Literary Criticism of Light in AugustLiterary criticism of William Faulkner’s Light in August assumes interesting and often divergent viewpoints, invoking such varied motifs as blood, race, Puritanism, Christian, mythic, and even Freudian archetypes.
Following is an overview of selected criticism.Jay Watson in “Writing Blood: The Art of the Literal in Light in August” suggests that with the repeated acts of cutting into the human body, and the primal ubiquitous blood, Light in August is Faulkner’s bloodiest novel and is his metaphor for race.
Old time Southerners were fond of the phrase “blood tells, ” implying that race determines character and breeding always triumphs in the end. However, in this novel the phrase“blood tells” fails to appear even once, but the blood is just as likely to disrupt reigning social fictions, rather than to affirm them.
By continually bringing blood to the surface of the human body, cutting in Light in August galvanizes the power of literal meaning and is a reminder of the system that puts “blood” in service of racial exploitation and violence.
If blood is understood as constitutive of race, how does it do so in Light in August? Not only is blood drawn and shed throughout this tale, it is also invoked. Watsonobserves that this invocation serves to handle the motivational problem of race; what one’s race makes one do. On numerous occasions in Light in August,” blood is deemed responsible for human behavior.
Through presenting cutting as the result of a racialized discourse, such scenes work as a subversive commentary on these representations and the violence they do.Because of the social problem of African American mobility :fugitive slaves, freedmen, Great Migration of the 1910s and 1920s in which African Americans moved in large masses out of the South ; Joe Christmas’ itinerancy makes him suspicious the moment he arrives in Jefferson. His “rootless” appearance is noticed at the sawmill, a problem which shows his lack of genealogical roots and makes racial classification hard.Not knowing what to make of the name Christmas and knowing of no white men with such an appellation, the supervisors at the sawmill speculate if he is a “foreigner.
”Indeed, Joe has rejected the name McEachern, that demonstrated both a line of descent and a juridical identity as an adopted son, in favor of one that gives no hint of legal or biological ancestry (Watson, 79).In the wake of Joanna Burden’s death, Joe begins to move again, to run. The farther Joes runs, the blacker he will get, the more easier he will be consigned to the black race, whatever his body shows to the contrary. “Blood” emerges as the characteristic which fixed a race so that it can be invoked to explain everything.
Recognized in the Mottstown community as black, with the comment, “shows he is a nigger, even if nothing else”(LIA 309),Joe’s bleeding face uncovers the real blood that flows in his veins: it’s the blood of a man who is a Negro…because he bleeds.But Watson argues that this circular reasoning hides a further irony: if being cut makes Joe black in Mottstown, cutting has made him black in Jefferson, where his supposed identity in the razor murder of a white woman has already put him further toward the social category of Negro.As he runs, Joe gets blacker not only because his escape raises the troubling image of black movement and flight, but also because in disturbing the public and rejecting the protection of the law, he now threatens the America guarded by Grimm. Through this threat, he threatens the white race.
And in threatening the white race, he becomes a Negro.As Grimm kills him, he yells, “Now you’ll let white women alone, even in hell”(LIA464).Once Joe no longer accepts the protection of the law, the law must be protected against him. That explains how the man who was to prevent Joe from getting lynched can wind up lynching Joe himself.
And as Stevens cleans up the blood in Jefferson, he comments on the dilemma in Joe:There was too much running with him, stride for stride with him.. It wasalone all those thirty years…but all those succession of thirty years beforethat :which had put that stain either on his white blood or his black blood,whichever you will, and which killed him. .
.but his blood would not bequiet, let him save it. It would not be either one or the other and let his bodysave itself . Because the black blood drove him first to the negro cabin.
Andthen the white blood drove him out of there, as it was the black blood thatsnatched up the pistol and the white blood which would not let him fire it. Andit was the white blood which sent him to the minister, which rising in himfor the last and final time, sent him against all reason and all reality, intothe embrace of a chimera, a blind faith in something read in a printedbook. Then I believe that the white blood deserted him for a moment. Justa second, just a flicker, allowing the black to rise in its final moment andmake him turn upon that which he had postulated his hope of salvation.
It was the black blood which swept him by his own desire beyond the aidof any man…And then the black blood failed him again…He did not killthe minister. He merely struck him with the pistol and ran on and crouchedbehind that table and defied that black blood for the last time, as he hadbeen defying it for thirty years. He crouched behind that overturnedtable and let them shoot him to death, with that loaded and unfired pistolin his hand. (LAI448-49) Simply by assigning motivation to racial identity, to “blood” Stevens explains away everything that has occurred in Joe’s life.
Blood drives, it snatches, it rises, it sweeps, and in the end, it devastatingly fails. To deny this reigning force is fatal, and amounts to going against nature ( Watson 86).Another critic of Light in August sees the book as containing a Puritan (Calvinistic) mentality.While Swiggart discusses race, observing that Faulkner introduces racial miscegenation as a central dramatic issue, he also emphasizes the attitudes toward morality in the story.
In his view Joe is driven by a large sense of guilt, directing his racial prejudice against himself because he has a need for some sort of punishment or moral expiation. He states that Faulkner puts Joes’ pattern of self-destruction into a dramatic context that makes it an exploration of the basic moral and social problem of the racially divided South. Without meaning to, Joe takes on the role of sacrificial victim; his death symbolizes a personal atonement for the racial crimes in his area.Many fanatical Christians are in Joe’s childhood.
His grandfather, Doc Hines, kills Joe’s father, permitting Joe’s unmarried mother to die in childbirth; he believes that Joe represents “the very teeth and fangs” of Satan’s evil (LIA338) and he delusionly feels that God desires for him to wait for this evil to bear fruit. Finding a janitorial job at an orphanage, Hines abandons Joe there and presents a malignant attitude toward him. His religious mania serves to influence Joe’s obsession and to direct the reader’s attention to the internal puritan force which oppresses the boy and against which he reacts.The Presbyterian McEacbern, who adopts Joe, is so extreme in his religion that he whips Joe at intervals when he doesn’t recite his catechism correctly.
Through this situation, Swiggart posits that Joe is given a dose of the punishment for which he unconsciously longs. He describes the repressed emotions of Faulkner’s puritans asaffiliated with a masklike facial expression, looking calm and rapturous simultaneously.Hines is “paradoxically rapt and alert at the same time”(LIA 321),while Joanna Burden’s eyes are described as” calm and still as all pity and all despair and all conviction” (LIA247) when she attempts to shoot Joe. Thus, in the narrative world of Light in AugustSwiggart suggests that emotion seems to be embodied in impersonal rapture and martyrdom as the puritans go on their way expressing their emotions only within the context of rigid social conventions.
By forcing human emotions into the service of abstract convictions, these Southerners change themselves into moral fanatics. The Reverend thinks that a mob of citizens will lynch Joe in order to still their own consciences. They will crucify him gladly, “since to pity him would be to admit self-doubt and to hope for and need pity themselves.”(LIA322).
To clarify, the entire town will stoop to a stylized act of violence rather than admit emotional realities.In his relationship with Joanna Burden Joe responds differently than she does in racial and religious dilemmas. Although she sees her old maid virginity returning, she asks God to let her be damned a little longer before having to pray. “Not yet, dear God.
Not yet, dear God” (LIA 231). In submitting to spiritual piety she rejects the demonism, the driving puritanism that permeates Joe’s life. Joe believes that his racial guilt can only be satisfied through death. Although he acknowledges his white side, he accepts the burden which his puritan upbringing has produced.
Exchanging his shoes for those of a negro woman symbolizes the death that he now accepts: “the black shoes smelling of Negro: that mark on his ankles the gauge definite and ineradicable of the black tide creeping up his legs, moving from his feet upward as death moves.” (LIA297).Through his acceptance of his death , Joe becomes a Christ figure. Even his name Christmas references Christianity.
The Christian imagery of Light in August demonstrates puritan intensity of mind and characterizes the central meaning of Joe’s sacrifice. (Swiggart, 146).While Swiggart recognizes the Christian imagery predominant throughout the text of Light in August, Hlavsa acknowledges that Faulkner culls much of his material from Fraser’s The Golden Bough. Having patterned his main characters on Christian figures, Faulkner also gives them pagan counterparts from Fraser: Lena/Mary as Isis, Byron/Joseph as Adonis, Joe Christmas/Christ as Dionysius.
Joanna is the moon-goddess, Diana of the Woods, patroness of wild beasts and pregnancy. With a “clump of oaks” in the precise center of her property, Joanna decides that she herself is pregnant. Called “priest” and “tree,” she and Joe recreate the battle of the priesthood at Nemi; a battle which concerns the secret of life over death. Hlavsa reports that by using this “mythical method” Faulkner tried to impart a deeper, older significance to our most primitive impulses and inspired yearnings.
In Children of the Dark House: Text and Context in Faulkner Polk asserts that, as an omnivorous reader, Faulkner probably read Freud, and that Light in August has direct and powerful responses to Freud’s Wolf Man case history. He believes that Faulkner’s fictional work of the 1930s was intensely autobiographical, but only one of the sources that he called upon, as he did the Bible, Homer, Shakespeare, Homer, and Dostoyevsky.According to Polk Freud’s “primal scene” which happens to the Wolf Man, also happens to Joe. In Freud’s essay published in England in 1925: “From the History of an Infantile Neurosis,” the subject -patient who is also know as the “Wolf Man,” refers to an analysis of a young man who had dreamed of waking in the middle of night to view the window in his room open inexplicably to show a tree in which five wolves sat, staring at him.
Under analysis the Wolf Man confided to Freud that as a child he had awakened from sleep in his crib to see his mother and father engaged in sexual activity, his mother on her hands and knees and his father behind her. The child’s long term response was to suppress the incident completely, both what they did and what he saw.Light in August contains a version where Joe’s primal scene is the intercourse between the dietician and the intern Charlie. As the orphan’s surrogate parents; (the dietician through providing him food, and the intern through discovering him on the orphanage steps), they watch over Joe.
During the primal scene the Wolf Man defecates. Joe vomits. After this experience he connects sexual matters with filth and shame, women with cracked urns. He thinks of Joanna Burden and their relationship “as though he had fallen in a sewer.
” (LIA 558).Dark House was the original title for Light in August. It is unknown why Faulkner abandoned it, but Polk thinks it is possibly an oblique reference to Dicken’s Bleak House. He does not believe that Light in August bears the intense dialectical relationship to the novel that Faulkner’s best titles do.
However, the rejected title creates riveting attention to the fact that a house is destroyed by fire in this novel. The fire that destroys the physical building also burns up dark and deeply entrenched familial and cultural structures that hold the basis of the novel’s major crisis. It is a dark house indeed, given the secret it held, and recognizing what those secrets do to the families who hold them (Polk 28).Yet before it burns, when he visits Joanna, Joe could make love to her, fulfilling all his Oedipal fantasies, in which he like the Wolf Man’s desire, has sex with both father and mother.
Joanna with her name resembling Joe’s, represented Mother. She feeds him and makes a dungeon for him in her dark house. But she is also the stern, Puritanical father, like McEachern, who attempts to make him pray. By killing her, Joe kills both his father, who will not remain dead, and also his motherThe Oedipus complex is foundational to understanding the Wolf Man’s dream and it isalso a major component of Faulkner’s work (Polk53).
These viewpoints regarding Light in August vary widely in their interpretations, attributing character motivation from diverse sources:ranging from Freudian “primal scenes” to Puritan guilt; incorporating both Christian and pagan imagery and raising the issue of race. Most of the critics do read racial prejudice and Joe’s resulting confusion as a definitive struggle for him. Additionally, his attitude toward parental figures and women also cause deep problems.Probably the two strongest arguments from these critics are Watson on blood and race and Swiggart on Puritanism and Christian motifs.
Both these themes are so predominant within Light in August that they should be given credence here.It is important to read literary criticism because it produces new perspectives from which the reader can consider the work. Also, literary criticism points out universal truths, eternal verities to which one should pay attention. Reading literary criticism can expand our own lives, making them richer, and enabling us to see things from viewpoints that often differ from our own.
Works CitedFaulkner, William. Light in August. New York: Vintage International, 1991.Hlavsa, Virginia.
“The Crucifixion in Light in August :Suspending the Rules atThe Post.” Faulkner and Religion. Eds. Doreen Fowler and Ann J.
Abadie. Jackson:UP of Mississippi, 1991.…Faulkner and the Thoroughly Modern Novel. Charlottesville: U of Virginia P,1991.
Polk, Noel. Children of the Dark House: Text and Context in Faulkner. Jackson: UPof Mississippi, 1998. Swiggart, Peter .
”The Puritan Sinner,” in The Art of Faulkner’s Novels. Austin:University of Texas Press, 1962. Watson, Jay. “The Art of the Literal in Light in August.
” Faulkner and the NaturalWorld: Faulkner and Yoknapatawpha, 1996. Eds. Donald Kartiganer and Ann J.Abadie.
Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1999.
Cite this Literary Criticism of Light in August
Literary Criticism of Light in August. (2017, Mar 23). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/literary-criticism-of-light-in-august/