16. Light in August, William Faulkner

1 Jun

What a wild ride. I wish I knew what the f*ck the man is talking about. This is my second time reading Light in August (the first time was in college during a wonderful “Proust, Joyce, Faulkner” comp lit class) and I thought I would ‘get it’ better as an adult, but I’m not sure I did.

The story is about a half-black orphan named ‘Joe Christmas’ (spoilers, alert) who has a passionate, insane sex affair with an older abolitionist woman, then kills her. The main ‘body’ of Joe Christmas’s story is book-ended by the story of a pregnant woman who has set out from Alabama on foot, with nothing, to find the man who got her up the stick. The title ‘Light in August’ refers to the fact that she’ll be light (give birth) in August. I always loved that. So, the pregnant woman, who is portrayed as calm, joyful, vapid, animal, stubborn, mindless, content, inevitable and inexorable, is meant to symbolize, I think, the inevitability of the flesh, the relentlessness of our animal processes, or something like that. And as far as I can figure, Joe Christmas, the murderer, is also somehow inevitably cursed and doomed and dragged down by the conflict of his mixed blood. He’s all wrapped up in circles when he wants to go straight, in terms of the Faulknerian liefmotifs, bogged down in the dark instead of the light.

I like Faulkner because I find him to be a cauldron of perversion and passion, revulsion, revolt, rage, and of course the galloping sentences, but I don’t find that he does something comprehensible or illuminating for the reader, with that. Maybe the stew of the time and place are just too distant, but to me the concept of a man having mixed racial blood is unshocking; and womanflesh is not animal and terrifying; so the whole plot and tension is a bit of a Huh? I get it that he’s bearing witness to what it was like in the South in his time, and he does it gloriously, but I kind of wish that someone would just spank him or he could marry a black girl and save a torrent of prose.

Someone tell me that I don’t get it. Please.

4 Responses to “16. Light in August, William Faulkner”

  1. pagesofjulia July 11, 2013 at 4:19 pm #

    Well, you certainly did explain the title to me, so you’re doing better than some of us on some counts, at least!

    When you describe his “cauldron of perversion and passion” (great phrase there) and all that, it sounds appealing, and like something I would like more than I did in fact. Interesting. Maybe I should read your blog more and Faulkner less.

  2. Valerie Stivers-Isakova July 13, 2013 at 1:42 pm #

    Hilarious Julia. I feel just the same way. I want someone to write with a Faulknerian sensibility and style about things that feel relevant to me/today. Thanks for reading!

  3. shadowoperator March 5, 2015 at 4:08 pm #

    I find Faulkner astonishingly unevolved, even for his own time. Don’t get me wrong, I sometimes love the flowing prose, but just as the canoe is making mad time downriver, it suddenly hits a rock of Southern awareness that wrenches me out of my admiration and appalls me. I thank you for the explanation of the title, it had never occurred to me that the title was centered in the woman. In fact, I think this is a case in which not only did Faulkner do a kind of disservice to his female character, but the male lecturer I heard on the book almost entirely failed to give any importance to her. My entire reading experience of the book was geared to emphasize Joe Christmas (J. C., “Jesus Christ,” an inverse Christ symbol, who ghoulishly enough spouts blood and life forth to “feed” the errant South from his genitals, when they are cut off). Imagine the state of my confusion when I had to teach the book a few years later! I was trying to adhere to what I had learned, but it was nearly impossible to satisfy my students as to why a murderer was a Christ symbol, even an inverse one, and when I confided my difficulties teaching it to an older academic, all she said was “That’s a very difficult book to teach.” I didn’t have the sense at the time to compare notes with the other T. A.’s who were teaching it and see what they knew or had come up with (the spirit of competition was alive and well in my graduate department!). Be that as it may, I appreciate your post and feel less alone in my sometime dislike of Faulkner..

    • Valerie Stivers-Isakova March 8, 2015 at 2:49 am #

      Great anecdote and “astonishingly unevolved” is a great way to describe Faulkner. Your comment made me go look up his wiki and discover a) that he was 5’5” b) his middle name was Cuthbert and c) yeah, he lived in Hollywood and was a screenwriter so at least had some exposure to non-deep-South values. I avoided writing about the Christ situation with Joe Christmas because I could not understand it. Glad to know I’m not alone. Get that misogynist professor on the horn, maybe he can explain it!

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