Light in August
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For those who have read this one before, what are your initial thoughts on the book? Could someone be so kind as to place this novel in its "Faulkner context" and perhaps elaborate some on where you'd rank it in the Faulkner canon?
Muchas gracias in advance!
I've cheated a little and have read the first 25 pages. I'm blown away by the complexity of his style, and yet easy-readability so far....especially since after beginning Absalom, Absalom, early last year, and having to drop out, I wasn't expecting Light in August to be so comprehensible. But it is. That dialogue getting that southern dialect just right, and the characterizations...truly stunning so far. This seems like, so far, an ideal Faulkner to introduce folks to.
ETA: re: 8 " I'm blown away by the complexity of his style, and yet easy-readability..."
That's also my take, so far.
So Thanx to the host and here's to the trip!~!
I love Faulkner and I have always said this is my favorite book of his. There is absolutely no way I can possibly reread it now because of time constraints. I was hoping to listen to the Scott Brick audio but a computer whiz kid has been attempting to put it on CDs for me and so far my car CD player keeps spitting it all out saying "error". The kid says he will try one other method, but I am no longer holding my breath. There seems to be another version out there which I can get at a reasonable price on cassette but it will no doubt take two weeks, and by then I will miss all the discussion. I guess this will be another read I will not participate in.
Theaelizabet: I don't use Macs, but using Google can find you a program to open a .rar file (similar to .zip files) on Macs. When I searched, the top link had two results. Try one of those.
If anyone else is having trouble opening them, grab Winzip or Winrar or 7zip and open it using one of those.
And sorry I haven't been around keeping this group lively. :((((((((
Certainly don't worry about it now.
...but he also may just be using cheap, unreliable CD-Rs.
I ordered Collected Stories of William Faulkner in order to have some short stories by him to read in between. They sound very good.
This has never been my favorite Faulkner, but every time I open any of his books I am amazed all over again and reminded of why I have always believed he is without any doubt among the greatest wielders of the English language, as well as a consummate story teller. I wonder if his stories resonate with me so much because I am from a place not so very different from Oxford - and then I remember that his genius was first widely recognized in France....
One of the reasons this is not my favorite is that Hightower never has worked for me. Faulker in almost every other case, maybe even in every other case, suceeds in making me feel I understand the characters, their motivations, and how they fit into the story, but I don't understand Hightower. I am as confused on this read, so far, as I have been on every prior read, with his mix of religion and his ancestor worship. Is he anything more than a plot device - designed to give the reader the articulate liberal (or perhaps the compassionate humane rather than liberal, because I don't think you could really call Faulkner a liberal) perspective on the rest of the characters and the story? Faulkner describes him well but I never have gotten to understand him. Is he intoxicated with what he perceives as the glorious past and his grandfather? and if so why? and what does that have to do with his religion and with his wife? and does that matter? Is there more to him than that? what other purposes does he serve in the story?
Perhaps later this needs to go into a different thread but this morning I found two brief intros which I now share here, as a tiny starting point.
Tensions Between Community and Individual
Perkins is a professor of American and English literature and film. In this essay, she examines the tensions between community and individual in the novel.
Byron Bunch, the inconspicuous mill worker in William Faulkner's Light in August, becomes the moral conscience of the novel as he observes the townspeople of Jefferson City and declares, "people everywhere are about the same." Byron not only offers astute judgments of the citizens of the city; he also notes their harsh, even brutal treatment of individuals who do not fit into their notions of community. Revealing his understanding of group dynamics, he insists that for those who live in a small town like Jefferson "evil is harder to accomplish." As a result, "people can invent more of it in other people's names. Because that was all it required: that idea, that single idle word blown from mind to mind." This type of group response becomes an important agency in Light in August as Faulkner explores the disastrous effects the community can have on the individual who tries to establish a sense of independence.
Donald M. Kartiganer, in an article on Faulkner for The Columbia Literary History of the United States, concludes that in the community of Jefferson, which is the setting for Light in August as well as that of many of Faulkner's works, "the codes of honor and courage, the respect for an old frontier individualism, give way to rules of propriety and a crushing conformity." This conformity, he argues causes "a fundamental split within Jefferson's social fabric between white and black, group and individual The violence that inevitably ensues, claims its nonconformist victims." The victims of this intolerance in Light in August are Joe Christmas, Joanna Burden, and Gail Hightower.
An ideal community could create a sense of wholeness by recognizing and sustaining each individual's separate identity. Jefferson, however, with its seemingly inescapable ties to its southern past, is far from that ideal. The tensions that arise between the individual and the community in this city are the result of deep-seated racism and Calvinistic righteousness. These factors cause the townspeople to view those who do not conform to their values and rules as members of another group, either of blacks or of sinners. The townspeople see Joe as a black man and a sinner. This otherness convicts the nonconformist, who must be marginalized and/or punished.
Joe's exclusion from the community begins as a result of a combination of racism and righteousness when his grandfather takes him to the orphanage. Eupheus Hines's refusal to accept a grandson born out of wedlock and fathered by a dark-skinned man initiates a pattern of isolation that Joe is forced to endure for the rest of his life.
The sense of separation he experiences as an orphan is heightened in the orphanage where the other children shun and taunt him with racial epithets, believing him to be of mixed blood. In order to save her reputation after Joe discovers her sexual indiscretion, Miss Atkins plays on the communal racism when she spreads the rumor that he is black and thus effectively precipitates his removal from the orphanage and into the hands of the brutally self-righteous Simon McEachern.
After he kills McEachern and is rejected by Bobbie, Joe tries unsuccessfully to become a part of white and black communities, but after he arrives in Jefferson, he appears to have accepted his role as an outsider. Prior to Joanna Burden's murder, the townspeople regard Joe as a stranger but leave him alone because they assume he is white and they are put off by his imperious and often menacing demeanor. After Brown insists that Joe is of mixed race and has killed Joanna, however, their attitude changes dramatically. The fact that a murder has been committed, heightened by rumors of the crime of a black man engaging in a sexual relationship with a white woman and his arrogant disregard of his socially abhorrent behavior, all convince local people that Joe must be destroyed.
Faulkner illustrates the townspeople's attitude when Joe is captured after walking in plain sight in the center of Mottstown. The community is appalled that he is "all dressed up and walking the town like he dared them to touch him, when he ought to have been skulking and hiding in the woods, muddy and dirty and running." Joe acts, they argue, "like he never even knew he was a murderer, let alone a n― too." Jefferson's rampant racism fosters a hatred in Percy Grimm so intense that he feels justified in castrating the dying Joe.
Joanna Burden, another marginalized citizen of Jefferson, is not the victim of violent intolerance, but her ancestors were when they stood up for black voting rights in town. As a result of her grandfather and brother's actions and her own work with blacks in the area, she has become an outcast. Joanna understands that the community feared her family's and her own support of black rights would stir up "the negroes to murder and rape" and threaten "white supremacy." As a result, they call her "N―lover" in town and refuse to "allow their wives to call on her." Joanna, like Byron, understands group dynamics and so is more generous toward her neighbors, insisting that her father "respected anybody's love for the land where he and his people were born and understood that a man would have to act as the land where he was born had trained him to act."
The intensity of their animosity toward Joanna, however, emerges after her murder when the townspeople swarm to the site of the fire: they "knew, believed, and hoped that she had been ravished too: at least once before her throat was cut and at least once afterward." Yet, "even though she had supplied them at last with an emotional barbecue, a Roman holiday almost, they would never forgive her and let her be dead in peace and quiet." And so, hearing rumors that a black man had killed her, "some of them with pistols already in their pockets began to canvass about for someone to crucify."
Ironically, Joanna's fate is sealed by her own participation in group mentality. Like the members of her community, she sees blacks not as individuals but as a group. Influenced by the religious dogma of her ancestors, Joanna regards Joe only as one of a doomed race and ultimately as a sinner who refuses to kneel down with her and pray for absolution. As a result of this limited view, and her own belief that she too has sinned, she tries to kill them both. In a violent reaction to her attempts to control him, Joe kills her.
In another observation of group dynamics, Byron suggests that often "what folks tells on other folks aint true to begin with." The town's treatment of Reverend Gail Hightower proves his point. After Hightower's wife returned from the sanatorium, the righteous women in Jefferson began to spread disparaging rumors concerning Hightower's relationship with his wife and "the town believed that the ladies knew the truth."
The rumors intensify after Hightower's wife dies under suspicious circumstances to the point that no one in town attends his Sunday sermons, which eventually forces him to give up his ministry. The town's response to Hightower turns violent when he determines to keep his black cook. After stories spread about the two, the community agrees that Hightower "had made his wife go bad and commit suicide because he was not a natural husband and that the negro woman was the reason." As a result, Hightower was viciously beaten.
After Hightower refuses to leave Jefferson, eventually "the whole thing seemed to blow away, like an evil wind," and the community decided to let him be: "it was as though the town realized at last that he would be a part of its life until he died, and that they might as well become reconciled." Byron analyzes the community's treatment of Hightower when he likens the situation to "a lot of people performing a play and that now and at last they had all played out the parts which had been allotted them and now they could live quietly with one another."
While the narrow-minded bigotry and righteousness of the community of Jefferson damages or destroys the lives of many of the novel's central characters, the townspeople do offer some support to Lena as she searches for the father of her unborn child. They do not try to ostracize her for her illegitimate pregnancy, most likely because she is trying, in their view, to rectify her sin by marrying Brown. However, she and Byron eventually leave Jefferson, more perhaps to get away from the restrictive values of the community than to find Brown.
Joe's violent death at the end of the novel appears to force the community to recognize the effects of its rigid codes. As the people who have followed Joe to Hightower's home witness his last breath, Joe "seemed to rise soaring into their memories forever and ever." The narrator insists, "They are not to lose it, in whatever peaceful valleys, beside whatever placid and reassuring streams of old age, in the mirroring faces of whatever children they will contemplate old disasters and newer hopes." In this sense then, Joe becomes a Christlike figure, who begins the process of redemption for a community that has allowed its prejudices and fears to repress its sense of humanity.
Source: Wendy Perkins, Critical Essay on Light in August, in Novels for Students, Thomson Gale, 2007.
Brief Critical Overview
n the decades after Light in August was published, the novel suffered from the same critical response as did much of Faulkner's works. Scholars were split over Faulkner's literary merit: some praised him for his compelling vision and artistry while others condemned him for his obscurity and bleak vision of humanity. Warren Beck, in a 1941 article for College English, argues that condemnation of Faulkner "seems based chiefly on two erroneous propositions — first, that Faulkner has no ideas, no point of view, and second, that consequently he is melodramatic, a mere sensationalist." He cites one example of this type of criticism when he quotes a reviewer who claims that in Light in August, "nothing is omitted, except virtue."
After Malcolm Cowley's publication of The Portable Faulkner in 1946 and Faulkner's winning the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1949, Faulkner's popularity increased, and scholars again found much to praise in his works. During the late 1940s and early 1950s, Faulkner began to be regarded as one of the twentieth century's most important authors and Light in August as one of the best novels of the American South.
B. R. McElderry Jr, in his College English article on the novel's narrative structure, writes, "it is doubtful if any of the other major novels combines so richly the easy natural comedy and the violent tragedy of which Faulkner at his best is a master." McElderry concludes that there are problems with the novel's structure, especially with the characterization of Joanna Burden and Hightower. "Yet when the difficulties of the structural problems are fairly confronted, the achievement overshadows such defects."
Harold Bloom, in his study of Faulkner in Genius, insists that the novel is one of Faulkner's greatest works, arguing that the relationship between Joe and Joanna "is the most harrowing, and yet testifies to what most typifies Faulkner's uncompromising genius for characterization."
When Hightower has his, I guess what you could call “epiphany,” he sees his grandfather for what he truly was, not a glamorous hero but a reckless youth. As such, he takes a step that liberates him from the legacy that has cursed so much of Faulkner’s South. Liberated from the past, he can now create his own future. Hightower had lived through his grandfather’s heroic exploits to an extent that prevented him from experiencing his own life, no?
But what was he looking at every evening out of his study window? and is this credible? Most of the time Faulkner's characters are quite credible, even if odd/extreme/insane. This seems beyond the pale to me.
And if Hightower is there to demonstrate that Civil War ancestor worship is misplaced, why was he so at odds with the town, which presumably also suffered from that same deficiency?
I dont have the same problems with Joanna Burden. I get her. She makes sense to me. Hightower doesn't but I hope you will all keep working to explain him to me. Is this a gender thing? do you men understand Hightower but not Joanna?
I wholeheartedly agree. Thank you for broaching the topic. I trust that your intrepid and valiant leader, RSHabroptilus, will be back soon, but until then, carry on starting threads, discussing, analyzing, and most importantly, enjoying the book.
Do not hesitate to take the bull by the horns and get discussions rolling on your own.
I continue to swoon about his style. What a stunning writer. I would say in my world there is no one greater.
Anytime you post some discussion questions, Linda, I will be there. Thanks for doing that.
I can start a new Hightower thread, but I thought it might be more interesting to keep his discussion with the other discussions about the rest of the book, so as to see how he may in fact interact, interrelate and intersect with all else going on?