I read Light in August many years ago and was moved by it but didn’t remember a great deal more than that. I wanted to revisit it. With this reading, I again found it to be a remarkable book. It is first and foremost an unflinching book—from a fearless writer—that examines Southern, American society in the early 1930s and finds it in many respects insane in its delirious fundamentalist animus toward black-skinned people and sexual women. The story opens and closes with bookending scenes of a young woman, Lena–preternaturally calm in demeanor–who goes in search of the father of the child she is carrying, motivated it appears by a simple but firmly held set of desires about family and parenthood. Her journey takes her into the heart of darkness, to the world of a man named Joe Christmas whose young mother likely would have wanted, like Lena, to join her life with her child’s father. But Christian society brands her lover both depraved and worthless (at once horrible and insignificant) by virtue of his ostensible blackness and will not stand for such a union.
The story moves with a relentless quality that conveys the tornadic rage tearing through the community, until the story reaches an orgasm of physical and mental fury toward the man, Joe Christmas, who is assumed to be black but is in fact white-skinned in appearance and factually indeterminate with respect to race. His bewildered life and the mad fury toward it form the center of the book.
The psychotic misogyny is equal in intensity to the racism portrayed. It is a fury Christmas himself lives out. The sexual woman is “God’s abomination.” Blackness and womanhood are the twin “outrages” that fuel vicious attack in a 1930s Southern society that is regrettably too recognizable in the racism, misogyny, and fanaticism of today.
Faulkner leaves unanswered questions regarding why such religious fervor has been aimed at certain classes of humans. Viewing them as God’s abominations affirms and liberates, indeed sanctifies, the impulse to violently destroy them. Joe Christmas’ violence toward women is more transparent. He was cast out of an orphanage after becoming dangerous, though only five, because he witnessed and could report on the sexual misdeeds of one of the female staff. He is whisked away to another orphanage from which he is adopted by the McEachern couple. Faulkner stunningly portrays the man McEachern’s sadism toward young Joe who will not learn his catechism. Joe becomes his adoptive father’s twin in stubbornness and in the bent toward violence, though Joe’s brutality is not in the name of Christ. Having been displaced by the treachery of a young, attractive woman when five and inducted into McEachern’s cult of violence and stoicism, Joe is unable to tolerate the kindness and soft touch of his timid adoptive mother. She brings him a tray of food after McEachern whips him into collapse and Joe, though ravenous, throws the food against the wall (and only scoops it up from the floor—eating like a dog—when his adoptive mother is gone). He must survive and somehow thrive under the harsh glare of McEachern’s hawk eyes and softness will undermine him. Christmas attacks what he cannot safely tolerate. As an adult, away from his mother, he physically assaults every woman whose affection might encircle him (or whose sympathy might reduce him to the token poor black in need of saving.) The forces driving the broader vindictive society are less fully examined than those operating within Joe Christmas but they are chillingly portrayed and the individual characters who live out the societal animus come to life in all their startling madness.
An entire book could be written about Faulkner’s use of language (I expect more than one such book has been written). I’ll make just a couple comments. Faulkner’s language is torrential and at the same time hypnotic. At times it leaves the reader like the swimmer overpowered by a current that bashes their head against a rock and circles back to do it again. The images and the worrisome notions they convey carry the reader along and there is no place to exit the river. The language establishes a world that is dark and alarmingly violent both emotionally and physically. The force of particular, oft-repeated words (“outrage,” “abomination”) and of blended word-concepts (“womansign, womansinning”) does a lot of work creating an atmosphere of intensity and impending violence. Also critical is the relentless use of the N word, which makes the reader want to scream “enough” but Faulkner never lets up, never takes his foot off the gas, as should be the case because he is building toward devastation. Words of abuse toward women (“devil’s crop, abomination, whore, bitchery”) are equally unremitting. Faulkner makes certain his reader will be offended time and again and want to escape to somewhere they can wash clean.
Faulkner’s dialogue stands apart from the operatic narration. The dialogue he assigns to ordinary working people is remarkable in its naturalness. He understands the cadences of the workaday speech of his townfolk, the way for example that speech circles and repeats—gets stuck in eddies–rather than moving straight ahead. He manages deftly both the routine patter of people squatting chatting on the street corner and the incinerating rages of a madman.
Toward the close of the book, as the community is aggregating to perpetrate the inevitable and terrible violence against Joe Christmas, Faulkner reminds us again and again how much our racial labels are affixed to particular bodies by the desire to loose the reins on our own sadism rather than by any objective reality about skin color. People need to assign blackness and can do it even in the absence of dark skin color. Various community members insist without evidence that Joe Christmas is black in order to have a black body to destroy. The young woman who gives birth to him must be seen as a whore impregnated by a black. That equation sets up condemnation of her youthful sexuality as blasphemy: the community’s twin obsessions intertwine. Faulkner beats us with these realizations as he portrays a society that beats bloody and treads upon its black and female members.
Immersed in Faulkner’s world, It is impossible to escape the parallels to today’s fact-free obsession with book-banning, voter infringement, cruel control of female bodies and other acts of tyranny occurring out of espoused distress about critical race theory, gender permissiveness, and the like. We find ourselves in the weird world of Q-Anon conspiracy theories decrying rampant pedophilia while the same strikingly indifferent to real offences against children and other vulnerable people. The rants of Faulkner’s characters when on fire about the “abominations” of blackness and femaleness could be taken from the unmoored vernacular of our own era.
Faulkner’s A Light in August is a book for the ages written courageously by an author responding to his particular time and place in the American story. It is a stunning book.