Light In August, Christmas In July — A Dark Christ for a Broken Country

Original Book Cover

William Faulkner’s 1932 Light in August, a dark tragic hero story, takes the reader on three journeys through three distinct characters. The main journey at the center of the novel, the heart of the story is Joe Christmas. Here’s Faulkner at his best on the day Joe Christmas set off on his journey:
He stepped from the dark porch, into the moonlight, and with his bloody head and his empty stomach hot, savage, and courageous with whiskey, he entered the street which was to run for fifteen years.
The whiskey died away in time and was renewed and died again, but the street ran on. From that night the thousand streets ran as one street, with imperceptible corners and changes of scene, broken by intervals of begged and stolen rides, on trains and trucks, and on country wagons with he at twenty and twentyfive and thirty sitting on the seat with his still, hard face and the clothes (even when soiled and worn) of a city man and the driver of the wagon not knowing who or what the passenger was and not daring to ask. The street ran into Oklahoma and Missouri and as far south as Mexico and then back north to Chicago and Detroit and then back south and at last to Mississippi.

The street, the journey, fueled by the elixir, the pint of whiskey that somehow appears on the dresser, Joe swallows it whole as he begins his fifteen-year odyssey. For Joe Christmas representative of so many depression era, rootless, family-less men, the street takes him to one woman’s bed to another’s, broken up by shift-work, drinking, and jail.

Joe’s street runs into Jefferson in his christogical thirty-third year, where he spends three years, and where ultimately his blood will be shed, savagely and ritualistically so to reconcile the light and the dark, man and his shadow, black and white. He’s a troubling Christ figure.

His dark Christ figure echoes thirty years later in another Southern Gothic author, Flannery O’Connor and her Misfit from A Good Man is Hard to Find. To recognize Christmas as a Christ figure is to be like O’Connor’s fictional Grandmother from the same story: She saw the man’s face, twisted close to her own as if he were going to cry and she murmured, “Why you’re one of my babies. Your one of my own children!” she reached out and touched him on the shoulder. The Misfit sprang back as if a snake had bitten him and shot her three times through the chest. Light In August a literary thriller; builds your heart rate and leaves you breathless.

The Wheel of Life

The Wheel Rolls On

Faulkner never tells a story the same way twice, in his 6th novel, Light in August, he employs a wheel-spoke-hub structure to fit this dark, tragic hero’s journey. Near the conclusion, the spoke sees his life on a wheel slowed by sand, but the axle and the engine aren’t yet aware and keep spinning, going nowhere, which is also the sentiment of the hub. Only after the spoke faces his reality, does the wheel spin free.

In addition to taking on a modernist hero story in southern Gothic style, Faulkner also takes on issues plaguing American society. Taking place contemporaneously to the novel’s 1932 publication and approximately to author’s Mississippi small town, race is a clear, but skin deep issue. Race is a means to symbolize and stylize the long standing struggles of our collective consciousness — the search for meaning, the fiction of paternity, our battle with our shadow. Race also serves as line of demarcation for social commentary between the haves and the have nots, the enfranchised and disenfranchised, the two cities, the two Americas.

The central character, Joe Christmas, easily passes for a white man, but internally struggles with his identity, with whom his father was, and how that plays out in the different social constructs of race in both the north and the south. As he conceives of his struggle between his white and black blood, his foil suggests the same struggle could occur between French and English blood and others suggest he may not have any African ancestry at all. His foil suggests another battle between the shadow and man himself — “You must struggle, rise. But in order to rise, you must raise the shadow with you. But you can never raise it to your level. I see that now, which I did not see until I came down here. But escape it you cannot.” While race pervades the central story, failure of society to incorporate and initiate youths into adulthood and adults into guardianship dooms the hero’s journey from the start.

Fitting the structure and journey genre, Light in August starts with the wheel, on the road, the wheel character waiting for a wagon to come up the hill to give her a lift. The wheel is Lena Grove — an unwed expectant mother who is looking for the father. The father ran off. She’s tracking him down to Jefferson, the main town of Faulkner’s fictional Yoknapatawhpa County.

Lena’s come from, “Alabama: a fur piece. All the way from Alabama a-walking. A fur piece.” The next day, she takes a ride into Jefferson, the scene of the novel, she’ll pass, almost blissfully unaware, the scene of the center crime in the novel — the old plantation home inhabited by a reclusive spinster, a carpetbagger from New England by way of Missouri. The house, a female symbol here as well as a symbol of the failed antebellum and reconstruction periods, burns. It burns not out of control, but steadily and destructively, ultimately ineffectually in terms of concealing the murder of the owner. While this fire and murder are a great excitement to the small town folks of Jefferson, Lena just passes by as if in her own world, just passes by the misdeeds of Joe Christmas, she’s on her own journey to find the father in the planing mill, graciously accepting the kindness of strangers. Guided by a understanding that all will be provided for, when asked how she’ll find the father she responds with an almost child-like acceptance that the Lord will see to it.

Naturally, a hub and a wheel need spokes to connect, and Gail Hightower, the town’s former minister provides that connection, a connection not only interpersonal, but of life and death. Hightower will deliver Lena’s baby and will deliver Joe.

Isolationism pervaded American society at the time

American Isolationism

All the main and secondary characters in Light in August appear as isolated, ostracized, and on the outskirts of community — revealing not only their faults, but deep faults within society, which fails to incorporate so many of its children. Joe basks in his isolation in the woods:

It was dawn, daylight: that gray and lonely suspension filled with the peaceful and tentative waking of birds. The air, inbreathed, is like spring water. He breathes deep and slow, feeling with each breath himself diffuse in the neutral grayness, becoming one with loneliness and quiet that has never known fury or despair. ‘That was all I wanted,’ he thinks, in a quiet and slow amazement. ‘That was all, for thirty years. That didn’t seem to be a lot to ask in thirty years.

Lena’s parents died while she was twelve and after moving to live with her much older brother’s family for six years, eventually she finds a boy and then pregnancy. She’s shunned from her Alabama community and takes to the road — a-walking. The novel ends with her again the road: “’My, my. A body does get around. Here we aint been coming from Alabama but two months, and now it’s already Tennessee.’”

Joe Christmas received his name because he was left at an orphanage at the age of five on Christmas eve. After not fitting in at the orphanage, he’s adopted by the McEachern family, a childless husband and wife. The husband tries to beat religion into Joe and force him to conform to his strict, loveless, callous Episcopalian dogma. When McEachern tracks Joe down at a midnight schoolhouse dance, Joe’s nighttime escape, Joe beats him, perhaps to death. At the time when he needs her most, Joe loses Bobby Allen, his prostitute girlfriend and receives a severe beating of his own that night. It’s the events of that night, that he sets off on the street that runs for fifteen years fueled by whiskey, sex, and violence.

Hightower received a beating from the Klan when they dragged him out of his own house and left him unconscious, tied to a tree a mile from his house. The Klan attack came after a series of events starting with Hightower carelessly, egotistically, ignoring his wife’s mental problems, which led her to death — out of the Memphis hotel room that she checked into with another man and registered as his wife under a false name. Following her death, the church elders asked Hightower to step down and leave Jefferson. He did not. The town ran off his black maid and when he hired a black man servant, the Klan arrived, whipping the servant the day before leaving Hightower bloody in the woods. Unmoved, Hightower stayed in Jefferson in his home which became a sanctuary for twenty-five years. He believes that he has paid the price for that sanctuary and can remain apart from the community. We first see him:

From his study window he can see the street. It is not a far way, since the lawn is not deep. It is a small lawn containing a half dozen lowgrowing maples. The house, the brown, unpainted and unobtrusive bungalow is small too and by bushing crepe myrtle and syringa and alethea almost hidden save for that gap through which from the study window he watches the street. So hidden it is that the light from the corner street lamp scarcely touches it.

Hightower, previously captivated and enthralled with his grandfather’s death in Jefferson remains in his own a world which comes alive each evening in the twilight where day and night meet. Hightower, the spoke, connects Lena and Joe. When the world comes to his door, finding himself no longer in the habit of prayer, he finds escape and solace in reading Tennyson, the romantic poet par excellence.

Two Joes on the street

The lonely hearts club

Perhaps because of their isolation several characters appear as pairs. Hightower and Byron a generation apart, are the two most closely linked pairs.

Byron Bunch is another loner, he works six days a week — a full Saturday at the planing mill when his coworkers take the afternoon off and go downtown. On Sunday he rides off into the country where he leads a Presbyterian choir. Despite seven years in Jefferson, only Hightower knows him. Byron, is a bit of hapless fool who has to run to Hightower with his problems and it’s Byron who brings Hightower back to society. First by having him deliver Lena’s baby and later through introducing him to the Hines. Fifteen years earlier, Hightower delivered a black baby, who died, despite Hightower doing everything right. If that was his final act of isolation, this successful delivery starts his reincorporation into society.

Hightower initially rebuffs Byron’s attempts to involve him in the affairs of Lena and Christmas and advises Byron to stay away as well. Byron thinks about their chosen isolation and why that is:

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. Yes. A man will talk about how he’d like to escape living folks. But it’s the dead folks that do him damage. It’s the dead ones that lay quiet in one place and don’t try to hold him that he can’t escape from.

Or as prince Hamlet would say:

To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
 But that the dread of something after death,
 The undiscovered country, from whose bourn
 No traveler returns, puzzles the will,
 And makes us rather bear those ills we have
 Than fly to others that we know not of?
 Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,
 And thus the native hue of resolution
 Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
 And enterprise of great pitch and moment
 With this regard their currents turn awry
 And lose the name of action. — Hamlet Act 2, Sc 2

Like Hamlet, Hightower spends most of the work thinking, avoiding action, until action is forced upon him. Byron and Hightower represent resignation and acceptance.

Representing flight and denial, the opposite pair to Byron and Hightower, are Joe Christmas and Joe Brown — the two Joes. Joe Brown is Lucas Bunch — the father of the Lena’s child, he assumes a fake name as he runs out, carelessly made up — an obvious fake, it will be his street name. Brown meets Christmas at the planing mill and Christmas — about fifteen years his senior takes him into his confidence, letting him stay at his cabin, near the old plantation home, and involves him in his bootlegging business. Brown’s street is only beginning to run. When he’s brought by Byron back to the cabin after the murder to see Lena and his new baby, Brown sneaks out. Eventually he hops a train north, Byron remarks that given his skill, it wasn’t the first train he hopped and with Christmas as the example, it won’t be his last. We don’t see Brown after he leaves on that train, but we can imagining him living the life handed down to him by Christmas — the street runs on.

Christmas forms another pair with Joanna Burden, the reclusive, carpetbagger in the old plantation home. Joanna busies herself at home by conducting altruism for local blacks since she’s been raised to see improving lives for blacks as her cross to bear. Again the similarity in name strikes the reader as more than coincidence. While she allows Joe to ravish her and despoil her in earlier phases of their violent, stunted relationship, she later sees him as a project for her to raise him up. However, Joe can’t get beyond a purely physical relationship with women, the ones he chooses or finds tend to possess an over powering masculinity that Joe can’t reconcile. He can’t support Joanna beyond the physical act. As the relationship’s physical nature burns down, she confronts Joe with the two things antithetical to him — religion and acceptance of his black background. She asks him to go to a college for blacks and become a lawyer and tries to pray on it with him. This is simply too much and leads to her death and Joe’s final escape.

Towards the end, we meet Joe’s grandparents, who live near the black part of town in Mottstown, twenty miles south of Jefferson. Until they find out Christmas has been captured in their town, they mostly keep to their peculiar selves. We learn that it was Doc Hines, Joe’s grandfather, who took him to the orphanage, who worked there as janitor, and who tried to take him to another orphanage after the dietitian caught Joe watching her tryst and since then had it out for him. Doc plays the part of the religious fanatic yelling on the street corner and he wants Christmas lynched in Mottstown as soon as he sees him. He’ll travel to the trial in Jefferson to incite the town into lynching, but he’s too strange, too out of touch, and mostly becomes a side show to the drama of Joe’s trial. Mrs. Hines, follows her husband’s every move, keeping him in sight. Initially she wants a fair trial, to prevent a lynching, and for Joe to come to terms for what he did. The Hines are the two minds or emotions we meet when confronted with crime — do we seek revenge or justice?

Grimm stands over Christmas like Cain in a Dore illustration

Faulkner takes a big gamble by introducing two new characters at the end the novel: Gavin Stevens and Percy Grimm. These two characters represent differing views of the townspeople of Jefferson. Stevens has been educated at Harvard and has returned his hometown of Jefferson to practice law. While his education sets him apart, he takes time to converse with folks and shows, as he does with the Hines, true interest and compassion for people. Stevens will share the narration in Faulkner’s later novels The Town and The Mansion and here he plays the role of Faulkner’s mouthpiece, explaining why Christmas did what that he did. However he doesn’t do a convincing job. He’s a forced fit and his inclusion the biggest flaw in the novel.

Stevens’ darker half, Percy Grimm, combines nationalism and militarism to serve as the perfect example of homegrown fascism. Grimm, too young to have fought in World War I, joins the National Guard and forms a local troop in Jefferson out of members of the local American Legion in order to protect Christmas from angry lynch mobs, even though the Sheriff has it seemingly under control. Grimm stands for the threat of nationalism and vigilantism. He’s a sadist and as the agent of death for Christmas, his actions echo the Roman soldiers in Jerusalem on that first Good Friday and the Nazi soldiers of the then present. Although exceptional in fanatical bellicism, Grimm is not alone; he is able to form a group of followers, albiet less intense. On the eve of the rise of Third Reich, Grimm is a troubling Nazi-youth figure because we see how easily fascism can grow at home. It’s important to underline that Grimm is not acting out of pure racism but a desire for a brutal order and not acting as an agent of the state, but as a local militia of sorts.

A Marian image for a Christ figure

Deliver Us From Evil

Mrs. Hines meets Joe in jail, to convince him he has one last chance to run. Throughout his whole life, from the dietitian not punishing him as expected, to Mrs. McEachern offering him reprieve from Mr. McEachern’s punishment, to Bobbie Allen leaving him, to Joanna Burden praying and attempting to school him, women have threatened to disrupt Joe’s order, however unjust or oppressive the order is. Once again, Joe runs, but his past is too much, it drags him down: there was too much running with him, stride for stride. Not pursuers: but himself: years, acts, deed, omitted and committed, keeping pace with him, stride for stride, breath for breath, thud for thud of the years, using a single heart.

Joe can only make it to Hightower’s bungalow, the sanctuary, but the sanctuary does not hold. Grimm acting under a higher power of this world, carries out his role, with that lean, swift, blind obedience to whatever Player moved him on the Board. The Player moves Grim to track down Christmas, mortally shooting and then castrating him. Joe is delivered in his last moments: For a long moment he looked up at them with peaceful and unfathomable and unbearable eyes. Then his face, body, all seemed to collapse to fall upon itself, and from the slashed garments about his hips and loins the pent black blood seemed to rush like a released breath. It seemed to rush out of his pale body like the rush of sparks from a rising rocket; upon the black blast the man seemed to rise soaring into in their memories for ever and ever.

Hightower leads a confused life: he had a boyhood dream of a Grandfather gallantly dying in Jefferson and that was his obsession as if his whole life was just for that day. An illusion, living too much in past: It was as if he couldn’t get religion and that galloping cavalry and his dead grandfather untangled from each other, even in the pulpit. …..As if he did not care about the people, the living people about whether they wanted him here or not. And he being young too, and the old men and the old women try to talk down his gleeful excitement with serious matters of the church and its responsibilities and his own. Twenty-five years older, a widower, unemployed, and without a congregation, Hightower only comes to his true nature, his reality, after delivering Lena’s child and Chirstmas’ death. Perhaps he comes to this in the final moments of his life or stills has time to live his reality. His chapter closes with him looking out over his street in Jefferson, but with a new perspective.

The final chapter ends with Lena, moving in the three final chapters from hub to spoke to wheel. Lena has her baby boy delivered, back on the road, ostensibly looking for Lucas, the father, again. Now she has Byron too, a paternal partner, a hapless hangdog, but at least Byron has made change for better or worse and tried the new thing. Lena continues on her road, a mendicant Mary figure, a balance and connection to Christmas.

Hope or Doom

Shall our blood fail?

Society fails each of these characters and in return their isolation harms society. The central aspects of society, church and state, fail. Religion takes a beating throughout — depicted as an overzealous Puritanism that prefers nightmares to dreams, that ostracizes sinners instead of emphasizes forgiveness, that sees scarcity instead of finding abundance, and that seeks punishment instead of reward. Whether it’s the fanatical, mad ramblings of Doc Hines, who could be saying the same things today in Times Square, or the brutal catechism of Mr. McEachern, or the New England version of hellfire and interpersonal ice brought south by the Burdens, it’s a religion that has been contorted. Contorted to fit the land and the people; like the white Burdens substituting the cause of Jesus for the cause of blacks like a form of white man’s burden. Here we find a religion that no longer has proper place for the feminine, unable to come to terms with the feminine’s life, abundance, chaos, and compassion. We are left Maryless, with a male God, a father creating son without mother, a religion stripped bare of ritual of pomp of celebration, reduced merely to plain text in a black book.

At this point, the state has not developed a role for itself, the New Deal has not been dealt. The education system seems virtually non-existent and we find no socialization between the sexes during adolescence. For example, Faulkner remarks that the only time Christmas could have seen girls was in church and since he abhorred church, he paid no attention to the girls there. Byron and Joanna Burden remain chaste virgins into their thirties and forties, while Joe and Lena do what is natural for eighteen year-olds to do, yet because there are no social mechanisms to court within the community, trysts and prostitution takes the place of courtships, further isolating the individuals. The characters, have not only isolation, but unhealthy sexual relations. A society that can’t successfully reproduce is doomed, it’s the same society that doesn’t incorporate adolescences into adults or adults into guardians who pass down lessons to youths.

When the passions and imaginations innately burning inside youth are not intentionally and lovingly added to the hearth of the community, they become a negligent rage that can hollow out or burn the down the structure of culture. But the most certain signals for lighting the fires of destruction are sent when those old enough to know better fail to find meaning and purpose in their own lives. — The Water of Life, Michael Meade

Hightower and Burden are old enough to know better. Burden’s deprived path and the paths that follow to her house lead to destruction. With the feminine corrupted and not functioning, like Persophone abducted by Hades, desolation and death spread through the land. Meanwhile, Hightower reluctantly reincorporates himself into society, but only after these wounded, isolated, characters find the path to his house. He provides hope. Hope that the new baby will be spared the life of Lena or Joe, hope that Joe’s blood was not shed in vain. In August, there’s still time for a second bloom of the wisteria and a fall harvest. Hope that light in August comes from the copper, ethereal, twilight sky at that time of the year and not the old plantation house, the old corrupted way, that burns. The light in August could be a new beginning or the beginning of the end.

Shall our blood fail? Or shall it come to be
The blood of paradise? And shall the earth
Seem all of paradise that we shall know?
The sky will be much friendlier then than now,
A part of labor and a part of pain,
And next in glory to enduring love,
Not this dividing and indifferent blue.
– Sunday Morning, Wallace Stevens
A second bloom of wisteria

Thanks for Reading!