Faulkner is often referred to as ‘the greatest American novelist’ and the ‘psychologist of the South’, his books as regarded as difficult to approach, perhaps even scary, and finally none of his works has had a major Hollywood makeover. These are three reasons just off the top of my head why you might have avoided reading Faulkner. In my case, it was Faulkner’s reputation as a difficult read that kept me away from the beauty of his work, until Light in August appeared on the U.S. Lit class syllabus. And was I surprised.
This is the story of Jefferson, Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi, a fictional county based on Faulkner’s home Lafayette County, Mississippi, and its inhabitants. The story is set in the period of Reconstruction, after the South loses the Civil War. This is a time of extreme segregation and racial prejudice, manifesting the South’s effort to redefine itself. Faulkner places his characters in this storm of uncertainty and confusion and follows their progress without inserting his authorial judgment. The reader has the freedom to connect with the book on his or her own terms.
The main character, Joe Christmas, is an orphan of an undefined racial origin. He does not know who his parents were, but he suspects he has some African-American blood in him and he does not hide it. He goes through life committing atrocious murders in a desperate need to find his own identity. He feels powerful and in control when he takes someone’s life, but this is not driven by a personal vendetta against a society laden with prejudice, it is a rebellion and a cry for help. Joe is composed of everyone and everything, a tabula rasa, of sorts, upon which the inscription of society and human nature can be read. He is constantly fighting against his invisibility, against the notion of being defined by the colour of your skin, of being stereotyped, of not being an individual, but a ‘code of behaviour’. With his actions he confronts the world, trying to enforce recognition and response.
Light in August is a book about cruelty and violence, about desperation and loss, about strength and hope, about truth. It is a brilliant read and I highly recommend it.
Words by Ava Dikova