“Light in August” (1932) is set in the American South during the era of racial segregation and is focused chiefly on a protagonist named Joe Christmas. A man of black and white ancestry, Joe feels alienated from African-Americans as much as he does from white Americans, and he extends his brooding hostility toward both. Critics have attached religious significance to this character. He might be a Christ-symbol, but he could as easily be an anti-Christ-symbol. He is definitely a thug. In the opening of the second chapter, he makes his first appearance: ‘He did not look like a professional hobo in his professional rags, but there was something definitely rootless about him, as though no town nor city was his, no street, no walls, no square of earth his home.’
The epic novel’s plot is multifaceted and includes a large number of major and minor characters, but the dominant presence is Joe Christmas. He is suspected of having murdered a woman named Joanna Burden. The victim is a despised descendant of Northern abolitionists and had lived alone in a manor outside the town of Jefferson, Mississippi. Prior to the murder, Joe and a criminal colleague had moved into a cabin outside Joanna’s house, and eventually she and Joe had become lovers. When Joanna is finally found murdered, Joe becomes the primary suspect. The manhunt that follows is intensified when the citizens of Jefferson learn that the suspect is black, if only partly so.
Joe Christmas is as enigmatic as he is memorable and he cannot be easily encapsulated. The racial component is only part of the equation. Equally important are his conflicts with women. He associates womankind with Sunday and with church, and also with gentleness and kindness ‘which he believed himself doomed to be forever victim of and which he hated worse than he did the hard and ruthless justice of men’. But this revolt against femininity suffers a final and horrific defeat when Joe is killed by a fanatic vigilante near the novel’s end. The paragraph in which this shocking murder is described left me outraged but also awestruck.
Religious symbolism is present throughout the novel and not exclusively in relation to Joe. A pregnant woman named Lena Grove and a woodworker named Byron Bunch seem to be patterned—loosely of course—after Mary and Joseph of the Bible. In any case these two characters convincingly epitomize, for me, male and female decency. Lena Grove is searching for a scoundrel named Lucas Burch who abandoned her after he learned of her pregnancy. In the course of her search, she meets Byron; the good man with whom she will undoubtedly settle. He helps her and cares for her, but holds back—shyly, exasperatingly—from declaring his love for her.
William Faulkner produced a sizable amount of deservedly celebrated fiction. But nothing can top “Light in August”. Had he written nothing else, I would still consider him one of the greatest novelists ever.