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Free Barron's Booknotes-Light in August by William Faulkner-Free Notes
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Joe Christmas is a cold and hostile drifter of uncertain racial identity. One of the most isolated characters in American literature, he has been viewed as an extreme example of modern urban alienation. He is almost constantly in conflict-with society, with the few individuals he becomes close to, and with himself. Christmas's dress-white shirt with black pants-suggests his internal division. And this divided character may even symbolize the racial conflict of the South as a whole.

But Faulkner's detailed account of Christmas's infancy, childhood, and adolescence shows that Joe wasn't born with the inner turmoil and anti-social attitudes of his adulthood. Three factors are especially strong influences on him as he grows up: his encounters with women and sex, his abuse at the hands of religious fanatics, and his confused racial background.

Faulkner shows Christmas changing from a trusting young child, to an angry and withdrawn adolescent still capable of some love, and finally to an adult at war with everyone. But the relation of his youth to his adult personality remains open to varying interpretations. For example, Christmas rebels against his harsh religious upbringing. Yet he also absorbs many of the traits of his Calvinist adoptive father, Simon McEachern, and even of his more fanatical grandfather, Eupheus Hines. Like them, he is violent, and from Simon's beatings and Eupheus's berating he seems to have acquired a taste for punishment. His suspicion of sex and women may have some of its roots in McEachern's and Hines's more open hostility to women. And his hatred for his possible "black blood" could certainly be a seed planted by the racism of Hines's religious rhetoric.

Christmas is a remarkably controversial character. For some readers Joe is, above all, a victim-of Hines, of the orphanage dietitian, of McEachern, and of the waitress-prostitute Bobbie Allen. According to these readers, Joe also falls victim to Joanna Burden, who responds to him not as a distinct individual, but as a member of a category, the Negro race. And finally and most importantly, Joe is a victim of racist mythology. In order to keep blacks in an inferior state, many white Southerners convinced themselves that blacks were a threat to white women. Consequently, once Jefferson hears that Christmas is part black, the townspeople assume that he is guilty. He becomes a scapegoat whose "guilt" reaffirms the community's racial stereotype.

Readers who see Christmas as above all a victim point to his statement that all he wanted was peace. But they tend to disregard his other statement, that he made himself what he chose to be. Some readers, though, don't believe either remark. For them Joe is primarily a victim of his own obsessions, rather than of other people. Unaware of his own motivations, he lurches from one confrontation to another and finally to his own destruction, which is the logical conclusion to the self-destructive pattern of his whole life.

A third group of readers take quite seriously Christmas's claim that he made himself what he chose to be. For them, he is the novel's only hero. They find his refusal to belong to either of society's racial categories an act of rebellion against an order that no one else in the novel questions. But it's difficult to square such an interpretation with Christmas's own racism and hatred of blacks. Does he refuse to accept the two racial categories, or does he just zigzag back and forth between them? What is your opinion? Are all three interpretations necessarily mutually exclusive?

However you see Christmas, you will want to consider whether he changes at the end of his life and comes to some new understanding. You might argue that his allowing himself to be captured suggests such a change. But you could also argue that this action represents a final defeat or even that it simply repeats his usual self-destructive pattern.

Christmas's name and several of the events in his life suggest analogies to Jesus. Some readers contend that Christmas's life, like Christ's, is one of suffering, sacrifice, and perhaps even redemption. Others suggest that the novel's Christ symbolism links Joe Christmas to a broader mythology of which the Christ story is only part. According to this view, Christmas, like Jesus, is one of many mythic heroes who dies a sacrificial death, but his story does not validate a specifically Christian view of the world.

Yet still other readers can't attribute either of these meanings to the life of such a tormented and tormenting man. Some of this group see the Christian symbolism as an ironic way of pointing out the emptiness of Joe's "sacrifice"; others see it as an equally ironic way of indicting the Christian fanatics who crucify scapegoats; and still others see it as an empty and arbitrary analogy that the novel doesn't need.


Lena Grove is a simple country girl who brings out the best in people. She never meets Joe Christmas. In fact, the principal connection between her story and his is that she happens to give birth on Joanna Burden's property shortly after Joe commits murder there. However, if Joe's story takes up most of the novel, Lena's opens and closes it. The two characters illuminate each other by their completely different attitudes to life.

There are parallels between Lena and Joe. Like Joe, Lena is an orphan. Like Joe, she clashes with a sternly religious family member-in her case, her older brother. Like Joe, she flees through a window, and like Joe, she is perpetually traveling.

But there the resemblance ends. Lena Grove's last name suggests nature at its most peaceful. And indeed, Faulkner makes her almost a part of nature, at peace with herself, the world around her, and the natural processes of reproduction. Whereas Joe Christmas provokes fights wherever he goes, Lena brings out the generosity of the people she encounters. Whereas he takes a life, she brings forth a new one.

In interviews, Faulkner associated Lena with the "light" of the book's title, a quality of light that he said occurs in Mississippi in August and that he felt harked back to an older, pagan time. Much of the imagery Faulkner uses in connection with Lena further associates her with the art and myths of classical antiquity, though some of his other imagery associates her with the Virgin Mary. For some readers Joe Christmas represents the rootlessness of modern man, and Lena the supposed harmony of an earlier era.

Though less complicated than Joe Christmas, Lena nonetheless provokes some difficult questions. Is she as simple and naive as she seems? Does her ability to get everything she wants from anyone she meets suggest that she knows how to use her vulnerability to manipulate people? More importantly, you should consider whether Lena Grove is a sufficiently realized character or just a vehicle to offset Joe Christmas. Is she just a stereotype or is she a compelling individual?

Lena is the spark that makes other people, especially Byron Bunch and Gail Hightower, change their lives. But does she herself change at all? Most readers emphasize her constancy. In the last chapter of the novel, however, Faulkner hints that this woman, who was once chasing her runaway lover, is now traveling primarily to enjoy her freedom.

Finally, you may want to question to what degree Lena represents the novel's ideal. The central contrast between her peacefulness and Joe Christmas's violence has led most readers to view her as Light in August's most appealing character. But if Lena lives in such harmony with the world around her, why does she pursue the worthless Lucas Burch? And would a character who acts so much out of instinct alone represent the ideal of a writer as reflective and thoughtful as Faulkner? Some readers think that, even if Faulkner uses Lena and her baby to show his optimism about humanity's prospects, he was nonetheless more attracted to the hopeless struggles of male characters like Gail Hightower or even Joe Christmas.

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