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Free Barron's Booknotes-Light in August by William Faulkner-Free Notes
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Chapter 1 introduces you to Lena Grove, a simple country girl who is searching for Lucas Burch, the father of her unborn child. In this chapter Lena gets a ride into Jefferson, where she has heard that Lucas is working.

Lena comes from the tiny hamlet of Doane's Mill, Alabama. And even though Doane's Mill only appears in this one brief reference to Lena's past, Faulkner's mention of it introduces one of his major themes. The lumber mill, he says, employs all the men in this hamlet of five families. Faulkner looks ahead seven years and describes what will happen when all the trees have been cut down. Most of the machinery and men will be shipped away. But some machinery will be left rusting, and the few heirs of the original villagers will tear down the buildings for firewood.

Notice how Faulkner uses a very small village to build a vivid image of decline and fall. Although nothing about this striking description explicitly links the fall of Doane's Mill to the Civil War, the feeling of a land in decline is part of the Southern myth about its own post-Civil War history. You could argue that in this one paragraph Faulkner is giving you his sense of the fate of the South as a whole. He is also suggesting his view of nature. The village's destruction of nature is linked to the decline of the village itself and of the people in it.


This paragraph is also a good example of Faulkner's attempt to encompass a large expanse of experience in one thought. He uses one long sentence to picture the deterioration of the hamlet from the day the mill closes until some indeterminate point in the far future.

But the main subject of this first chapter is Lena Grove herself. She had lived with her brother and his family since she was twelve years old and her parents died. When she was close to twenty, she started sneaking out at night to meet handsome Lucas Burch. But when she told him that she was pregnant, he left town saying that he would send for her when he was settled. Six months later, Lena climbed out the window and started walking the country roads looking for Lucas. As the novel opens, she has been traveling for four weeks and is now in Mississippi. She is resting by the side of the road as a wagon approaches.

Look carefully at Lena's behavior. She first notices the wagon when it is stopped by the side of the road, glances at it only briefly, and then pauses to rest shortly thereafter. Lena seems quite naive and innocent, especially in her high expectations for her reunion with Lucas Burch. The timing of her rest stop, though, suggests that she is also someone who knows how to use her vulnerability to get what she wants, in this case, a ride. Why is Lena always so successful in receiving the kindness she expects? Have you ever known people whose presence seems to bring out the best in others? What qualities does a person like this have?


Faulkner compares the wagons in which Lena has ridden to figures carved on an urn (or vase). He is probably referring to "Ode on a Grecian Urn," a famous poem written in 1819 by the English Romantic poet John Keats. Describing the ancient carvings, Keats notes a paradox: the artist has captured the figures in motion, but the very nature of art is to freeze that motion for us to contemplate. Keats points out that, unlike real people, the carved figures will never attain their goals; but, on the other hand, their beauty, also unlike ours, will be eternal. Faulkner is fond of metaphors of frozen motion, and two paragraphs later he talks of the approaching wagon "suspended" in the distance. But readers disagree about how to interpret these metaphors. You could argue that Faulkner is expressing a fatalistic view, suggesting that his characters' destinies are as certain and their goals as unattainable as those of the carved figures. But you could also argue that the metaphor reflects Faulkner's interest in the different ways his characters cope with both the chaotic motion of life and the obstacles that often create paralysis. Note that in his own art Faulkner also freezes chaotic and violent events for his readers to contemplate from many points of view.

The wagon that picks Lena up belongs to a farmer named Armstid. Though he's a bit worried about his wife's reaction, Armstid offers Lena a place to stay for the night. When they reach Armstid's farm, Mrs. Armstid questions Lena about her relationship with Burch. Mrs. Armstid is sarcastic about Lena's optimistic expectations for a happy family reunion with her runaway lover.

That night Mrs. Armstid seems in an angry mood, but she breaks open her piggy bank and hands her husband the money with instructions to give it all to Lena. Note how Mrs. Armstid's behavior seems to contradict her husband's view that a "good" woman won't be kind to another woman in trouble. You can now see that Armstid's view of women does not necessarily represent Faulkner's.

The next morning Armstid gives Lena the money and takes her to Varner's store, from where he knows she can find a ride to Jefferson. She has heard that a man named Burch is working at the Jefferson mill. Armstid wants to warn Lena that that man is really named Byron Bunch, but he knows that she will refuse to hear anything that would shake her optimism. And while the men at the store assume that Lena is worrying about whether she will find Burch, she is really concerned only about whether to splurge on some sardines.

Lena gets a ride into Jefferson. As her wagon arrives, the man driving it points to a house burning just outside the opposite end of town.

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