Light in August

first edition cover of Light in August (1932)

  • Author:  William Faulkner  (1897  –  1962)
  • Rank:  #27
  • Published:  1932
  • Publisher:  Harrison Smith and Robert Haas
  • Pages:  507  (Vintage Corrected Text)
  • First Line:  “Sitting beside the road, watching the wagon mount the hill toward her, Lena thinks, ‘I have come from Alabama: a fur piece.”
  • Last Lines:  ” ‘My, my.  A body does get around.  Here we aint been coming from Alabama but two months, and now it’s already Tennessee.’ “
  • Acclaim:  Modern Library Top 100 English-Language Novels of the 20th Century (#54); All-TIME List
  • ML edition:  #88 (two dust jackets – 1950, 1966); College Edition; Gold  (2002)
  • Series:  Yoknapatawpha County
  • Film:  none
  • First Read:  Summer, 1996

The Novel:  In some ways, Light in August is the easiest to read of Faulkner’s major novels.  We don’t get the shattered stream-of-consciousness narrative of The Sound and the Fury or Absalom! Absalom!, it doesn’t have the various viewpoints of As I Lay Dying, constantly shifting from family member to family member and it doesn’t have the sheer depth of evil and darkness that pervade every page of Sanctuary.  That’s not to say it’s an easy book to dive into; just that if you are going to pick a major Faulkner novel to begin with, you would probably be best to start here and slowly wind your way through the paths of Yoknapatawpha County.

“Memory believes before knowing remembers.”  That’s what we learn part way through the book, and though it explains much of this book, it could also, of course, explain much of The Sound and the Fury and Absalom! Absalom!, such a key to the understanding of the mind of poor, tortured, doomed Quentin Compson.  Here it tells us much of the two characters who form the core of the story, Lena Grove and Joe Christmas (also poor, tortured and doomed), as well as Byron Bunch, the man who becomes the connecting link between the two of them.  On one level, the novel is the story of Lena Grove, of the way that she slowly makes her way across the state of Mississippi, slowly, but gradually covering the miles that move her farther away from Alabama.  But it is also about the story that she stumbles into: “But it is there: the descendents of both in their relationship to one another’s ghosts, with between them the phantom of the old spilled blood and the old horror and anger and fear.”

But really the heart of the story is Joe Christmas.  As Alfred Kazin wrote, “Joe Christmas is an abstraction seeking to become a human being.  In the race-mad South, many a Negro – and Mexican, and Jew – is turned into an abstraction.  But this man is born an abstraction and is seeking to become a person.”  Christmas is a man trapped between races, not because he is mixed race, but because he doesn’t know what the hell he is.  “He thought that it was loneliness which he was trying to escape and not himself.”  He is trying to escape from himself because he does not know the truth of his own lineage, and in the South, in this period, indeed, in almost any period, this is something which is never forgiven.  In all of the stories dealing with relations between the races that Faulkner wrote, this seems to stick out the most for everyone, and they forget that is precisely because of the doubt as to where he belongs that Christmas is so doomed.  “As from the bottom of a thick, black pit he saw himself enclosed by cabinshapes, vague, kerosenelit, so that the street lamps themselves seemed to be further spaced, as if the black life, the black breathing had compounded the substance of breath so that not only voices but moving bodies and light itself must become fluid and accrete slowly from particle to particle, of and with the now ponderable night inseperable and one.”  In words and a story so much more complex and so much less fraught with preaching and with a nice layer of subtlety, this is the novel that Ralph Ellison tried to write with Invisible Man, but was unable to do so.

But Light in August is no more a simple story of the race issue in the South in the 1930’s than it is simply a story of a poor girl who gets herself pregnant only to be abandoned.  This is a story about a particular place at a particular time and these are only parts of the greater whole.  Look at the following description of the way the mill towns spring up, the very kind of town that Lena is in when she is impregnated and then abandoned by one of these men:

It had been there seven years and in seven years more it would destroy all timber within its reach.  Then some of the machinery and most of the men who ran it and existed because of it and for it would be loaded onto freight cars and moved away.  But some of the machinery would be left, since new pieces could always be bought on the installment plan – gaunt, staring, motionless wheels rising from mounds of brick rubble and ragged weeds with a quality profoundly astonishing, and gutted boilers lifting their rusting and un-smoking stacks with an air stubborn, baffled and bemused upon a stumppocked scene of profound and peaceful desolation, unplowed, untilled, gutting slowly into red and choked ravines beneath the long quiet rains of autumn and the galloping fury of vernal equinoxes.  Then the hamlet which at its best day had borne no name listed on Postoffice Department annals would not now even be remembered by the hookwormridden heirs at large who pulled the buildings down and burned them in cookstoves and winter grates.

This is not the kind of thing which is normally associated with Faulkner.  Critics talk about his modernism, his interior monologues, his look at the Southern class divide and race relations.  They don’t think of him as capturing such a wide picture of Southern society and the way it was changing.  And we can also find peace, something also rarely thought of in connection with Faulkner, a sense of serenity as we fade from the story: “It will be there, musing, quiet, steadfast, not fading and not particularly threatful, but of itself alone serene, of itself alone triumphant.”