Light in August: Essay Q&A
1. Describe how racism is depicted in this novel.
Racist ideology is prevalent in Jefferson and is transmitted in a casual brutal manner through the dialogue and actions of many of the main and peripheral characters. ‘Nigger’ is used as a commonplace word and is only ever corrected by outcasts such as Hightower. It is elemental to the history of the area and, 60 years after the Civil War, Miss Burden is still regarded with suspicion as her family were regarded as ‘carpetbaggers’ and she believes African-American people are the same as whites.
The racists are condemned by their own bigotry as the novel avoids offering overt criticisms of their views. The unequal differentiation between white and African American, which has its history in slavery, is seen to continue in this part of the United States’ South.
2. Consider how Joe Christmas becomes the man he is.
The novel gradually reveals the background of this man and the brutality he has endured. As a five year old, he is described as an innocent victim to the vicissitudes of adults and other children. It is also at this age he learns to believe he is of mixed race, and that this is something to be ashamed of. He becomes increasingly hardened and violent the more he suffers from the punishments meted out by McEachern and the passive kindness of Mrs McEachern. It is demonstrated that through the influence of others he becomes the isolated, self-loathing man that arrives alone in Jefferson.
There is also a suggestion that he is tied to his grandparents, and formed by his family as well as his environment, as he appears in Mottstown despite not knowing that they live there. This may be read as an unexpected coincidence, but it may also be interpreted as a figurative example of how he cannot escape the inevitability of his life’s pattern that he has felt since a child.
3. How are women viewed by male characters?
There is an element of misogyny that runs through Light in August and this is linked to the prevalent racism. Christmas’s distrust of women is connected to his own sense of powerlessness. He prefers the strictures of patriarchy to the kindness and secrecy of femininity and his cruelty to women resembles the ideology behind racism. This is because it is based on achieving power at the expense of others.
At the end of the novel, Christmas is killed by Grimm in Hightower’s kitchen and is castrated finally. This ‘punishment’ has echoes of the crimes made against African American men in the act of lynching; it is also a means to emasculate the man to make him into the hated woman. Castration is linked to white patriarchal dominance and is fuelled by misogyny and racist views alike.
4. Consider how the South is represented in this novel.
Faulkner’s South is one that is trapped in the past and is, consequently, rotting in the present. Racism and misogyny are ruling passions and bigotry is acceptable here. These aspects are drawn upon throughout the novel, but there is also an element of hope given through characters such as Byron. His decision to act kindly towards Lena inspires Hightower to challenge the outcast status he has been forced to endure.
Furthermore, Lena’s continued state of calm and endurance despite her pregnancy and lack of wedding ring are signs of optimism in this harsh, stultifying southern landscape. We are told at the end of the novel that she enjoys travelling (rather than searching) and is seen to be open to changing environments.
5. To what extent is the past seen to influence the present?
The past is ever present in the thoughts of characters such as Hightower; it is also used to support the preference for racism that has existed since slavery. Jefferson is mired in its own history and the people of the town seem incapable of looking beyond it.
Hightower’s somewhat contradictory preference for this place highlights his stubborn outlook, but also demonstrates that he too is led by thoughts of the past rather than the future. Because of his grandfather’s death in the Civil War, he is obsessed with the town and refuses to move out even after he is intimidated.
Christmas may be similarly seen to have been moulded by history. It is as though he epitomizes the ways in which actions performed in the past mould the man or woman of the present. His brutalized childhood and adolescence has meant that he has become trapped as an adult in a circle of violence. This is represented symbolically on his unwitting arrival at the home town of his grandparents just prior to his arrest.