The word “August” has many meanings, and William Faulkner uses all of them and the accompanying symbolism in Light in August (1932). I was struck by his use of the word, as both a month and as something delayed or ending. Yet the title, in coupling the word August with “light” suggests that endings can be a good thing or that when one thing ends another begins. I’m not sure of all of the meanings we could make from the novel, but I will try to explain my thoughts.
I must say that I’ve never been a fan of Faulkner’s work. I find it intimidating and hard to read and understand, as I wrote about here. I have trouble focusing when I read one of his novels, and I often miss good chunks of the plot because of this. He’s known for stream-of-consciousness writing and dense run-on sentences. Yet this book was not that way.
I’d heard for some time now that Light in August is his most accessible. I’d been wanting to read it for a while. I’m glad I finally did. The novel takes place in Jefferson, Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi, the fictional setting of most of Faulkner’s work. The novel mentions some of his characters from other books, as all of his work does. But I found the novel’s new characters to be most fascinating, and they drew me in.
First, there’s Lena Grove, the heavily pregnant young woman who walks from Alabama to find the father of her child. She believes that he has gone on to make a home for them and is just waiting for her to appear, but we (and the entire town) know that this is not true. We know that she’s been tricked, had, and left to fend for herself, despite the pregnancy. It turns out that her scoundrel of a beau is there, under another name, and that he’s gotten himself into trouble with bootlegging, arson, and murder. But she doesn’t know it.
And Byron Bunch won’t let her know it. He falls in love upon seeing her and takes to caring for her, setting her up in a cabin, and finding help when the baby comes. He keeps the truth of her lover’s life and intentions from her. Reverend Hightower disagrees with Byron’s behavior, and the two have many moralistic and heated discussions on what Byron should do and what he can do for Lena.
The other part of the novel is the life of Joe Christmas, also a murderer and partner to Lena’s beau, Lucas Burch. Christmas is part African American, but doesn’t look it. He can “pass” as was common back then (see Nella Larsen’s novels if you’re interested in this), but at times he is self-loathing and confused. The narrative goes back in time to his childhood at an orphanage and his youth as the adopted son of a white and violently religious older couple. He suffers many beatings at the hands of his adoptive father for failing to memorize religious texts. Christmas predictably rebels as he ages, finding dancing and women and drinking more alluring than being beaten with the “gospel” at home.
This part of the novel, Christmas’s life story, is what I found most compelling. It endeared me to him, despite his faults and his eventual murderous behavior. It reminded me of my identification with Perry Edward Smith in Truman Capote’sIn Cold Blood. And I think that’s what Faulkner may have been getting at, with all of his novels. He tends to share the back-story of his characters. There is no just getting to the incidents at hand. Faulkner must tell you why the person is the way they are, and this involves the psychology of their childhoods and the traumas of their lives. Light in August shares many of these histories before going on about how the character plays a role in the current narrative. I like that kind of storytelling, and I like knowing where a person has been and why they may believe, behave, or feel the way they do.
I know that my past has contributed to who I am. And I know that I am more apt to feel charity toward somebody when I find out about their sorrows and their frames of reference. I recently experienced this with a friend I’ve known for years. She just recently she told me about how as a child her mother had had cancer and how she had felt neglected because of it, although she knew that her mother could not help it. From her young perspective, she wasn’t getting the attention she needed and wanted. Knowing this about my friend allowed me to see her in a different light, perhaps an August light, one that gave me a new perspective and allowed me to shed any previous ones that were incorrect or uncharitable.
The novel comes full circle, focusing on Lena again and allowing us to see that she is not bereft or at an end because of her eventual discovery of Burch’s deception. She is instead at a beginning, and she enjoys the travel. The novel ends with her walking and hitchhiking with Bunch at her side, he wanting her to love him back and she ignoring his advances. They say they are following Burch, trying to find him for her. But we learn, instead, that Lena enjoys the travel. She enjoys the going and the moving. It isn’t about finding that man anymore (maybe it never was), but it is instead about beginning again.
Quotes from the Book
“He will overlook and fail to see chances, opportunities, for riches and fame and welldoing, and even sometimes for evil. But he wont [sic] fail to see a chance to meddle” (p. 24).
“It is 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” (p. 75).
“But so often the practiced and chronic liar deceives only himself; it is the man who all his life has been selfconvicted [sic] of veracity whose lies find quickest credence” (p. 85-86).
“It beats all how some folks think that making or getting money is a kind of game where there are not any rules at all” (p. 96).
“Memory believes before knowing remembers. Believes long than recollects, longer than knowing even wonders. Knows remembers believes a corridor in a big long garbled cold echoing building of dark” (p. 119).
“Just when do men that have different blood in them stop hating one another?” (p. 249).
“But what woman, good or bad, has ever suffered from any brute as men have suffered from good women?” (p. 316).
“That’s not worthy of Byron, of hatred. But so often our deed are not. Nor we of our deeds” (p. 403).
“It seems like a man can just about bear anything. He can even bear what he never done. He can even bear the thinking how some things is just more than he can bear. He can even bear it if he could just give down and cry, he wouldn’t do it. He can even bear it to not look back, even when he knows that looking back or not looking back wont [sic] do him any good” (p. 423).