William Faulkner’s Light in August is, at first glance, a novel very regional in character. The American South shapes the characters and conflicts portrayed in a unique manner. However, rather than hindering the development of a universal theme within the novel, the South simply presents the best medium for Faulkner to present his message. The South is bound to tradition, and it was not until the era of Light in August that a truly more modern perception of race and identity could even exist without being immediately suppressed. Even as a more modern mentality began to form, the division between the traditional and the modern remained very clear. Faulkner capitalizes upon the obvious distinction to present a conflict between the old and new, the modern and the traditional, within the novel. Though the novel must eventually come to an end, this conflict will not, and indeed it is a perpetual one that still shapes the South today. Faulkner presents in Light in August a reason for this perpetual conflict, showing the necessity and inevitability of this conflict between traditional and modern through his triad of characters Joe Christmas, Joanna Burden, and Percy Grimm.

Throughout Light in August, the character of Joe Christmas struggles with his own racial identity crisis, which is a microcosm of the Southern “identity crisis.” In the American South, issues of racial relations on a large scale remained unresolved, as is clear from efforts of the period to maintain the social hierarchy from the traditional past. Joe Christmas suffers from this attempt to carry on the traditional practices, as society around him operates with the unstated purpose of keeping African Americans in the same subservient position they had occupied prior to the Civil War. The same dated views predominant in Faulkner’s South drive a wedge in the relationship of Joe Christmas and Joanna Burden. Joanna continually attempts to mold Joe to fit her inherited beliefs regarding race, as she remains willing enough to spend a night in his arms but not to share a meal with him. However, the relationship lasts for some time, creating the first part of Faulkner’s cycle of ideological conflict: unity. With the union of Joe Christmas and Joanna Burden, there is a temporary coexistence of the “new” and “old” Southern beliefs.

The next step in the cycle is, inevitably, the breaking of this unity. Joe sees his lover for what she is and tells her, “‘You’re old. I never noticed that before. An old woman. You’ve got gray in your hair.’” Joanna’s own age, emphasized by her menopause and the gray Joe recognizes in her hair, brings her into conflict with Joe. She wants their union to be truly consummated, with marriage and the birth of a child, but the simple truth is she is unable at her age to bring a new child into the world, and Joe has no desire to be her kept Negro. He sees her deception when she claims to be with child, and says, “You haven’t got any baby… There is not anything the matter with you except being old.” The inability for Joanna to give birth is another critique by Faulkner on the traditional mentality of the South, for like Joanna the traditional South is stagnant and unable to create anything new to add to the world. Joanna’s limitations frustrate her to the point that she grows tired of life, and plans a murder suicide. “Her eyes did not waver at all… There was no heat in them, no fury. They were calm and still as all pity and all despair and all conviction.” Faulkner’s description of Joanna’s calm determination to bring both Joe’s and her own life to an end gives only a hint of what Joanna’s true motive might be, suggesting a depth of emotions but not of hatred. Her earlier statement to Joe that they would both be “better off dead” suggests that she wants to be free from her own burden. Joanna’s burden is Joe, a Negro, which is in itself consistent with family tradition. The Burden family has continually preached the belief that “the curse of the white man is the black man.”

The final decision of Joanna’s to attempt a murder suicide is itself accompanied by a relic of the past. As the deputy says upon examining the pistol Joanna had intended for the murder, “It’s one of them old Civil War, cap-and-ball pistols.” The nature of the weapon draws Joe’s attention during the fateful confrontation: “…the shadow of the pistol and of her arm and hand on the wall did not waver at all, the shadow of both monstrous, the cocked hammer monstrous, back-hooked and viciously poised like the arched head of a snake.” This scene is the second part of Faulkner’s theme of conflict between old and new. Joanna, wielding the weaponry of the Confederacy, herself aged and clinging to traditional values, is the old South. Joe, with a modern concept of his own identity, a merge of white and black heritages, is himself ahead of his time, fitting in with neither the black nor white communities of the old South but rather part of the new. And between the lines, the two face off. Faulkner transitions to give a glimpse of Joanna’s brutal death.

Joe does not, however, die at Joanna’s hands. Her plan for both to die that night goes unfulfilled, and it remains for Percy Grimm to be the instrument of his death. Percy Grimm is quite simply a man born at the wrong time, a victim of such fervent jingoism that his attitude would not have been out of place in World War I- a war that he greatly resents having been unable to fight in. Out of this resentment comes Percy’s driving need to make all of life into a war. He picks a fight with any and all challengers to his blind faith in American military and by extension the superior white race. Faulkner describes him as clinging to “a belief that the white race is superior to any and all other races.” To the post World War II generation, such rhetoric has a familiar ring to it. Though Faulkner could not possibly have known of the events to come in Germany, in retrospect the attitudes Percy presents would not seem out of place for a member of the German Nazi party- the same unswerving devotion to the nation and unquestioning belief in white supremacy are clear.

However, Grimm’s belief in the nation as a whole does not translate into a faith in local law enforcement, and it is in disregarding the Sheriff that Grimm seeks out and kills Joe Christmas. When Grimm pursues an escaping Christmas right into Hightower’s house, he is armed with a pistol that he has been warned never to draw without the orders of the Sheriff. But any reason that remains in Grimm’s mind is abandoned when Hightower, in a misguided attempt to defend Joe, cries “ ‘Listen to me… He was with me the night of the murder. I swear to God---’ ” When Grimm snaps in reply, “Has every preacher and old maid in Jefferson taken their pants down to the yellowbellied son of a bitch?” it is clear that he believes Hightower, like Joanna, to have been Joe’s lover. That thought enrages him so that he pays no heed to the story as an alibi, but simply as another crime committed by Joe Christmas against the superior white race. The viciousness of Grimm’s subsequent acts carry with them an element of inhumanity that even the sheriff lacks, for instead of allowing Hightower’s story to cast doubt of Joe’s crime, Grimm takes it as justification for the brutality of his murder of Joe. Grimm’s final words to the dying Joe, “Now you’ll let the white woman alone, even in hell,” complete the conflict between the traditional and modern in the novel. Joe is slain for his sins against the old mentality, just as Joanna was slain by Joe for clinging unto death to the same traditional beliefs.

With the deaths of Joanna Burden and Joe Christmas, Faulkner’s theme of the perpetual conflict between the traditional and the modern reaches its inevitable conclusion. Modern has defeated traditional and traditional has defeated modern, but in the end, Faulkner presents to the reader no clear dictate as to whether he considers either side to be “right.” Rather, he presents the true brutality inherent in allegiance to any structure of belief, showing that instead it would be best for the two to coexist. The best example of such coexistence is found in the final chapter, with Lena and Byron Bunch. Byron is a modern man, defending Joe Christmas for the sake of Joe’s grandmother, willing to take the chance of appearing to be a sinner as long as he is doing what he feels to be right. Lena is the old, pursuing naively the traditional marriage to the father of her child that will make society take her in once more. Though Byron is not the father by blood of the child of Lena, he is the father in spirit, and it is in Byron and Lena’s romantic reconciliation that the unnamed child finds hope.

This essay also appears in my writing archive at http://www.wam.umd.edu/~amsalter/writing.html.

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