Deeper Appreciations: Faulkner

Man and Nature in Light in August
© Luke Sherwood 2010
William Faulkner’s Light in August presents the struggles of four diverse male characters, and blends these individual tribulations into a haunting and very challenging whole. So varied are Faulkner’s nuances and so intense his evocations that this reviewer began to feel adrift in a sea of thematic indicators.

Each chapter seemed to give its new twist to a character, or to hearken more and more forbiddingly to some catastrophe from which the players could no more avoid than alter. In fact, this feeling of sealed fate, of predetermined outcome, suffuses the entire novel, and yet Faulkner manages to surprise us even while confirming our fears.

W. Faulkner
If the character of Joe Christmas does not embody humanity subject to predestination, or some sort of powerlessness in the face of fate, then this reader cannot believe he embodies anything. All that Christmas is subject to, all that he endures and in turn engenders, has the stamp of foretold doom. His first blush with trouble, with the matron at the orphanage, arises from the most innocent of misdemeanors, but results in his adoption by McEachern, the strict and despotic man whose effect on Christmas is to propel him irrevocably toward alienation, crime, and ruin. But Christmas’s troubles start long before even the episode at the orphanage. He is born to the daughter of a half-crazed bigot, and the girl has him as the result of a dalliance with a traveling circus performer of controversial racial background. This unusual origin has all of Faulkner’s bases for conflict within it. The unsettled mixed race of Christmas’s father, and Christmas’s grandfather’s lunatic conclusions about this question, torture Christmas the rest of his life. The inexorability of the overtake and murder of the circus performer by Doc Hines (Christmas’s grandfather) is one of the early hints of the inevitable nature of fate in the novel; and Christmas’s landing at society’s literal and figurative curbstone (“… From that night the thousand streets ran as one street, with imperceptible corner and changes of scene … with he at twenty and twentyfive and thirty sitting on the seat with his still, hard face and the clothes (even when soiled and worn) of a city man …”) (Fourth paragraph of Chapter 10). This establishes the dichotomy central to the major conflicts in the novel: the eternal, impartial, and oblivious force of nature on the one hand, and the will and prejudices and constructs of man on the other.

Light in August shows these two camps at war and eventually, through the workings of an intriguing and highly aesthetic apparatus, shows not only a victor, but that victor’s conversion of a representative from the other camp. Christmas’s torturing doubts about himself all arise from that most pernicious of human inventions, racial prejudice. Joe’s grandfather, Doc Hines, gives those doubts a terrible urgency by the strength of his crazed conviction, and McEachern gives Christmas his antisocial bent by the brute force of his pious discipline. Both of these influences seem, sadly, logical enough to Christmas. Given only these two to sway Christmas, he might have turned out not too much different from thousands of other real or purported half-breeds. But this central doubt combines with a mistrust and hatred of women to lead to the climactic sacrifice of the book. From the viewpoint of the split between man and nature, it is quite natural and predictable that Christmas should hate women, because most of the female characters in the story have an affinity for and identify more closely with the side of Nature. The one exception to this generality is Joanna Burden, Christmas’s ultimate woman-problem.

But that story is well ahead, and we want to cover all the necessary ground to wield from that story all the significance it holds.

We look now at the other principal players. Gail Hightower is a former minister, hounded from his pulpit and made to give up his vocation because of his wild ravings about the Civil War history of the area – a history in which his own grandfather played a very active part. For the great majority of the book, and for long decades leading up to the book’s events, Hightower has retreated more or less completely from the mainstream of Jefferson’s life. He has resided, as his name suggests, in a tower of his own making, or rather, in a tower which he caused and allowed to be built for him by the townspeople. From this viewpoint, away from people and their desires, away from life, he observes and believes that man creates too much for man to bear, and should be relieved from the suffering that he makes for himself. Hightower and his distant vantage are without doubt the constructs of man: he and it are born out of a man-made history and man-made set of beliefs. But mainly it is Hightower’s own sense of the past (which dwells in that ultimate of man’s strife, the Civil War), and unity with that past, that builds the wall and the distance between him and rest of life. Hightower’s position at odds with life is similar to Joe Christmas’s in that the basis of his conflict also focuses on the past and on the conflict between the races. They approach the past, however, from opposite viewpoints: Hightower has idealized the past, reminding people in the present of the conflict and supposed culpability. Christmas has been warped by a past he has successfully put out of his mind, if not his psyche.

But specifically, both men’s grandfathers play an important role in motivating and controlling their actions. This emphasizes each man’s tendency toward the past: it forms them, and they are hopelessly unable to escape from it. The two grandfathers are very different, to be sure, and the embodiment of them through their grandsons is different, but consider: in Joe Christmas, the grandfather’s crazed and outraged opinion produces Christmas’s obsession with his own identity, and leads eventually to rape and murder. Hightower’s own decades-long obsession with the past eventually produces his final crisis of identity, wherein he considers the possibility of actually being one and the same as his grandfather, and the incontrovertible fact that he was prevented from living and loving during this subsequent lifetime by the obsession with his grandfather. This is the state of mind, this is the daily fact of his life that first earned him his hounding from the pulpit, and later his utter withdrawal from his life.

Christmas’s grandfather, Doc Hines, suffered from a racial hatred so virulent and unrelenting, that it had a mad and pernicious influence on Christmas. Christmas inherits enough of the white supremacist to absolutely revile the possible Negro blood within him, and his relations with and attitude toward women suffer, as well. This combination pushes him to the dark side of society, and paralyzes him in the gutter of sexual and racial prejudice, and indirectly at least, proves enough to kill him.

Drawing parallels between characters can be a dangerous pastime, and we have not yet finished with Christmas and Hightower. But now let us turn to each man’s disciple and shadow, to the men whose motivation for retreating from life’s pain and responsibility is more simple, on a lower plane, if you will. Lucas Burch and Byron Bunch have much in common, besides the strong similarity in last names. Each has a simple mind, not given to too complex reasoning, and each has as his first and foremost motivator, a woman. Each also associates himself with another of the main male characters, Bunch with Hightower, Burch with Christmas. In these two disciple-characters, Faulkner reduces the main tendencies in Hightower and Christmas to more mundane levels, to actions with clearer, simpler motivations. In the cases of Bunch and Burch, the main motivator is one and the same: Lena Grove. Burch’s and Bunch’s actions and attitudes toward Lena, the girl Burch gets pregnant, and Bunch seeks to aid and protect, reduce to simple and fundamental terms the conflict between nature’s irrevocable forces, and man’s struggle against them.

Nowhere does the author work a subtler comparison, and nowhere does a comparison yield more light on his theme than this Bunch/Burch relationship.

The novel opens with Lena’s trek to find Burch already started. Slow and implacable she moves down the road, carrying a man’s pair of shoes, pregnant, feeling the dust under her feet. There is no doubt in the reader’s mind, nor in the minds of the characters helping her along the way, that she will find whom she seeks. “I reckon she will. I reckon that fellow is fixing to find that he made a bad mistake when he stopped this side of Arkansas, or even Texas,” is the thought of a character named Armstid, who puts Lena up for a night. Thus, we are introduced not only to the inexorability of Lena’s search, but also to the truly (as properly perceived by the country folk) scurrilous nature of Lucas Burch. He lives life, all right, he resides squarely within the mainstream, but we see now that all he really wants to do is throw Lena and all that responsibility over and possibly leave a trail of Lena Groves around the countryside. Byron Bunch, on the other hand, has an opposite (and perhaps equal?) reaction to Lena.

Byron has willfully removed himself from everyday goings-on, and works at the mill on Saturdays, when life resides downtown. But steady and thorough and expectant as she is, Lena goes out to the mill and finds him there. Byron could no more have foreseen her coming than have done anything about it. Neither can he do anything about his reaction to her. He tells Hightower at the beginning of Chapter 4:

“ … I thought that if there ever was a place where a man would be where the chance to do harm could not have found him, it would have been out there at the mill on a Saturday evening. And with the house burning too, right in my face, you might say. … Then I looked up, and there she was, with her face all fixed for smiling and her mouth all fixed to say his name, when she saw I wasn’t him.”

In the constant and repeated juxtaposition of Bunch and Burch, and in the similarity in their names, I believe Faulkner attempted to make them almost interchangeable, while at the same time letting their actions speak in stark contrast about their respective characters. The only thing Lucas Burch does to Lena besides get her pregnant is to lie to her. He lies to her right up to the point of quitting her. The only true thing he does tell her at the very end is that he has to run. By contrast, as Byron tells Hightower (again, near the beginning of Chapter 4): “… With her watching me, sitting there, swole-bellied, watching me with them eyes that a man could not have lied to if he wanted.”

Faulkner accomplishes the central theme of Light in August through the workings of this very contrast. In the face of innocent nature (of which Lena Grove is a living example), Burch first forces his will on her, and then decides to run away from the consequences. Bunch sees her once, and suddenly becomes his most helpful self, a pure example of aid and protection. Lena, of nature, of generativity, of scrupulous honesty, and of indomitable will, the representative figure, brings out the true nature of both men. It is as though she will procreate the race no matter what, and is simply seeking a partner for the activity. She acts as a magnet, at the end of the pole labeled “Nature,” and she attracts Bunch and repels Burch. Each man’s motion is the same: they are passing through a dual set of swinging doors, as it were. Bunch is running into life, into involvement, into love, and Burch is running away from it.

The key is the agency of nature. Lena, the single powerful element among the major players on the side of Nature, emerges not only having absorbed, as it were, Byron, but having done it at no expense to herself in terms of emotional stress. After traveling many miles pregnant, on foot, and looking to the outside world to be in a state of fair distress, Lena in the last scene of the book turns out to be a visiting goddess, looking contentedly at the passing countryside, in sweet anticipation of settling down for good. In this way Faulkner shows Lena in her true inviolate character, and I do not believe this is a minor point in his scheme. Nature in Light in August, acting through and represented by Lena, is a force which wreaks change in Lucas Burch, Byron Bunch, and affects Christmas and Hightower, too.

We know of Lena’s generativity, and clearly she embodies human fruitfulness. But why does she wield such influence over our male players? Why does her simple presence precipitate so much? Well, she represents the inevitable nature of procreation, and Hightower and Christmas have deep-seated resentment for their forebears. Each in his way would wish for oblivion, for never having been born, but Lena proves it’s inevitable, reminds them that they are trapped in events and consequences they would abjure and avoid were it within their power. Nature and its inexorable fertility overwhelm all of man’s desperate constructs, all of his misguided and hopeless fighting against it. Burch and Bunch serve for a time as shallower surrogates, able to interact with this character and this force, but obviously they do so in opposite ways.

This brings us to another important factor in the story’s progress, the relationship of these disciples to their respective leaders. To this writer, Faulkner quite obviously did not mean for readers of Light in August to miss the similarities of these two pairs of men. Hightower and Christmas we have established as creatures of the man’s world, suffering from the profound and invidious follies that are man’s alone. These two hold such strong sway over the Burch/Bunch duo that, as the author points out, they each do their own disciple’s thinking for them. Christmas puts Burch up in his cabin on the Burden place and takes him on as a sidekick. Burch is ever the careless one, not thinking, jeopardizing their bootlegging operation. And can Byron Bunch be called anything much different from Gail Hightower’s sidekick? He takes his spiritual and intellectual lead from him because he also lived so long the life apart from life.

So Christmas influences Burch and brings him deeper and more seriously into the underworld side of withdrawal. Without doubt, this was Burch’s natural inclination (although he doesn’t share Christmas’s deep-seated sexual hang-ups), but without Christmas’s push, it may have taken him years to get as deeply into trouble as he did. Similarly, Hightower instructs Bunch, who cultivates and nurtures his own inclination to get away from the mainstream. (Who will forget the image of the nocturnal discussions between Bunch and Hightower over the preacher's table, the men’s faces out of the light of the reading lamp?) But something happens to these two relationships during the course of the story. The Burch/Bunch pair initiates the break from the mentor duo or at least initiates enough original thought to turn the direction of the influence around. And it happens to both of them with the coming to Jefferson of Lena Grove.

Byron falls in love, and this just about by itself repudiates the Hightower haven that Byron had taken for himself. This very natural impulse forces its way into Byron’s life and nothing in his shelter/tower can defend against it. It puts into motion a series of actions on Byron’s part that Hightower and even the town find well-nigh outrageous. Byron becomes the pawn of nature, and the direction and inescapable progression of his course finally leave Hightower behind. Hightower’s final scene in the novel has him gazing into the dusk and night of August, remembering, still hearing the clash of hooves, the angle of eager lances speeding to battle. This final crisis of thought, this final losing of identity in the past’s swirling mist is Hightower’s fate and the confirmation that he did not really have a life separate from the Civil War. His blush of rebirth with Lena’s baby lives only until Christmas’s capture and execution in Hightower’s home.

Lucas Burch’s reunification with Lena sees him not even attempting any real excuse for his conduct. He only talks briefly with her, and then runs away from her a second time. He also runs away from a reward for helping to find Christmas, and that stands as the real testament to the repelling power Lena represents. Or, rather, the repelling power the man-made convention of matrimony has for him. The narrative doesn’t support an argument that Burch is anything but attracted to Lena herself. So, confronted by the man-made requirement to “pay his dues” by marrying Lena, Burch turns tail as quickly as he ever has, throws all of it over, and abandons not only his responsibilities, imposed by society, but also his guide in the affairs and efforts of men. His motivation for and manner of rebelling against his mentor differs greatly from Byron Bunch’s, however. Whereas Byron’s motivation rested on his love of Lena, the thing in this world most uncontrolled and uncontrollable by man, Burch’s ultimate reason for acting the way he did was self-absorption, and here we have another expression of our opposites. Byron’s motivation is outward, he finds himself giving to another; Burch’s, again, is diametrically opposed to that.

So we have seen Nature’s goddess’s effect on the neophyte pair, and have attempted to draw conclusions about the author’s thematic intentions. But what of Hightower and Christmas? We have briefly investigated the similarities between the two characters, and I freely grant that they are different in many important ways, principal among these the fact that Hightower is a harmless recluse living quietly in the comparative good graces of society, and that Christmas is a violent, perverted criminal. But the similarities are many and striking. Each depends a great deal on the influence of a grandfather for what they are and believe; each has ranted the nonsensical stuff of their afflictions from a church pulpit; each resides at some self-relegated distance from society. To further unify them in their self- and man-made trials, Faulkner has Christmas meeting his fate in Hightower’s own home. This fact about the novel appears to this writer to represent some final unification of the two characters, and I have formed an opinion as to the significance of that unification, such as it is.

Christmas and Hightower in the respective areas represent the cerebral, or at least the calculating, party. They each show the inability to deal with nature or the bulk of society, which their former disciples do not suffer from. They are singular examples of men trying to force a recalcitrant or abhorrent universe to conform to their own preset reality. In Faulkner’s scheme of things, you will fail if you fall into the trap of categorizing, or over-categorizing, natural phenomena into rigid bifurcations, like Negro/white, good/evil, pure woman/whore. This is why Lena holds such sway; this is why Byron Bunch alone among our male spectrum can be considered favored. He gives in to the beauty of nature, and lets himself be at one with it.

At this point I find it convenient to bring up the matter of religion because the stuff of religion is comprehension of, or at least belief in the form of, the incomprehensible; and because this facet of society plays a large role in Light in August. Hightower comes from a line of ministers, and was one himself, once. Joanna Burden’s forebears were deeply involved with religion and religious prejudices (her ancestor is Calvin Burden). And part of Joe Christmas’s upbringing was at the hands of a strict God-fearing Calvinist. There also appear many intriguing, if ironical, parallels between Christmas and the person of Christ. The name, first of all, is evocative, and correct down to the initials. Christmas is thirty-three years old when his is executed; nothing is really known about the background of Christmas’s father, except to establish some dichotomy within Christmas. Christmas’s relationship with Joanna Burden may seem nothing like what Christ may have done on Earth, but remember that Miss Burden represents a culmination of guilt between the races and the desperate need for atonement. She makes a hopeless, perhaps symbolic attempt at this atonement with Christmas, and at the end of a futile try at procreation, at a natural rebirth of life between the races, she finds the only alternative to saving his soul is to kill him. Joanna’s resultant death, and the bright, burning sacrifice of her altar of atonement, is both an offer of proof to the world that the attempt at salvation was made, and a surrender to Nature. Joanna Burden left the ranks of nature-following women and tried to expiate some of her Calvinist burden of guilt by raising the Negro race from slavery and degradation. But by doing this, she only reinforces her belief that the Negro is inferior, and her own guilt in believing so.

When Christmas first forced himself on her, he remarked that the surrender was unlike that of a woman, that it was manlike because she followed man-made rules. Her final surrender was not surrender at all. She meant to kill Joe Christmas because his soul was lost beyond salvation. Perhaps we can see an incomplete sacrifice in the burning of the Burden home; if this is so, does Christmas’s death somehow complete the sacrifice? If Christmas deserved to die to atone at least for his own sins, does it make any difference that he is killed in Hightower’s home? If Joanna Burden represented some sort of guilt toward the black race, then Christmas convinced her there was worse contumely to be loosed upon individuals, and the racial atonement would have to be concluded, ended. Christmas himself had more guilt within him than Burden could comprehend, so she could not save him. Within Joe Christmas resided such profound and savage hatred, borne of terrible knowledge and fueled by man’s pride; the only proper place to kill him would be Hightower’s home. “Ego Central,” I have come to call it.

So in the end, Christmas is a sacrificial lamb, and his death releases the perverse supports holding up man’s wall (and tower) against nature. Hightower, the intellectual, will never escape the visceral vision of Christmas, castrated and dying in his kitchen. Hightower’s thoughts and will from that point on will no longer emanate from his former vantage above it all. He has been caught, drawn in with the rest of our group of men by the goddess Lena, and all the other urges of Nature. Even man-made religion gets swamped beneath the tide, and Hightower’s ultimate failure.

The final observation is that for all the similarities and contrived identical characteristics, Byron Bunch and Lucan Burch are far more different from each other than Christmas from Hightower. To act in Nature takes real courage, and this can’t be found in someone withdrawn from life. The willingness on the part of Bunch to join Lena, and on the part of Lena to have Byron tell the final, sanguine story of rebirth, culminates Nature’s triumph, never to be doubted.