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Review of “Light in August” by William Faulkner

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    Loving God and Other Sins
    As Friedrich Nietzsche, the revolutionary existentialist once said, “The Christian resolve to find the world evil and ugly has made the world evil and ugly.” William H. Faulkner’s Light in August, a novel in which the various protagonists’ struggles with Christianity soil their relationships with the people around them and and with the world at large, confirms this resolution. Joe Christmas, an orphaned boy who was raised and whipped in the name of God, is a child who ultimately rebels against his religion and everyone who attempts to foist it upon him.

    Reverend Hightower, a dejected minister who failed to bring the word of God to the small town of Jefferson, is left to impotently observe the folly of others. Byron Bunch, a man who only redeems himself after disposing of his Christian beliefs. His actions, in conjunction with his strict religious doctrine, demonstrate how Christianity can facilitate genuine good works. Ultimately, Faulkner’s novel provides a pessimistic analysis of the effect of Christianity on the moral fortitude of his characters.

    As Joe Christmas grows up, his increasingly disaffected stance on Christianity only intensified the violence he exhibits. Upon his induction into the McEachern residence, Christmas is exposed to a religious ferocity that forever taints his character. His foster father drills the Bible’s moral tenets into him, brutally assaulting him if he fails to maintain the ethical code of the Good Book. Faulkner opens chapter seven with this sinister scene of McEachern testing Christmas’ knowledge of scripture: The clean, spartan room was redolent of Sunday… McEachern took from the wall harness strap. It was neither new nor old… ‘You would believe that a stable floor, the stamping place of beasts, is the proper place for the word of God. But I’ll learn you that, too.

    Then the boy stood, his trousers collapsed about his feet, his legs revealed beneath his shirt. McEachern began to strike methodically, with slow and deliberate force, without heat or anger. (Faulkner 146-150) McEachern’s “methodical striking” as a means of reinforcing the tenets of the Bible is meant genuinely to teach his foster son, not as a means to channel anger or revenge. The cool, methodical administration of pain executed by McEachern does not serve as a means of funneling inner pain, but instead as a teaching tool. However, rather than enforcing the actual teachings of the bible, McEachern manages only to instill an aversion to Christianity in Joe Christmas’ character. This negative attitude to the religion is demonstrated in chapter twelve, shortly before he kills Miss Burden: “…as he passed the bed he would look down at the floor beside it and it would seem to him that he could distinguish the prints of knees and he would jerk his eyes away as if it were death that he had looked at”(279).

    For Christmas, the imprints of knees on the floor are a clear symbol of Miss Burden’s prayer and her embracing of God, and the very thought of that repulsed him. Faulkner repeats this sentiment throughout the text, which leads to various acts of violence from Christmas: his murder of his foster father, his decapitation of Miss Burden, and his terrorization of the Episcopalian church near Jefferson. At the church, Christmas essentially took the flock hostage, physically punishing them as he cursed at God. If it were not for Christianity’s influence on Joe Christmas or McEachern, he likely would have never been inclined to assault the innocent audience in that church. Through his treatment of Joe Christmas, Faulkner creates a cynical lens through which we may view the Christian effect on an individual. This sentiment is expanded upon by another character, Reverend Gail Hightower.

    Reverend Hightower’s expulsion from the church ultimately leads to his isolation in his community, thus fostering his bitterness. Hightower had arrived in Jefferson as an eager preacher, emphatic in his oration and sure with his word. When Byron Bunch found himself in the same town, he was informed that Hightower “seemed to talk [wildly] in the pulpit, using religion as though it were a dream. Not a nightmare, but something which went faster than the words in the Book; a sort of cyclone that did not even need to touch the actual earth”(62).

    This great enthusiasm for the word of God, however, imploded upon his expulsion from the Church. Upon his dismissal from the church Hightower led to his alienation from Jefferson society, seen only staring out from his lonely window. As Bunch notes: “‘I don’t reckon there is anybody in Jefferson that knows that he sits in that window from sundown to full dark every day that comes, except me. Or what the inside of the house looks like’”(73). Faulkner demonstrates that the Church’s expatriation of Hightower effectively excommunicates him from the whole of the town, isolating him socially as well as spiritually. Thus, the Christian church once more poisons the life of one of the story’s protagonist.

    Byron Bunch manages to transcend the drudgery of his daily lifestyle through abandoning his conception of an acceptable Christian morality and embracing his internal desires. As Bunch enters the story, his character is entirely engulfed by a desire to not fall into the way of sin. During a conversation with Reverend Hightower, Bunch concedes that his sole reason for staying so preoccupied with his work at the planing mill and with the church choir is to avoid falling into further sin: “It’s because a fellow is more afraid of the trouble he might have than he ever is of the trouble he’s already got. He’ll cling to trouble he’s used to before he’ll risk a change”(75).

    This demonstrates that Byron Bunch is concerned if he gives himself a spare moment, he would fall victim to the adage, idle hands make for the devil’s work. However, this meek attitude is inverted upon his meeting Lena Grove, as he transforms into a man willing to sacrifice everything for her wellbeing. After he gets acquainted with Grove, he bends over backwards to accommodate her, even if it means opposing the Church’s doctrine. As Bunch looks to Hightower for advice on how to further aid this woman, Hightower refuses on the basis that Bunch has strayed from the path of God: “‘No,’ Hightower says. ‘You don’t need my help. you are already being helped by someone much stronger than I am.’ For a moment Byron does not speak. they look at one another, steadily. ‘Helped by who?’ Byron asks. ‘By the Devil,’ Hightower says”(308). Hightower’s chastising here exhibits that Bunch is acting outside of the word of the Bible. However, in doing so, Bunch ascends from his milquetoast personality as a means to defend Lena Grove. This newfound heroism is put to the test when Joe Brown attempts to run away from Grove: “[The fight] does not last long. Byron knew that it was not going to. But he did not hesitate. ‘You’re bigger than me,’ Byron thought. ‘But I don’t care… You’ve done throwed away twice inside of nine months what I ain’t had in thirty-five years. And now I’m going to get the hell beat out of me, and I don’t care about that, neither”(439).

    This passage exhibits
    Byron Bunch’s yearning to help right the wrong done to Grove, even if it would mean he would not be able to realize his own dreams of founding a relationship with her. This is a selfless sacrifice that embodies chivalry and honor, and yet as shown by Hightower is one not approved by the Church. Thus, by shedding the constraints of Christian expectation, Byron Bunch redeemed his previously unbecoming character to become a better man. In that way, Faulkner exhibits that strictly following the gospel does not inherently lead to moral action; rather, only through rejecting the word of God and following one’s code of ethics that they can behave in a truly moral way.

    Ultimately, Light In August provides readers with a lens through which to examine the largely negative effects Christianity has on its followers. For Joe Christmas, the Christian faith consumed him, and spat out a vile man who rejected God and his moral code, instead opting for a path of sin and hatred. For Reverend Gail Hightower, the callous rejection by the Church led to his hermitude and alienation from his society, leaving him bitter and pessimistic. For Byron Bunch, the constraints of Christianity had him blindly living a life of no substance or moral animation, while finally stripping away those bonds gave him the opportunity to explore romance with a woman and actualize his heroism. Thus, Faulkner implies that one should live a life not defined by the prerequisites of Christianity, but instead to create their own concept of moral rightness.

    Reference Page
    Faulkner, William. Light in August. New York: Vintage International, 1990. Print.

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