In Faulkner’s 1932 novel, Light in August, three characters overlap like a Venn diagram, while not always directly intersecting, their lives share some commonalities. The novel opens with Lena Grove who leaves her hometown for Jefferson, Mississippi to find the father of her illegitimate child. Joe Christmas is a wayward orphan who may or may not be bi-racial, who finds himself in Jefferson after killing his adopted father. Reverend Hightower is a forsaken minister, who lives in isolation in Jefferson after being rejected by his wife, his congregation, and his community because of his preoccupation with the past.
Light in August is a story about isolation, outcasts, and those who live on the fringes of society. Perhaps none of the characters live on the outskirts more than Joe Christmas. He is rejected by the orphanage where he lived for the first few years of his life because of suspicions that he may be part black. He is adopted by a puritanically religious couple who also do not accept Joe for who he is. At the age of seventeen Joe runs away and embarks on a life on the run. When Joe finds himself in Jefferson, searching for food, he takes up residence in a cabin belonging to Joanna Burden, an abolitionist woman who, after some time, also ends up trying to change Joe.
I didn’t recognize these comparisons as I was reading but there are some obvious correlations between the circumstances of Joe’s existence and that of Jesus Christ. The simplest being their initials – J.C. Joe also arrives at the orphanage where he spends the first years of his life on Christmas Eve, the supposed day of Jesus’ birth, which incidentally is why the workers at the orphanage give him the name Christmas. It soon becomes clear that the similarities stop with the exterior conditions of Joe’s existence. From a very early age we see evidence of Joe’s un-Christ-like nature when he stubbornly refuses his adoptive father’s command to memorize a religious passage. Instead, Joe evolves into more of an anti-Christ figure. His carnal and immoral nature is the diametric opposite of what most would consider Christ-like. Joe’s actions are instinctive nearly to the point of being animalistic.
To carry this parallel between Joe and Jesus a little further, it’s interesting that Jesus is said to have traveled around preaching for three years before being killed, whereas Joe Christmas finally remained stationary for three years in Jefferson before being killed. Both died at the age of 33. Jesus was killed because of his preaching work and Joe Christmas was killed ultimately because he didn’t want to be preached to.
While the account of the other two characters have some relevance, my review focuses mostly on Joe Christmas as I found the portion of the book devoted to him to be the most poignant. I had to exercise a great deal of patience and dedication to get through the last quarter of the book because, despicable as he was, Joe Christmas was the highlight of the novel and my investment in it waned with his death.
Overall, Light in August is a grim novel, but it’s an interesting read. Faulkner’s use of stream of consciousness writing brings the story to life and makes you feel as though you are inside the narrator’s head. It may make for a more challenging read but the realism that it adds is worth the effort.