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Having lost his church and his wife, the Reverend Gail Hightower lives in the past. Though his story is significant in its own right, Hightower also plays an important, if fleeting, role in the lives of both Christmas and Grove. And his sympathetic reflections about what is happening to the other characters help put these others in perspective.
Hightower lives alone, and his only contact with the rest of the town is his frequent visitor, Byron Bunch. The name "Hightower" suggests this withdrawal. From his figurative tower (and quite literally from the window of his study), Hightower looks out at the people around him, thinking about them, commenting on them, but not directly engaging himself with them. To some readers, his first name, Gail, suggests the stormy gales of human emotion, from which he hopes his "high tower" will shelter him.
There is disagreement about the reasons for his isolation. Hightower himself often seems to attribute it to persecution. But at other times, he suggests that he is glad to be left alone, free of social obligations. It has been suggested that Hightower is one of Jefferson's scapegoats, a victim of the town's insistence on excommunicating those who don't live up to proper standards of righteousness. And no doubt the townspeople were vindictive toward him, especially in trying to force him out of his church, as well as out of the town itself. But both his refusal to meet the community's needs when he was still an active minister and his initial reluctance to help Byron Bunch are strong evidence that Hightower's isolation is his own choice.
Hightower is obsessed with his dead grandfather, who was killed during a Confederate raid behind Union lines (a raid that Faulkner based on one of many such Civil War raids in northern Mississippi). Readers agree that this obsession is harmful to Hightower. But some think that the dead grandfather is not entirely a source of weakness. They point to his bravery and to his ability to take decisive action. And they suggest that if Reverend Hightower had lived like his grandfather instead of just thinking about him, Hightower's life would have been more meaningful. Other readers, however, point out that the grandfather met his death while trying to steal chickens. They see nothing of value in Hightower's obsession with this man. Note that Hightower ignores the memory of his father, whose useful life might have made a good model for him.
More clearly than either Joe Christmas or Lena Grove, Gail Hightower changes toward the end of the novel. Under the influence of Byron Bunch, he helps Lena and belatedly tries to help Joe as well. He breaks out of his isolation and seems a stronger man as a result. But readers disagree about how complete his change is. His final reverie is crucial here. You could argue that it signals a new self-awareness, though perhaps not one that will translate into action. But you could also take Hightower's final return to the memory of his grandfather's galloping horse as an indication that he has slipped back into the obsession.
Hightower's friend, Byron Bunch, is a simple man who works six days a week at the planing mill and spends Sundays leading the choir at a country church. Though his life hasn't even the slightest taint of scandal (until Lena comes along), though he gets along well with his fellow workers, and though he isn't mired in obsession like Hightower, nonetheless Byron has much in common with Hightower. Like Hightower, he wants to stay out of trouble, the trouble that comes from involvement with other human beings. Perhaps in your own life you know people whose hard work gives them an excuse to isolate themselves from emotional entanglements. Byron Bunch is such a person.
Byron's sudden love for Lena draws him out of his routine. As a result, when Christmas needs help, Byron is ready to get involved with Joe's problems too. But why is Byron so susceptible to Lena in the first place? Faulkner doesn't tell, but one possible reason is that Byron's three years of observing the loner Joe Christmas has made him more aware of the perils of isolation.
Because Byron is the one character who changes so clearly and so thoroughly, some readers see him as Light in August's real hero. But he lacks the grandeur of a Hightower or even a Christmas. Many readers see him as too simple, too pathetic, or even too comic to be the center of the novel. They bolster their case by pointing to the undignified way Byron suffers Lena's rejection at the novel's end. Yet might not Byron's persistence in the face of such rejections be one of the moral strengths that lifts him above the other characters? What is your opinion?
Like the other major characters, Byron Bunch has a suggestive name. His last name links him with the general mass of common people, the anonymous crowd or "bunch." His first name is almost a joke. The nineteenth-century Romantic poet Byron led a dashing life of love and adventure. Byron Bunch could hardly be more different from the poet, but, with love on his mind, he is something of a romantic in his own way.
Like Gail Hightower, Joanna Burden lives in isolation on Jefferson's outskirts. And as with Hightower, you must try to decide whether Burden is a victim of the town of Jefferson or only of her own delusions. Some readers think that as a woman of Northern origins and as someone sympathetic to blacks, Joanna Burden becomes a scapegoat for Jefferson's need to confirm its own "whiteness" and "Southernness." They point to the townspeople's hostile statements about her and to the murder of her grandfather and half-brother.
But others think that Joanna has effectively isolated herself not only from Jefferson but from all human life. These readers point to her failure to establish even one personal relationship in the town she lives in. You may also want to question whether Joanna Burden is indeed a Northerner. Her ancestors came from New England, but she has lived in Jefferson all her life, and in her own way, she shares its racism. Some even compare her to Doc Hines, the other character known to his neighbors as "crazy" on the subject of blacks. These readers note that, despite her desire to help blacks, she sees them, in her own words, "not as people, but as a thing." She accepts her father's view that blacks are a "curse" upon the white race, and she seems to accept his pessimism about ever being able to lift them to her own "level."
As the other major female character in the novel, Joanna Burden stands in obvious contrast to Lena Grove. For example, Lena is fertile enough to get pregnant from her few brief nights with Lucas Burch, while Joanna is barren even after her two-year relationship with Joe Christmas. Faulkner may intend this contrast to symbolize the spiritual differences between the two characters as well.
But when you look at Lena Grove and Joanna Burden together, you may want to conclude that Faulkner didn't give any of his female characters the same capacity for struggle and change that he gives his strongest male characters. Moreover, he describes the alternately oversexed and frigid Burden as being "masculine," while the more womanly and supposedly more natural Lena is fertile and maternal but not especially sexual at all. You may not share Faulkner's sense of what qualities are either most natural or most appropriately feminine.
Joanna appears in the novel primarily in the context of her relationship with Joe Christmas. At first she keeps her distance from him; then they engage in a wildly sexual affair. Finally, she repudiates the sexual relationship and turns to the stern religion of her forefathers. Is she ever genuinely attracted to Christmas or does she see him only as a member of a category, as a black? Note that, despite their being at odds throughout their relationship, Joanna has much in common with Joe. Both are the products of two generations of violent religious fanatics; both are obsessed with race and racial categories; both are solitary figures living in isolation; both decide that their relationship can only end in bloodshed; and both are ultimately murdered and mutilated.
Joanna's first name suggests her similarities to Joe, and her last name suggests the several burdens under which she labors: her family history, her Calvinist religious heritage, and, most of all, her sense that lifting up the black race is a burden white people must bear.