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Light in August

William Faulkner
Main Ideas

Motifs

Main Ideas Motifs
Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.

Compound Words

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.

Fluid Time

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.