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Light in August

William Faulkner

Study Questions and Essay Topics

Key Facts

Quiz

Study Questions

1.

What rhetorical devices does Faulkner employ—dialogue/monologue, slang/dialect, diction, syntax, typography—in creating his fictional world? What is the thematic significance of appropriating these devices in the way he has?

Faulkner’s main characters stage their lives before a complex and fluid backdrop of social conventions and public commentary, and a cacophony of voices combines to embody and characterize the life of this community. The narration is constantly being passed off, transferred to the voice of yet another individual either integral to or standing on the edges of the action. The dialect and regionalisms employed, such as Lena’s having traveled “a fur piece,” lend his characters’ speech the ring and air of authenticity. While Jefferson is an imagined place, a microcosm of the world distilling its best and worst attributes, the setting is meant to bear faithful witness to the Mississippi that Faulkner knew so well.

In addition, Faulkner makes us privy to the internal monologues and the conscious and unconscious thoughts of many of the characters. Thematically, the complex layering of both internal and external voices suggests a world—and the individual lives that inhabit it—that resists easy definition. The lives of Faulkner’s protagonists, and the plot lines that present and develop them, defy easy or tidy resolutions. Byron and Lena, the only main characters who emerge from the world of Jefferson at the end of the novel, form a vague partnership as they head into their equally vague future. In resisting a formulaic, pat summation and conclusion, Faulkner’s tale and means of telling it suggest that no one single version of the truth would ever suffice.

2.

How is religion portrayed in the novel, particularly as exemplified by the McEachern and Hines families? How does Reverend Hightower’s presence enrich or complicate the novel’s exploration of the subject?

Religion and its potentially corrupting impact and influence are key concerns in Light in August. Although Faulkner presents plenty of examples of vibrant and positive communities of faith in the novel, these communities are frequently violated or challenged by the radical religious fundamentalists whom Faulkner has fashioned. In part, the novel can be seen as a study of the dangers of religious fanaticism. The strict doctrines that guide Mr. McEachern blind him, stunt his compassion, and encourage him to view his life as a constant, aggressive battle against sin and inevitable damnation. Just as harmful are the extreme doctrines of Uncle Doc Hines, who uses his contorted sense of faith and morality to justify racist doctrines and practices and, most tragically, to condemn his young grandson to a childhood of loneliness and neglect in an orphanage. Hightower’s betrayal and insensitive treatment at the hands of his parishioners permanently alters not only his outlook but also the very course of his life. With institutional religion having failed him, the defrocked minister retreats from society and attempts the psychic healing that defines the rest of his life. Hightower turns to literature and a more humanist, nonreligious personal philosophy to compensate for the perceived failings of his prior life of faith. In the end, his kindness, compassion, and renewed connection with the outer world emerge as a necessary form of self-expression and self-actualization—not as the reflection of a specific moral or religious doctrine.

3.

What is the significance of the novel’s title?

Faulkner believed that late-summer light in the South assumed unique qualities—an observation (and title) that may originally have been suggested by his wife. He refers to these unique properties of light in the opening of Chapter 20, when Reverend Hightower revisits his life and his arrival in Jefferson as a young and enthusiastic minister when “that fading copper light would seem almost audible, like a dying yellow fall of trumpets dying into an interval of silence and waiting.” The interplay of light and shadow figures into many of the novel’s lush descriptions, and Faulkner’s original working title for the novel, Dark House, refers to this divide. Hightower and Miss Burden cloister themselves in the shadow world of their domiciles, tempted by the world of light, of reality and self-exposure, that exists beyond their windows. Miss Burden’s relationship with Joe Christmas plays out only at night, in the distorting cover of darkness. In addition, some critics have traced the title of Light in August to an idiomatic, regional meaning of “light” as another term for pregnancy, referring to the renewed sense of hope that Lena’s baby signifies.

Suggested Essay Topics

1. How does Faulkner tell his tale? In a linear fashion? What techniques and structural elements does he employ in unfolding and developing his plot, and why?

2. In what ways is Joe Christmas a Christlike figure? In what ways do his story and actions differ from the details associated with the life of Jesus?

3. Racism is a motivating factor behind several characters’ actions in the novel. Is racial politics a major thematic element of the novel, or does Faulkner use it only as a realistic detail, an essential part of the social fabric of the time and setting in which the novel takes place? What are the ramifications of Joe Christmas’s biracial background?

4. One of the novel’s major preoccupations is the relationship between the individual and society at large. In what ways does Faulkner explore this theme and why? What conclusions does he reach?

5. What is Joe’s relationship like with his foster parents and how does it potentially influence the adult he becomes?

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