Light in August: Theme Analysis
Influence of history on the present
The inhabitants of Jefferson are described as having long memories in that Miss Burden and Hightower remain outcasts in the town for decades. The past is given precedence over the presence and these characters succumb to the pressure. Both prefer isolation and Miss Burden is punished with death when she forms a relationship with Christmas.
The influence of the past is also evident in the Southern resistance to racial integration. The novel is set 60 years after the Civil War and the dominant belief remains that white and African American should not mix. This thematic interest in racist ideology is embodied in Christmas. Because he is imbued with the history of racism, he is unable to escape from the constraints of self-loathing. He believes the lies of racism and, therefore, hates himself.
This theme runs through the lives of the characters in the present and the history of the South where the novel is set. The casual cruel treatment of African Americans is depicted as inherent to this society as is the ostracism of whites who refuse to conform to this norm or whose ancestors have challenged it.
Racism is also curiously tied to respectability as the K.K.K. terrorizes Hightower when he refuses to leave town. His ‘sin’ of having a dead, transgressive wife and the interest shown by the newspapers are deemed reasons enough to expect him to move away.
Racism is shown to be endemic and is underpinned by brutality and a love of God. This is seen most clearly in the characterization of Christmas. It is also prevalent in the justice system that condemns him without trial because of the belief he is a ‘nigger’. There is also a madness attached to this point of view, especially when seen in Hines (Christmas’s grandfather). He is described as manic and is certainly a religious zealot, yet his views are also seen to be commonplace. Through Hines, therefore, it is possible to see a condemnation of the self-righteous zealot who uses God to justify racism.
The fear of outsiders is seen to overlap with the unquestioned racism of the inhabitants of Jefferson. It is a sign of ignorance and bigotry, yet has become the expected way to treat those who appear different from the white, suppressed norm. The readers are told intermittently of the rumors surrounding characters such as Miss Burden and Hightower. It is also suggested that Byron wishes to protect Lena from the gossip mongers (as well as keep her away from Brown) as she is an unmarried pregnant woman.
Friendliness is restricted to those who conform to certain standards and being white is one of the main criteria. Respectability and God fearing ways are also necessary to allay suspicion.