Light in August
Themes, Motifs & Symbols
Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
The Burdens of the Past
History—in the broad, abstract meaning of the term, as well as in the sense of personal history—looms large in Light in August. Miss Burden and Reverend Hightower each inherit a complex legacy of familial pride, struggle, and shame. Miss Burden lives her life as a personal sacrifice to a cause, feeling an obligation to honor her family’s staunch commitment to abolition and then black equality. It is ironically her charity itself that causes her undoing, as the man she tries to help, Joe Christmas, brutally murders her when he resents and feels threatened by her patronizing impulse to control and improve him. Reverend Hightower, meanwhile, is trapped in the past, torn between the romantic image of his grandfather, the heroic cavalryman killed while stealing chickens, and his father the pacifist. His unresolved relationship with his personal history compromises his effectiveness as a spiritual leader and a husband and plays a part in his eventual defrocking.
Joe Christmas is on the opposite footing: he is a man without a history, beyond the personal reserve of memories that form a painful pattern of violence, abuse, and neglect, both self-inflicted and visited on him by those charged with his care. The past, of which he is personally unaware, proves to be too powerful a force to escape or resist. Joe’s misanthropic, homicidal nature is partially explained when his origins become clear. The grandfather he knew only as the janitor at the orphanage proves to have much in common with his grandson. Both are violent men prone to antisocial behavior and murder.
Lena Grove emerges as the only figure able to sidestep the oppressive burden of the past. She is a child of nature, unencumbered by personal stigma or shame. Like Christmas, she is an orphan, but rather than run from the past—or be symbolically imprisoned by it—in the end she heads optimistically to an unscripted future.
The Struggle for a Coherent Sense of Identity
Although the novel explores issues of gender and race specifically, these particular thematic currents intersect to become part of Faulkner’s larger, more all-encompassing inquiry concerning the nature of identity and how it is influenced by history, nature, society, and individual lives. The residents of Jefferson have resolved a tacit acceptance of Reverend Hightower, Joanna Burden, and Joe Christmas, but each of these characters deliberately resists or abandons the distorting influence of a rigid social and moral order. Society, as embodied in Faulkner’s collective voice of the community, attempts to superimpose simplistic, restrictive notions of identity based on broad categories, such as race and gender. Whereas some individuals need these external cues to provide themselves with a sense of clarity, order, and definition, others struggle under the weight of what are often intrusive attempts to restrict and classify. For Joe Christmas, the lack of a stable and identifiable sense of self assumes tragic dimensions. His wanderings become a symbolic journey to find out who he is, a search for wholeness and self-completion, but they are tragically and ultimately an illusive and elusive quest.
The Isolation of the Individual
Light in August is filled with loners, isolated figures who choose or are forced to inhabit the fringes of society. Byron shields himself from the outside world with his unconscious strategy of detachment. Lena is an abandoned mother-to-be who, in seeking the support of Joe Brown, finds she is able to stand alone and is better off for it. She is the catalyst that facilitates Byron’s final and delayed entrance into the world of human interaction and contact. Though their vague and nontraditional family is still forming in the novel’s final chapter, they are the only characters who are able to solve the riddle of their own estrangement and loneliness.
Reverend Hightower and Joe Christmas both are described as living outside of time, inhabiting their own temporal order and a world of their own making. After the betrayal that Christmas experiences at the hands of Bobbie Allen, replicating the abandonment and neglect that marked his childhood, he lives an unfettered and rudderless existence, deliberately sabotaging any opportunity to establish an emotional tie or connection with another. His one potentially auspicious attempt at human contact—his developing relationship with Miss Burden—ends not in greater intimacy and connectedness but in murder and displaced rage.
Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
Faulkner’s frequent use of compound words is emblematic of his inventive use of language, his ability to push the boundaries of articulation, and his willingness to bend and stretch diction to suit his particular aesthetic needs. The use of this device suggests that the reserve of existing English words, and the traditional means of combining, linking, and employing them, are insufficient to Faulkner’s exploration of the complex states of consciousness and knowing.
Examples abound in the novel. Lena is described as “inwardlistening,” while her pregnancy makes her “swolebellied.” Hightower’s wife is deemed “quietlooking,” and his house becomes, after her death, “mansmelling, manstale.” Faulkner employs these long neologisms—words of his own invention—as a means of accessing or enacting elusive, complex, or contradictory states that resist easy explication or are not readily translated into the realm of the written word. The combinations attempt to bridge the wide gulf between appearance and reality, conscious and unconscious thought, and internal and external states of being.
Light in August is a complex mélange of events told in a dynamic clash of flashbacks and present-tense narration. The cyclical nature of Lena’s wanderings, first into and then out of town, serve as bookends for the broad scope and wide narrative net contained within. Along the way, Faulkner moves his story forward and backward in time. Various occurrences overlap and intersect; actions take place simultaneously in different parts of Jefferson and are then reported or recounted by a chorus of competing voices, each with its own subjective viewpoint. For example, the murder of Miss Burden has already occurred by the time Lena arrives at the planing mill in Chapter 1, but we are not made privy to the details of the killing until the end of Chapter 12. This structure and approach underscore Faulkner’s notion that nothing happens in isolation. Rather, the various events that the novel comprises, whether past or present, are part of a far-reaching chain of causality stretching back to the Civil War and beyond. By juxtaposing multiple time periods and points of view, Faulkner achieves a complexity and resonance in step with the multidimensional world he creates.
Names and Naming
Faulkner’s deliberate selection of names for his characters adds subtle resonance to the rich portrait of intersecting lives that he presents. The reverend’s isolation from society and self-imposed exile are signaled in his surname, Hightower. Miss Burden’s family has suffered its share of personal tragedies and difficult burdens in establishing its presence in the town of Jefferson. Lena Grove is a child of nature, more at home among the trees and wild spaces than in the civilizing confines of traditional, settled society. For Joe Christmas, a name—and the personal history and sense of self it provides—is a luxury he has never been afforded. His lack of a birth name, and the lack of identity that implies, can be seen as the overarching tragedy of his life and the driving force behind the restless search that constantly goads him. Byron Bunch, on the other hand, is the beneficiary of a mistaken identity, as Lena is mistakenly led to believe that he is the Lucas Burch she seeks, likely because the two men’s surnames differ by only a single letter. Although he is not in fact Burch, it turns out the Byron is the man Lena has been unknowingly seeking all along. At the conclusion of the novel, her newborn son remains nameless, free of the strictures and expectations the act of naming can engender.
Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
The Dead Sheep
In a novel steeped in religious imagery—including hints of crucifixion and the wooden cross on which it occurred—Joe Christmas’s killing of the sheep is a brief but telling addition to this set of Christian symbols. Like many adolescents, Christmas finds the onset of his sexual urges and increasing curiosity and knowledge unsettling. When he is first acquainted with the workings of a woman’s menstrual cycle, he is sickened and repulsed by the knowledge. The only catharsis he can find is in the bloody sacrifice of a farmer’s sheep grazing in a field. The irrational and impulsive act—and almost ritualistic spilling of blood—foreshadows the two additional killings that come to haunt Joe and ultimately seal his fate. In addition, the sheep is indirectly established as a double for Christmas, the sacrificial lamb who heads willingly to the slaughter in the ways that he actively seeks his own death and destruction. The sheep’s brutal killing also anticipates the shooting and castration that awaits Joe in Reverend Hightower’s kitchen.
Smoke Rising from the Burden House
The fateful day on which Lena arrives in Jefferson is marked also by the killing of Miss Burden and the burning of her home. Up until that point, Byron Bunch had docilely pursued his ritualized and deliberately uncomplicated existence. Meeting Lena at the mill, though, as he later recounts to Hightower, he is so distracted and unsettled by her presence that he never consciously sees the plume of smoke rising on the horizon “in plain sight like it was put there to warn me.” Later, the omniscient narrator states that, when Byron realizes Lucas Burch and Joe Brown are one and the same, “[i]t seemed to him that fate, circumstance, had set a warning in the sky all day long in that pillar of yellow smoke, and he too stupid to read it.”
But Byron’s impression of the smoke as an ill omen of ill will is another example of misinterpretation in the novel. The smoke serves not as a harbinger of bad times to come but marks, rather, the ending or the passing away of an existing order. The fire at the Burden house serves as a ritualistic cleansing, releasing the tragedy and violence that has marked Jefferson that August and paving the way for Lena’s life-bearing presence and the new sense of commitment and obligation it triggers in Byron.
In its overt identification as a symbolic entity, the generalized notion of the street emerges as a powerful metaphor of the ongoing search for self-acceptance and belonging that Lena and Joe Christmas undertake in the novel. The image first appears after Christmas kills his stepfather and is then abandoned by Bobbie Allen and her cohorts. Stepping off the porch of the abandoned house, Joe “entered the street which was to run for fifteen years.” In the fruitless wanderings that ensue, the street typifies Joe’s restless, self-defeating search for personal meaning. The street also takes on dimensions of a tempting release and escape from his self-imprisoning consciousness. But it is a mirage and a lure that delivers neither the resolution nor the answers that Christmas seeks. Lena’s “street”—her personal journey—leads to new hope and possibility, whereas Joe’s draws him headlong into additional suffering, bitterness, and eventually death.
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