By Chet Yarbrough
By: William Faulkner
Narrated by: Will Patton
To this reviewer, Faulkner, like Mark Twain, is an acquired taste. “Light in August” is considered by Modern Library, in their 1998 list, to be one of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century; “Time” magazine suggests the same thing in 1923 and 2005.
“Abasalom, Abasalom” is William Faulkner’s vision of the South. It is an interesting book but it gnaws at one’s sense of completeness, both in the society being described and the fate of its characters. Faulkner describes early 20th century prejudice with characters that are largely unforgivable and unlikable. All women are characterized as dissemblers, and sex objects that lure men to sin as though men have no will of their own. Religion is exclusively seen as punitive and destructive. Faulkner pictures southern life as dark with only slivers of light; maybe slivers of light in August but only one month in twelve leaves his characters mostly mired in violence, sin, and despair.
There are no happy characters in “Light in August”; there is no comic relief, there is no surcease of pain; there is only segregated despair. Joe Christmas is an abandoned orphan, denied by his grandfather because of his daughter’s indiscretion and Christmas’s presumed mixed blood parentage. Christmas is adopted by a religious zealot that beats Joe bloody, and curses Joe’s sexual yearning.
Lucas Burch is a cad that runs away from his pregnant girlfriend and disingenuously accuses his partner, Christmas, of being a murderer because he lusts for a $1,000 reward. Gail Hightower is an intellectual religious zealot that neglects his suicide-driven wife; is excommunicated from his church, and offers advice about love which, in his mind, is only about sexual attraction and carnal relationship. Joanna Burden is a rabid abolitionist that believes she knows what is best for others and doggedly pursues her belief until she is murdered by someone; probably Christmas. But, Faulkner’s story leaves Christmas’s guilt for the murder obscure and unproven.
“Light in August” reflects on sociopathic behavior borne of racial, religious, and sexual prejudice. Faulkner’s prose is beautiful but his story leaves one feeling that his perception of women is misogynistic and incomplete; i.e. women of “Light in August” are only about what they have between their legs. Female characters are defined by male violence or lust; i.e. they are seen as barer and carer of children, or adults that act like children; they are seen only as temptresses and manipulators; maybe that is all they could be in that era of the South but one doubts the completeness of that characterization.
Faulkner’s view of religion shows only its dark side; i.e. the side that disparages women, and psychologically and physically beats humans into blind submission; i.e. a religion that offers no escape from guilt for living in a real world. Religion certainly has this dark side but Faulkner’s vision is incomplete; e.g. religion also shines a light on human love, virtue, and fellowship. Ideals of hope, charity, and forgiveness parallel biblical stories of damnation, cruelty, and revenge. Quakers were in the forefront of the battle against slavery but Faulkner only represents zealots of the abolitionist movement in his characterization of the Burden family.
Joe Christmas’s life is a rural version of Richard Wright’s Bigger Thomas in “Native Son”. Like Faulkner, Wright vivifies unforgivable human events. Both Christmas and Thomas are driven to despicable acts by heritage, poverty, and circumstance; both are born in the poverty of absent-father’ households; both have female mother figures that love them; both are pre-disposed to violence because violence is how they relate to life. (Not to overemphasize the similarity of the characters, there are fundamental differences; i.e. Christmas lives in the south while Thomas lives in the north; Christmas, though of un-disclosed mixed race, appears white while Thomas is obviously Black; Christmas is small in stature while Thomas is big; Christmas is an entrepreneurial character while Thomas just gets by; Christmas hates his adoptive parents while Thomas lives with and loves his mother and sister.)
“Light in August” is a great work of fiction but it is a story of extremes; i.e. it lacks balance and fails to give a complete picture of human beings; let alone, southern society. It seems to reinforce a white northerner’s (though Faulkner is unquestionably southern) stereotype of the worst characteristics of southern society.
Faulkner draws attention to American societal failures in the same way his contemporary Richard Wright does in “Native Son”. However, Faulkner paints on a wider canvas; i.e. exploring the dark side of religious zealotry which has no north/south or east/west boundary. The irony of Faulkner’s wider vision is its narrow focus. Both ”Light in August” and “Native Son” are difficult to read because of the brutality of their main characters but Faulkner, though more lyrical and broadly visionary, is ironically one-dimensional and less complete than Wright.