Major Themes in Faulkner's Light in August

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  • Topic: Light in August, William Faulkner, Yoknapatawpha County
  • Pages : 8 (1244 words )
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  • Published : October 8, 1999
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Light In August:

A Study of 20th Century Man's Search for Self

A Study of the Origins of Evil

"...a man's future is inherent in that man..."

-Faulkner in the University. p.139

Faulkner's Light in August is a metaphor. In fact it is many

metaphors, almost infinitely many. It is a jumble of allusions,

themes, portraits, all of them uniquely important, many of them

totally unrelated. In fact no 20th century writer has even

approached the sheer quantity of symbolism Faulkner packed into

every page, with, perhaps, the exception of James Joyce who went so

far as to surpass Faulkner in this regard. So obviously it would be

foolish to attempt to trace every line, follow every branch to its

root, one could spend a lifetime dissecting the book in this

manner. Fortunately, in the midst of this menagerie of wonders,

there are dominate themes. There are veins of meaning that permeate

throughout. Chief among them; Faulkner's study of 20th century

man's search for identity, and his compassionate portrait of the

origins of evil.

I have come from Alabama a fur piece (Faulkner, p.3). The

reader begins the book in this manner, following the simple-minded

and determined Lena as she travels, neither coming nor going,

simply moving. Immediately the book draws into her past, relating

events leading up to this point, explaining her motives. One gets a

definite feel for her character, and settles into her narrative,

but as soon as this happens, the book switches gears, turning

instead to a vague character, Joe Christmas. With little

introduction, or warning, the book reels into Joe's past, catching

the reader totally unaware and throwing off the entire continuity

of the book. Faulkner's desire for unity and coherence in the

pattern is not as strong as is his desire for truth to individual

response (Reed, p.123). Thus Lena is a frame, she serves only to

accentuate Christmas's story, by contrast. Faulkner demands the

reader follow, and realize this.

So we now see Christmas's childhood. From the beginning,

Christmas is two things. One, he is a totally clean slate in that

he has no idea whatsoever of his past, his origins. He is neither

predestined to good nor evil, simply born. By this same token,

Christmas is left confused. Because he has no idea of his origins,

he has no idea of self, even to the extent of not being sure of his

race. Christmas is thoroughly alone in the world, irredeemably

separate from everyone.

"Well, here I am" (Faulkner, p.134). This is the first thing

The boy Christmas says. A fitting statement on his utter aloneness.

While Christmas is emotionally alone, he is not left alone by

others. Light in August reiterates its themes by a series of

different dramatic scenes acted by different examples of the same

types (Gold, p.41). McEarhern and the dietitian are essentially the

same: Authority figures who try to force on him their own ideas of

who he is, or who they want him to be. And the two, identical,

dramatic scenes acted by different examples of the same types, are

these: When Christmas is carried off by the insane janitor, and

when Christmas faints after spending hours standing while McEarhern

tries to force him to learn a pointless Catechism. Both scenes

involve Christmas's inability to resist, as authority figures try

to determine who he will be. Both scenes end with Christmas being

more confused than ever, yet more unwilling than ever to commit to

either picture of himself.

The dietitian does all in her power to convict Christmas of

being a Negro, and then, his foster father, McEarhern, tries to

force on Christmas an ideology totally foreign to him. McEarhern

uses extreme Calvinism to mold Christmas into a purely moral

person, while the...
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