Young Lena Grove, far along in her pregnancy, marvels at how far she has come since running away from her home in Alabama. She left less than a month earlier, walking and hitching wagon rides in the seemingly hopeless task of finding Lucas Burch, the father of her child. Burch left the state after Lena became pregnant, promised to send for her, and then vanished.
Resting beside the road, Lena meets a man named Armstid, who gives her a ride in his wagon. Like everyone else Lena meets, Armstid quickly realizes that she and Lucas Burch are not married, which means that her pregnancy is a major moral wrongdoing. Although Armstid worries what his wife, Martha, will say about him giving a ride to an unwed, teenage expectant mother, he nonetheless resolves to put Lena up for the night.
When Lena and Armstid arrive at home, the matter-of-fact Martha scolds Lena for her naïve belief that Lucas is in the neighboring town of Jefferson—and also scolds Armstid for encouraging Lena’s naïveté. Lena, however, continues to defend Lucas’s actions and tries to convince herself that the apparent scoundrel has honorable intentions. Martha, despite her disapproval, smashes her small porcelain bank and gives all the contents to her husband to give to Lena, on condition that the girl is sent away in the morning.
The next day, Armstid drives Lena into town and helps her find a ride to nearby Jefferson. Although he sees Lena’s situation as somewhat hopeless, he believes that her pluck and charm will help her navigate her way through her predicament. Lena buys a fifteen-cent can of sardines and waits; eventually, a man offers her a ride on his wagon. Later, as they come over the hill and see Jefferson below them, they see two large plumes of smoke, and the man tells Lena that a house is on fire.
Byron Bunch, a worker in the planing mill in Jefferson, remembers the day three years earlier when Joe Christmas, an inscrutable, silent, sneering man dressed in tattered city clothes, came to work at the mill. The men assume he is a foreigner because of his name. Unbeknownst to most of the men, he begins living in a run-down cottage on the estate of a middle-aged spinster named Miss Burden, where he makes and sells illegal whiskey for a few customers.
Bunch also remembers the day about six months ago when a new worker named Joe Brown joined Christmas at the mill. Brown quickly developed a reputation as a loudmouth and a flagrant bootlegger. Eventually, Christmas quit his job at the mill, and he and Brown were seen driving around town in a new car. After a while, Brown quit at the mill as well. Byron wonders whether Miss Burden—the descendant of a hated family of Yankee abolitionists who moved from the North during Reconstruction—knows what Christmas and Brown are doing on her land.
Bunch works Saturdays at the mill, not merely for overtime but because he worries that he will fall into mischief otherwise. His only confidant is Reverend Gail Hightower—the only man who knows that Byron rides thirty miles out into the country to lead an all-day church choir each Sunday.
One Saturday, a fire breaks out at the Burden house on the edge of town. Byron, the only man working at the mill, watches the smoke rise as he works. He is interrupted when Lena Grove comes in suddenly and says she is looking for a Lucas Burch. Despite Lena’s obviously illicit pregnancy, Byron falls in love with her at once; he says that there is no one named Burch at the mill and that she must have heard of a “Bunch.”
Lena tells Byron her story, and he tells her about Miss Burden and the two Joes—Christmas and Brown—who live at her place. When she hears about the latter Joe, she perks up immediately and asks whether Brown has a small white scar by his mouth. With a sinking feeling, Byron admits that he indeed does, realizing that Joe Brown and Lucas Burch must be one and the same.
Faulkner’s groundbreaking style and unique ways of appropriating words are apparent from the opening sentence of Light in August. From the first paragraph, his prose “looks” different from the orderly, regulated sentences of a traditional narrative. Technical elements, such as the spacing and typography—especially the use of italicized text and sometimes nontraditional punctuation—add additional peculiarities to the manner in which the story unfolds. Immediately, Faulkner’s unorthodox prose reveals information about character and plot. In particular, his use of colloquialisms, regionalisms, and other idiomatic speech plunges us abruptly into the world he has created. On the first page, Lena announces, “I have come from Alabama: a fur piece. . . . from Alabama a-walking.” The novel starts with a journey already in progress, undertaken by a young woman whose twang and rural slang immediately reveal much of her background. As Lena’s words continue, they shift from speech to thought and from regular type into a brief italicized monologue.
Faulkner’s creative use of typography and punctuation are not random choices, nor are they gratuitous attempts to add complexity to his writing or set himself apart from his contemporaries. Rather, these techniques are crucial to his rich and varied method of creating and developing his characters. As a modernist, Faulkner conveys in his works the idea that no one version or approach is reliable enough to convey a full, objectively accurate impression of a time, place, action, or motivation. Objectivity is impossible; instead, various perspectives and competing viewpoints combine to provide a richer, more realistic, and multifaceted portrait of the elusive qualities that constitute “truth.” Faulkner does not limit this approach solely to his portrayal of the community and social structures that constitute public life in Yoknapatawpha County; he applies it just as much to individual characters, who are infused with various—often competing—layers of consciousness.
This complexity becomes apparent as the characters reveal their inner natures through the wealth of modes that Faulkner employs. When a character speaks, verbalizing his or her thoughts or reactions, Faulkner indicates this in traditional fashion, through the use of double quotation marks (e.g., “I”). However, thoughts that remain internal and unspoken, often spilling out in a loose, stream-of-consciousness manner, are indicated by single quotation marks (e.g., ‘I’). Finally, the third layer to Faulkner’s character development consists of unconscious thoughts—the characters’ innermost psychological workings, of which even they themselves may not be aware. These are indicated in italics.
Collectively, these various ways in which Faulkner indicates articulation and thought cohere to form a rich, fractured, ever-shifting portrait of individuals with divided interests, unconscious motivations, unstable psyches, and competing perspectives. Faulkner thus uses language to approximate as realistic a portrayal of the human condition and the complexities of consciousness as possible. In doing so, he creates multifaceted portraits of humans in all their flaws and subjective bias—people whose perceptions of the world are often blurred by prejudice, misinterpretation, self-delusion, and deep and blinding personal need.