost nonverbal drive. It resists articulation, easy explication, or the neat and orderly explanations that language is usually able to provide.
The passage also enacts, through the spill of language that attempts to replicate Joe’s feverish impressions and conclusions, the competing and contradictory thought processes that divide Christmas. Clearly the murder is premeditated—conceived as if it were in the past, an act already performed. At the same time, Joe’s thoughts betray a paradoxical desire to be absolved of guilt, that he is a “volitionless servant,” overpowered by a force, larger and stronger than his own will or resistance, that compels him to take a life. There is a glimmer of moral sense in his tortured thoughts. Part of him recognizes that he does “not believe” in murder. But as Joe, like Reverend Hightower, increasingly occupies a world of his own making, time collapses, and the distinctions between past, present, and future—the logical progressions that link cause and effect and action and consequence—are erased. Joe is left with a resolution to kill in which he feels justified and that he feels that he has no choice but to heed.
“I mind how I said to you once that there is a price for being good the same as for being bad; a cost to pay. And it’s the good men that cant deny the bill when it comes around. . . . The bad men can deny it; that’s why dont anybody expect them to pay on sight or any other time. . . . Maybe it takes longer to pay for being good than for being bad.”
Byron speaks these words at the end of Chapter 16, after he has brought the Hineses to see Reverend Hightower and is about to ask the minister to lie and claim that Joe Christmas was at Hightower’s house on the night of the murder. This quotation complements Byron’s notion that one of life’s major preoccupations is the attempt to sidestep trouble and entanglement. Byron, however, has finally come to realize that his strategy of denial and avoidance, that has served him in good stead for most of his thirty years, is no longer an acceptable means of ordering his life. He believes that there is no escaping accountability, no matter how detached or aloof one is, and that suffering and emotional duress are a harsh reality, if not a curse, that few fail to encounter.
Byron’s words bear heavily religious undertones. He has spent his days on the fringes, thinking that by living a disengaged, morally lazy existence, he has postponed any need to repent or account for his transgressions at the end of his life. About to commit himself to the safety and livelihood of Lena and her child, Byron realizes finally that suffering and hardship are unavoidable. By keeping them so stringently at bay up to this point, he has also foolishly excluded himself from love and companionship as well.