Light in August’s main protagonist, Joe Christmas, also stands as one of the novel’s most enigmatic characters. An angry man, he is a shadow figure who walks the fringes, treading neither lightly nor comfortably in both the black and white worlds. When Joe first appears, he provokes a healthy amount of curiosity on the part of the mill workers, accompanied by contempt for his smug aloofness and other disarming qualities. Though Faulkner provides many details of Joe’s life and character over the course of his tale, Christmas still remains a distant, inscrutable figure, closed and elusive. At the mill he is a cipher, a blank slate onto which others project their own biased and subjective notions of who they think the mysterious man truly is. Many believe that he hails from an unknown foreign country.

Several loose correlations connect Joe Christmas’s life to that of Jesus. The two figures share the same initials, Joe was left on the orphanage steps on Christmas, and Joe is in his early thirties when he is killed in the standoff in Hightower’s kitchen. But these suggestions of similarity are loose and gestural, allowing Faulkner to complicate and darken the moral nature of his protagonist. Faulkner’s characterization of Joe Christmas challenges and ultimately subverts any Christlike comparisons. Any attempt to see Joe Christmas as a martyr is complicated by his life of violence and his general contempt for humanity. He emerges as a classically flawed and conflicted modern antihero. A brooding loner, he is a man without an identity. Unaware of his birth name, much less his racial heritage, he wanders in a futile search for a place where he can belong. Whereas Jesus’ life inspired emulation and praise, Joe Christmas generates little sympathy from those around him. The grim conditions that surrounded his upbringing do little to explain or dismiss his compulsive need to inflict harm on others—and, in two cases, to go so far as to take a life. Christmas’s attempt to reclaim and establish his identity in the world is marred by a disdain for the very people who could possibly provide him with the comfort he seeks.