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  • Writer's pictureAlanna Grayce

Light in August by William Faulkner

I told you guys this one is crazy relevant to current events.

"Light in August was written in 1932 by William Faulkner. Y’all - 1932. That just goes to show how much of a classic it truly is, that it stands the test of time in such a way that it can still be applied today. To very much summarize, in case you’ve not read it, it focuses on Lena, an unwed mother who is searching for the father of her unborn/soon to be born child; Reverend Hightower, whose wife left him and he devolved into alcoholism in front of a judgmental congregation; and Joe Christmas, a man who is unsure of his parentage and his race- kind of essential knowledge back then ya know? Finally, we have Byron, the timid and quiet man who never makes himself a part of society really until he’s forced into it by trying to help Lena.

I’m going to focus on two of the major themes hit on in this novel. I will absolutely be skipping over some other major stuff, such as Joe Christmas’ hatred of women and where that stems from (serial killer in the making amiright y’all). But these two subjects are very poignant to today, so these are what i want to highlight.

First, I want to address the idea of man’s need to live within himself while recognizing his role and responsibility to fellow man. I mean.. What is more relevant to right now, during a global pandemic? Where we are faced every day with small sacrifices or extreme selfishness. In the context of this novel, we see each character suffer from some sort of isolation- Joe Christmas is unable to find a community to identify with; Lena is pregnant, unwed and alone; the Reverend Hightower is suffering from loss and alcoholism on his own.

This concept of recognizing responsibility, though, is a smidge more complex. Byron, for example, has created isolation for himself; he isn’t shunned from society by any means, he just hasn’t made himself a part of things. When pregnant and alone Lena comes into his life, though, he willingly takes responsibility of her and her unborn child. Joe Christmas is isolated, partially by his inability to come to terms with his own identity, but also by society’s inability to put him in a specific box. He cannot find his role in society, and thus struggles all his life to accept himself and to be accepted. He recognizes his responsibility to fellow man, though, when he finds peace with himself in the wake of committing murder. This is where society once more refuses him, and where society allows him to be brutally lynched.

Ultimately, Hightower realizes that mankind cannot isolate himself from fellow man; rather that he must be a part of the community, assuming responsibility for his own actions and also for those of his fellow man. Spoiler alert, though, this revelation is implied to be his dying thoughts- this incredible spurt of growth that really every person should be aware of you’d think? But Reverend Hightower had lived a life of worrying about others opinions, and living up to an ideal set forth by a Civil War hero grandfather, so he had never taken the time to explore those ideas on his own.

Similarly, so many people today I think are more concerned with others perceptions of them- what does my insta look like, am I on trend, blah blah blah. And like I get it, I like looking good. But I spent a long time getting right with myself, and that is what I worry about more than getting likes on my instagram. I don’t need that validation for myself. And I think that worrying about that kind of thing in the long run CAN create a degree of self-centeredness and entitlement, and those are issues that we see come into play right now over and over, but especially in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. People don’t want to wear a mask because they feel its an inconvenience. Yeah? Well one of my grandmothers getting coronavirus and dying would be a way bigger fricking inconvenience than you wearing a piece of cloth over your face for the 45 minutes you’re in Kroger. I mean it blows my mind that there is such this mindset of "I can do whatever I want and it doesn't matter because it doesn't affect you." BUT IT DOES.

We all live in a COMMUNITY and that means that to an extent, our actions are both representative of those around us but also have a direct affect on those around us, so we should act with the best interest of everyone in mind as often as possible. This notion of individualism is incredibly problematic, especially in the United States. I’m actually going to be discussing that idea in a later episode, so if you want to hear more on that definitely stick around.

So moving back to the book, One of the most important themes in this novel is that of racism and racial identity. Joe Christmas is, of course, the center-point for this as even though he presents as white, he is told as a small child that he is biracial. Seeing as how he was raised in an orphanage, he really can’t ever know for sure because he has absolutely no knowledge of where he came from, but the racism that he experienced as a child certainly negatively colored his upbringing. This contributes to major problems as an adult, where he has trouble developing his own identity. Sometimes he’s disgusted by the idea of blackness, and even beats a prostitute at one point for being willing to sleep with a black man. Other times he lives in black communities and tries to become a part of the community and learn the culture. He lives in this purgatory of shame and pride, and wants to tell anybody he is “close” to about his heritage- at least, what he believes to be his heritage.

This all brings to light the question of whether Joe Christmas’s identity crisis is a result of not knowing his ancestry and his immediate family, or if it is a result of the societal definitions of race. Personally, I would argue that he is unable to come to terms with his identity not because there are two unique cultures present that he may belong to equally, but that those cultures are pitted against each other as polar opposites and unable to blend.

This is, of course, relevant as we are experiencing a modern civil rights movement- something that is beautiful to behold, as it highlights ways we can be better and also ways that society as a whole (typically white people) benefit from the oppression and under-representation of people of color. Furthermore, in similar ways to Joe Christmas’s inability to reconcile his identity, I have seen and heard of so many people of color, and specifically mixed race people, who have difficulty in determining their identity to themselves or to others because of the boxes and expectations that are placed on people and cultures in modern day. Being placed into a box that you don’t actually fit into.. That’s not comfortable, you know? Now I don’t want to speak too much on this right now because it is not my place to speak on other people’s experiences, but I felt it absolutely necessary to highlight this integral theme of the book and its relevance to modern experiences.


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