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William Faulkner (revised 2009)

  1. Light in August (1932)
Biographical / Background Information

Faulkner was born in 1897 in Oxford, Mississippi, a small college town and the northernmost large town in Mississippi, also fairly centrally placed between Western and Eastern Mississippi. He spent most of his working life in Oxford, so differs in this respect from Fitzgerald who moved away from his birthplace, St Paul, Minnesota. In 1925, when The Great Gatsby was first published, Faulkner was in New Orleans, where he met and was helped by Sherwood Anderson. On Anderson’s advice he began writing about life in his home territory, North Mississippi, which he recreated as the fictional Yoknapatawpha County. Lafayette County becomes Yoknapatawpha County and Oxford becomes Jefferson.

So over 19 novels Faulkner plots out imagined characters and events in a fictionalized and recognizably southern topology. Some of the influences on his writing include:

  1. A trip to Paris in July 1925, where he bought the Shakespeare and Co 1922 edition of Joyce’s Ulysses.
  2. Middle class Southern Culture, including the set of Sir Walter’s Scott’s novels his family owned. Regarded in Mississippi as "how to" manual about how to live the feudal aristocratic life.
  3. The Bible. In the catalogue of his library after his death is listed a 12 volume reading set. He tended to refer to it when interviewers asked what he read. (However, one needs to attend to what Richard Gray says about Faulkner’s ploys for keeping interviewers at bay!)
  4. Southern Oral Culture. He grew up listening to stories told by black nannies, black or mixed breed servants / share croppers, etc.
  5. Hunting Tales. These could include tales within a tale.

This leads to his characteristic prose style, which pieces a story together from different perspectives.

In February 1931 Sanctuary was first published, and then a revised edition was published in March 1932. This was commercially successful, and achieved notoriety because of its shocking and sensational sexual content. Apart from Sanctuary, however, Faulkner’s work was not commercially successful, and he tended to be regarded for a long while as a regional novelist. He was reasonably successful as a short story writer, and he would supplement his income by trips to Hollywood, where he wrote screen plays. He would then return home to write another novel. So during the 30s and 40s when he was doing his best writing, he could never earn enough money from the novel writing, and tended to receive derisory reviews. Then in the 50s and 60s he became a sort of American super star. He received the Nobel Prize for literature in 1950. This change in fortune was mainly due to the New England critic, Malcolm Cowley, putting together a collection of his writing for the Portable Faulkner, which was first published in 1946. To do so, Cowley had to slash up his first editions to create a working copy. But soon after that Faulkner became critically acclaimed, with Cleanth Brooks at Yale leading the way, and the inevitable mini-industry of Faulkner studies developed rapidly. In fact, he was pretty much marketed as an American abroad in the 50s and 60s. He would be toted out on State Department trips as the "American Author." During the Eisenhower years he went to France, England, Norway, Japan, and Venezuela; and he was "Writer in Residence" in a number of prestigious American universities.

Approaches to reading the text – the Fifties

Faulkner’s Light in August was published soon after Scott Fitzgerald wrote "Echoes of the Jazz Age" (November 1931) and "My Lost City" (July 1932), in October 1932. Richard Gray reminds us that:

[B]etween 1929, the year of the Wall Street Crash, and the year Light in August was published per capita income dropped 100%, unemployment rose from 500,000 to 13 million, and the average income of working Americans dropped back to what it had been at the beginning of three decades of technological revolution. The South was especially badly hit – the Roosevelt Administration was, after all, later to see the region as its most pressing economic problem – and for all his pursuit of privacy, Faulkner could hardly have sheltered himself from the economic whirlwind. (179)

I shall return to Richard Gray’s reading of the novel. His is an authoritative, contemporary approach, which we shall probably feel in tune with, since it reflects familiar ways of considering texts. But first I want to look at the way a young critic, called Chloe Ardellia Wofford approached Faulkner’s work in 1955. I want to quote extensively from her Introduction:

As each age invariably does, the twentieth century has manifested several convictions in its literature which are peculiar to the times. Of the several, one is predominant enough to contribute substantially to a definition of this century. It can be inferred from contemporary literature that a great part of the uniqueness of our time has its roots in the widespread concept of man as a thing apart — as an individual who, if not lost, is impressively alone. […]That authors agree alienation is the predominant characteristic of this age is seen by their repeated use of it as a theme, motivating agent or character in so many fields of literary endeavor, and indicates to what extent this subject has become a defining element in our time. […] Nathan A. Scott Jr. […] asserts that literature, since Edgar A. Poe, has been increasingly "symptomatic … of a state of tragic disorganization and breakdown within the structure of modern civilization."
Contemporary isolation is unique in that it stems from complete disillusionment by the world and distrust of its values, whereas in previous centuries alienation was generally the result of a commitment to one value that was in the minority. Current isolation is not "alienation within a stable world, but in a world where ‘things fall apart’." The exiles of this age stand in the solitude of the seeker for a belief, whereas in the past the isolated were defenders of an unpopular one.
Unique as the situation is, the questions it raises are the ones commonly asked when a human condition is under scrutiny: Why has the condition come about, and is it valid? Is isolation inevitable because of conditions or is it a matter of choice, and if it is a matter of selection, is it a sound or unsound choice? […]
William Faulkner, envisioning the gleam of a brighter horizon, believes it possible to establish complete harmony between man and his position by a return to the old virtues of brotherhood, compassion and love. He believes, too that man has a responsibility to the future and must be reconciled to it. Alienation is not Faulkner’s answer. To his view it is a method of escape and nothing is gained or improved by it. Seeing alienation as a matter of choice on the part of the individual and as a sin, Faulkner provides a means for its transcendence in love. Thus, for him, it takes on the quality and proportion of a tragic flaw and he uses isolation as the theme in some of his attempts to write tragedy. In the struggle between good and evil, and the conflict between free will and fate Faulkner sees his isolated protagonists as doomed to a tragic failure. His world is ruled by a moral order not always comprehensible to man, but nevertheless present, and to ignore this order in the pride of isolation is, to him, the cardinal sin. (1-3)

In her final paragraph, Wofford concludes that Virginia Woolf and William Faulkner "agree on the answer to the questions of death, life, time and morality — that honesty and self-knowledge are essential to understanding these enigmas." Wofford doesn’t offer a detailed reading of Light in August, instead she concentrates on Absalom, Absalom! and The Sound and the Fury. But we might speculate that if she were to apply these concepts to Light in August she would emphasise Joe Christmas as an isolated, alienated human being, who is "evil" in his choice to continue isolated, rather than accept the "redemption" offered by Miss Burden. And Byron Bunch as initially a parallel alienated, isolated figure, cutting himself off from the community as much as possible, but who finally transcends this sin, by coming to terms with his love for Lena Grove. In this reading, this theme of wilfully chosen, sinful isolation would be reinforced further through the character of Hightower, who having failed in his marriage and in his ministry, has shut himself off from the world for most of his adult life, dwelling in the past in a way that offers little hope for a redeemed future. Although there is a gleam of hope, since he delivers new life, even if this is accidental rather than providential. Or would the point be, that we can’t be sure which.

I don’t want to take Chloe Wofford’s name in vain, and I certainly don’t want to put words into her mouth. However, her reading of the novel is in keeping with critical approaches at that time. Here for example is a reading by C. Hugh Holman, from an article entitled, "The Unity of Faulkner’s Light in August," PMLA, 73, 1 (March 1958), 155-166:

The central fact in this story of the suffering servant Joe Christmas is his belief that he bears an imperceptibly faint strain of Negro blood, an ineradicable touch of evil in the eyes of the society of which he is a part and in his own eyes as well. This Negro blood exists for him as a condition of innate and predetermined darkness, a touch of inexorable original sin, a burden he bears neither through his own volition nor because of his own acts. In the lost central years of his life his sense of this innate damnation leads him to shock his many women with confessions of his Negro blood. (158)


After Percy Grimm shoots Joe down, he mutilates him, and then, with the crowd watching, "the pent black blood" rushes from him. Faulkner says:
It seemed to rush out of his pale body like the rush of sparks from a rising rocket; upon that black blast the man seemed to rise soaring into their memories forever and ever. They are not to lose it, in whatever peaceful valleys, beside whatever placid and reassuring streams of old age, in the mirroring faces of whatever children they will contemplate old disasters and newer hopes. It will be there, musing, quiet, steadfast, not fading and not particularly threatful, but of itself alone serene, of itself alone triumphant.
This is Joe Christmas’ crucifixion and his ascension, and this outrushing and ascending stream of black blood becomes his only successful act of communion with his fellowmen. Through it, a symbol of his Negro qualities shed for sexual reasons in the house of a man of religion, Joe Christmas becomes one of the "charts against which [man] measures himself and learns to know what he is … a matchless example of suffering and sacrifice…" (159)

To me now this seems a perverse and racist reading of the text. There is no attention to the laconic irony of the narrator’s voice here, his detached, quietly critical description of how little this unnecessary killing and maiming will affect the onlookers, and of how they will absorb it so that it doesn’t disturb their sense of things. Which is to say, that neither Wofford’s 1955 reading, nor this one paid attention to voice, nor to the sense of a speech community that Faulkner communicates so vividly in his prose. So I shall rectify this by quoting you some of "Wofford’s" prose from 1987:

Denver began to see what she was saying and not just to hear it: there is this nineteen-year-old slave girl – a year older than herself – walking through the dark woods to get to her children who are far away. She is tired, scared maybe, and maybe even lost. Most of all she is by herself and inside her is another baby she has to think about too. Behind her dogs, perhaps; guns probably; and certainly mossy teeth. She is not so afraid at night because she is the color of it, but in the day every sound is a shot or tracker’s quiet step.
Denver was seeing it now and feeling it – through Beloved. Feeling how it must have felt to her mother. Seeing how it must have looked. And the more fine points she made, the more detail she provided, the more Beloved liked it. So she anticipated the questions by giving blood to the scraps her mother and grandmother had told her – and a heartbeat. The monologue became, in fact, a duet as they lay down together, Denver nursing Beloved’s interest like a lover whose pleasure was to overfeed the loved. […] Denver spoke, Beloved listened, and the two did the best they could to create what really happened, how it really was, something only Sethe knew because she alone had the mind for it and the time afterward to shape it: the quality of Amy’s voice, her breath like burning wood. The quick-change weather up in those hills – cool at night, hot in the day, sudden fog. How recklessly she behaved with this white girl – a recklessness born of desperation and encouraged by Amy’s fugitive eyes and her tenderhearted mouth. ( Beloved 77-8)

In my mind Toni Morrison shows herself to be the natural successor to Faulkner here, and indeed takes his manipulations of voice and of stories within stories even further. She has also learnt from him something about how characters reflect upon the past, how they reconstruct history in their minds. Although the important dynamic of this scene is the way in which the story belongs to a whole community of women, it is Sethe’s story, passed on to Denver, with some of it supplied by her grandmother, Baby Suggs, as well as by her mother; and she comes to fully realize it in retelling it to her sister, Beloved, who has come back from beyond death. Compared with Morrison’s treatment of how history and stories are passed on, in Faulkner’s world characters are represented in a way which foregrounds their isolation initially. They are "self contained" and separate. Yet it is an interesting coincidence that Beloved the novel, is written by an author who read Light in August when preparing her Masters Dissertation in 1955. Both novels have multiple narratives and multiple points of view, and both have a central figure, who is the pregnant young mother, journeying and giving birth whilst still on her journey.

In Light in August, she is presented in a less mediated fashion at the very start of the novel:

Sitting beside the road, watching the wagon mount the hill toward her, Lena thinks, "I have come from Alabama: a fur piece. All the way from Alabama a-walking. A fur piece." Thinking although I have not been quite a month on the road I am already in Mississippi, further from home than I have ever been before. I am now further from Doane’s Mill than I have been since I was twelve years old. (5)

The text starts with a third person unobtrusive narrator who reports her thought directly in quotation marks the first time, but then immediately goes into indirect free style, reporting her thoughts in italics. And within a few pages the narrative style moves between simple narration of her story, her interior monologue, recapitulating her journey, conversations about her held by other characters and narration of situations in which she reveals more of herself to other characters, as well as further of her thoughts again alternating between italics and reported thought in quotation marks. (see 9).

My point is that Toni Morrison in the 1950s wrote about Faulkner using a universalizing discourse, which replicated some of the discourses of modernism rather than critiqued them. Morrison wrote of: "death, life, time and morality" saying of Absalom, Absalom!:

Time wins the battle. The complete annihilation of evil is again Faulkner’s statement that there is a moral order though it may not be immediately comprehensible to man. Time itself will affirm the presence of Providence. (39) 

Indeed looking back over my files I discovered that in my 1981 lecture notes on this text  I wrote:

What connects the story of Lena Grove and the story of Joe Christmas is not that they both know Lucas Burch / "Joe Brown", but that they are both reworkings of the Christian myth of the Holy Family.

And yet Faulkner doesn’t speak like that. His novel doesn’t enunciate universal philosophical or religious themes; his narration emphasises the particularity of specific fictional characters in a specific fictionalized place, through an amazing ear for varieties of voice. So I want to go back and start again, bearing in mind that we can read Faulkner through Toni Morrison’s mature prose style, and discover far more than through her early critical prose. And also coming back to the work of Richard Gray, who I think is one of the best Americanists in the UK at the present time.

Contemporary ways of reading the text 

The American South - Mississippi

Faulkner’s family could trace its roots in the south going back for generations. Richard Gray characterizes four main themes in his description of what makes the American South so different from other parts of the U.S.

  • Agricultural monopoly – King Cotton. Rural population far exceeds urban population, even in to 1920s.
  • Economic poverty – In the 1920s the per capita income in Mississippi is no more than $396 (well below a third of the national average). In terms of social deprivation it was more like a third world in the first world.
  • Military defeat. The South suffered defeat in a Civil War, which the rest of the U.S. hadn’t undergone. Thus the ideology of unbounded optimism is not a part of Southern culture.
  • Slavery / segregation. Increased in 19th century, after introduction of cotton as main crop. In 1820s had been on the wane, but with the economic necessity for plantations and slave labour slavery increased as did Southern rhetoric supporting it.

To Gray’s list I would add:

  • Southern cultural myths. The myth of the plantation as a focalizer of values. Around the trope of the plantation house we find the belief in white supremacy, the myth of the benign family caring for all its family members (including slaves and sharecropping farmers), the myth of patriarchal power, the myth of the pure and virginal Southern Belle.
  • Religious discourses. The south is the home of reactionary, fundamentalist religious sects. E.g. In 1925 J.C. Scopes was taken to court by William Jennings Bryan for teaching the theory of evolution in school. William Jennings Bryan (three times democratic candidate for president) won. It became illegal to teach evolution in Tennessee. Bryan died of a heart attack not long after, and it was suggested that he had been beaten by the cross-examination by the defence lawyer, Clarence Darrow.
  • Right wing politics. Between 1920-40, a group known as the Southern Agragrians attempted to mobilize southern cultural myths in the cause of reactionary politics. (See, I’ll Take My Stand, 1930). Putatively a moderate, Faulkner was misunderstood and even vilified by both sides. Although I have to say that his opinions and his political rhetoric were of their time and place and embedded (not always critically) in an American ideology, which in the fifties expressed itself in a rhetoric of freedom as being anti-communist.
  • The plight of local Native Americans, who lost much of their land in the 19th century, but continued to live in the area.
"I listen to the voices"

Richard Gray quotes an early interview with Faulkner:

In a very early interview, for example, he argued that the best way to keep character separate from the author was more or less to eliminate the author altogether. "Mr. Faulkner had the very interesting idea," recalled the interviewer, "centring about the thesis that Dostoevski could have written the Brothers in one third the space had he let the characters tell their own stories instead of filling page after page with exposition."
"The character, the rhythm of the speech, compels its own dialect," Faulkner insisted elsewhere; self-revelation, with all its strange mixture of intimacy and secrecy was perhaps best left as the responsibility of each individual voice. […] "talk" for him was a matter not just of the subtle manoeuvres and rituals of everyday conversation but also the voices a person hears within him as he struggles to emerge into identity through words. [...]
In his book, Problems of Dostoevski’s Poetic, Mikhail Bakhtin argued that Dostoevski was the creator of a new form, "the polyphonic novel." What distinguishes this form, Bakhtin suggested, is that "a character’s word about himself and his world is just as fully weighted as the author’s word usually is." The voice or word of the character is not subordinated to the voice or word of the author; on the contrary, it "sounds, as it were, alongside the author’s word" combining "both with it and with the full and equally valid voices of the other characters." (6-7)

In his first chapter, entitled "Fictions of History," Richard Gray investigates this in more detail than I can go into here. However, I think it is important to grasp the fundamental principle that there is no privileging of the author in Faulkner’s work; that the characters reveal themselves through their voices, and that what results is a representation of a North Mississippian community made up of a series of private characters, each of whom is defined through voice.

Again Richard Gray quotes Faulkner: 

I listen to the voices […] and when I put down what the voices say, it’s right. (5) 

I want to suggest some of the voices you might look out for in your reading of the text:

  • Different styles of Southern dialect, including poor white and black voices
  • Mimetic voice or represented speech
  • Private voice
  • Psychic voice or verbalized thoughts
  • Oratory drawing on a Southern tradition of rhetoric
  • Faulkner’s writer’s voice

(Adapted from Stephen M. Ross 1989.)

Although I have taken the categories from Ross, I don’t want to pursue his line of argument in detail, since it might draw us into quite complicated discussions of narrative theory. I just want to add one proviso to this list. The emphasis on voice or "dialogics" doesn’t imply that the narrative functions only through telling. I think Faulkner use of the different voices also works by showing. (Mimesis and diegesis)


In 1978, Joseph Blotner’s Selected Letters of William Faulkner was published, and reviewed in the TLS by my then colleague, Harold Beaver. His review was entitled: "In defence of privacy." He quoted from a letter to Malcolm Cowley, where Faulkner wrote:

I will protest to the last: no photographs, no recorded documents. It is my ambition to be, as a private individual, abolished and voided from history, leaving it markless, no refuse save the printed books; I wish I had had enough sense to see ahead thirty years ago and, like some of the Elizabethans, not signed them. It is my aim, and every effort bent, that the sum and history of my life, which in the same sentence is my obit and epitaph too, shall be them both: he made the books and he died.

Beaver also quoted the following comment:

I would have preferred nothing at all prior to the instant I began to write, as though Faulkner and typewriter were concomitant coadjutant and without past on the moment they first faced each other at the suitable (nameless) table.

And the following advice to a young writer:

Start off by seeing if you can tell the story orally to me, for instance, in a single sentence.

The emphasis on privacy goes beyond a desire to stay out of the limelight, and springs from Faulkner’s sense that if you probe a person too insistently their identity might turn out to be insubstantial. He sensed that the American Dream, founded as it was on a belief in individualism, had to be maintained by sustaining the myth of individuality. A person’s sense of their inherent individuality was perhaps merely a myth, and the best way to protect it was by shrouding the private person in mystery. Mere facts were very "thin" and so was a person’s individual identity if subject to too much scrutiny.

American Gothic?

As we shall see when we read Beloved, Toni Morrison draws on the Gothic tradition in her novel about the unwritten, unspoken African-American history of slavery. Faulkner also draws on Gothic conventions in Light in August. Thinking back to Poe’s "Fall of the House of Usher," we can read that text as quintessentially about the American South, and about the Plantation house, and plantation owner’s fear of female sexuality and of the lush, fertile land that his house is built upon. So gothic is a very southern genre, in which the decaying and disintegrating house is a major trope. Faulkner’s original working title for Light in August  was Dark House, and the original manuscript begins with Hightower in a dark space, which used to be the centre of the town, but is no more. One might characterize the gothic elements as:

  • The hand of the past affects the present.
  • Anxiety about the past which cannot be resolved.
  • Hightower’s "dark" house.
  • Miss Burden’s plantation house on the edge of the community.
  • The complications of class / race warfare
  • Joe Christmas as a "Frankenstein" monster, i.e.. as a figure of pathos created by his mad makers, and subsequently excluded from human society.

Incidentally, when he was asked whether Joe Christmas was "Negro," Faulkner characteristically answered "I don’t know." Once he had written his novels he never claimed authorial knowledge about them, but spoke of them as if he were just a reader.


American Humour?

In Sanctuary the material had been so shocking that Faulkner rewrote the first version, sharing some of the costs. In Light in August the narrative of the attempted rape at the end is up-beat and eventually optimistic. The humour of the story is magnified, because it is a tale within a tale, with various sexual innuendoes between the husband and wife as they lie in bed talking "pillow talk." And I would argue that there is a laconic, and at times dark humour running through the whole story, which makes it difficult to call this simply a "tragedy." Although Faulkner wasn’t commercially successful at the time, one could imagine this as a screen-play, played not for the dark tragedy of the segregation in Mississippi, but for the humour of Lena Grove and Lucas Birch, as well as of Lena Grove and Byron Bunch. Joe’s grandfather and grandmother are grim and sad characters, but the depiction of them moves almost into farce at the end.

To me the funniest section focuses on the behaviour of bloodhounds brought in to track down Joe Christmas after Miss Burden's murder and on the Sherriff 's responses to them. (At the same time this section can be read as a recapitulation of themes that have already been enunciated in the text.) Faulkner's humour is highly perceptive about the meeting points between the inhabitants of the "natural" world and  the world of modernity. Animal behaviours can be seen as ridiculous from the point of view of those inhabiting modernity, or from another persepctive as barometers of the craziness of the modern condition. Consider and compare for example "The Bear" in Go Down Moses.


I mentioned that Faulkner started out writing in New Orleans, and we shouldn’t forget that it was the "home" of jazz. Sherwood Anderson’s writing has been described as closer to jazz in its style and structure than to the formal plotting of the (European) novel. And in a piece entitled, "Kerouac’s Sound," Warren Tallman wrote the following:

It is evident that in much recent fiction — Joyce, Kafka, Virginia Woolf and Faulkner are obvious examples — the narrative line has tended to weaken, merge with and be dominated by the sum of variations. Each narrative step in Faulkner’s work is likely to provoke many sidewinding pages before a next narrative step is taken. More, a lot of Faulkner’s power is to be found in the sidewindings. In brief, what happens in jazz when the melody merges with the improvisations and the improvisations dominate, has been happening in fiction for some time now.

 (q.v. Robert Creeley. A Sense of Measure. 41-2.) 

If it helps to hear Faulkner’s voices that way rather than through French theories of narratology, it might be a good approach to follow, and one which is more appropriate to an author coming from and fictionalizing the Northern Mississippi region.

Helen M Dennis

Works Cited

William Faulkner. Light in August. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1960.

Richard Gray. The Life of William Faulkner: A Critical Biography. Oxford: Blackwell, 1994.

C. Hugh Holman.  "The Unity of Faulkner’s Light in August." PMLA, 73, 1 (March 1958).

Stephen M. Ross. Fiction’s Inexhaustible Voice: Speech & Writing in Faulkner.University of Georgia Press, 1989.

Chloe Ardellia Wofford. Virginia Woolf's and William Faulkner's Treatment of the Alienated. Unpublished MA Thesis. Cornell University Graduate School, September 1955.

Points for consideration

  • In what ways is this novel specifically southern? 
  • How does Faulker employ Biblical themes and imagery?
  • Look out for specific instances of the "Outsider" motif in the text, and think about how they are represented.
  • Find one example of American Gothic style.
  • Find and analyse a humourous episode.
  • Think about the ways in which gender and race are represented in the text.


Burning House





Faulkner & religion 

The image and concept of the burning house is central to the representation of history, the south, family, gender and religion in Light in August.
Houses, as units of social stability and structure, are disrupted, corrupted and subverted within the novel.


Notably it is women and not men who frame Faulkner's narrative; it is Lena who opens and closes the novel, providing a framework for the male-dominated central plot with her coming-of-age tale, which subverts the traditional male bildungsroman format.  However, the women in the novel seem to fade into the background in comparison to the strong, often violent male characters — e.g.Christmas — who emerge to take a central role; the female characters who do not attempt to subvert this take on gender roles — e.g. Miss Burden — are not able to function in this male-dominated society,as demonstrated by her death.


To what extent does Faulkner agree with the contention that determinism is significant justification for the preaching of racial inequality?
The heteroglossic narrative of the novel reflects a view of religion as a divisive, interiorized and deeply damaging construction that acts as a barrier to communication.


Violence and alienation caused by patriarchal ghosts (the collective ghosts of southern slaveholding society) replace conventional religion and breed religious fanatics, to the detriment of society.