Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
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.
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.
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.