Joe Christmas does not know whether he is black or white. Faulkner makes of Joe's tragedy a powerful indictment of racism; at the same time Joe's life is a study of the divided self and becomes a symbol of 20th century man.
1. The opening chapter belongs to Lena Grove as she arrives in Jefferson. What are the core elements of Lenas character? Does she change during the course of the novel? If Lena has a symbolic function, what is it? What, if anything, does Lenas background explain about her character, motivations, and desires?
2. The story contains many flashbacks, shifts in temporal sequence, and shifts in the narrative point of view. How does the books structure affect the reading experience? In terms of prose style, what is most striking about Faulkners use of language and imagery?
3. Byron Bunch is a man who has tried to live in such a way that “the chance to do harm could not have found him” [p. 77]. He says to Hightower, early in the story, “a fellow is more afraid of the trouble he might have than he ever is of the trouble hes already got. Hell cling to trouble hes used to before hell risk a change” [p. 75]. Yet Byron changes more than any other character. He falls in love and, in pursuit of Lena, completely alters his life. Is Byron an admirable character, and if so, how and why?
4. The critic Malcolm Cowley felt that the novel “dissolved too much into the three separate stories” [The Faulkner-Cowley File, p. 28] of Lena, Gail Hightower, and Joe Christmas. Would you agree or disagree? Do their stories come together, and if so, how? Do these characters belong in the same novel?
5. Byron says, “A man will talk about how hed like to escape from living folks. But its the dead folks that do him the damage. Its the dead ones that lay quiet in one place and dont try to hold him, that he cant escape from” [p. 75]. How does this statement relate to Joe Christmas, Joanna Burden, and Reverend Hightower? What are the various ways in which their enslavement to “dead folks” and past history determines their lives?
6. Before he kills Joanna Burden, Joe thinks, “Something is going to happen to me. I am going to do something” [p. 104]. Notice the passive and active modes of those two juxtaposed thoughts. Does Joe actively seek the fulfillment of “something awful” that he believes to be his fate? The narrator tells us, “He believed with calm paradox that he was the volitionless servant of the fatality in which he believed that he did not believe” [p. 280]. Faulkner seems to be interested in the relationship between volition and passivity in the novel; how do you understand the “paradox” of will and fate as it embraced by Joe Christmas? Are other characters similarly caught between will and fate?
7. One of Faulkners central preoccupations in Light in August is the legacy of Calvinism in the American psyche. In which characters is this stringent, unforgiving strain of thinking most apparent, and what are its effects? How are guilt and Calvinism linked?
8. In Light in August, womanhood and female sexuality are often described with a combination of fascination, desire, and loathing. Does this psychological attitude originate in certain characters, or does it seem to emanate from the author? Consider this question in the context of the following quotes: “He began to look about the womanroom as if he had never seen one before: the close room, warm, littered, womanpinksmelling” [Doc Hines, p. 132]; “the bodiless fecundmellow voice of negro women murmured. It was as though he and all other manshaped life about him had been returned to the lightless hot wet primogenitive Female” [Joe Christmas, p. 115]; and “Now and then she appointed trysts beneath certain shrubs about the grounds, where he would find her naked, or with her clothing half torn to ribbons upon her, in the wild throes of nymphomania” [Joanna Burden, p. 259].
9. As he takes a whipping from his foster father, Joes body “might have been wood or stone; a post or a tower upon which the sentient part of him mused like a hermit, contemplative and remote with ecstasy and selfcrucifixion” [pp. 159–60]. Why does Joe seek punishment from McEachern and reject the love offered by McEacherns wife [pp. 166–69)]? Why are the fanatical and sadistic patriarchs of the novel, like Simon McEachern, Calvin Burden, and Doc Hines, so powerful?
10. What are the most startling and memorable scenes in the novel? Are these scenes extremely visual in their effects? Do they seem appropriate to, or influenced by, the genre of film?
11. Chapter 5 is told from Joes point of view; what insight does the reader gain into Joes reason for killing Joanna Burden? Does he have a clear motive? Joanna is depicted as a masculine woman, a spinster, a Northerner and a nymphomaniac. What is at the heart of Joannas desire for Joe, and of his desire for her?
12. Critic Eric Sundquist has remarked that “violence and sexuality determine the contours of the Souths romance of blood” and that Joe is “a character whose very physical and emotional self embodies the sexual violence of racial conflict” [William Faulkner: The House Divided, pp. 89–90]. Discuss this yoking of violence, race, and sexual thinking in the novel, particularly as it is reflected in Joes relationship with Joanna Burden and in Percy Grimms murder and castration of Joe [pp. 464–65].
13. With Percy Grimm, Faulkner himself said that he had “created a Nazi,” a “Fascist galahad who saved the white race by murdering Christmas” [qtd. in William Faulkner: The House Divided, p. 93]. “I wrote [Light in August] in 1932 before Id ever heard of Hitlers Storm Troopers” [Faulkner in the University, p. 41]. Discuss the ways in which Chapter 19 explores the fantasies and fanaticism of both the individual and the group. Does Grimm intend to lead a lynching or to prevent one? Does Grimm function as the executioner whose fantasy is merely an exaggerated version of what the community also believes?
14. Joes life is figured repeatedly as a journey along a road; returning to Mottstown, Joe feels that “he is entering it again, the street which ran for thirty years. . . . It had made a circle and he is still inside of it” [p. 339]. Should we see a thematic link between Lenas journey and Joes? How do their wanderings differ in spirit and in function?
15. Light in August is primarily a book about racial identity, race hatred, and hysteria. Faulkner commented later that Joe “didnt know what he was, and so he was nothing. He deliberately evicted himself from the human race because he didnt know which he was . . . which to me is the most tragic condition a man could find himself innot to know what he is and to know that he will never know” (qtd. in Light in August and the Critical Spectrum, p. 1). Are the coldness and violence in Joes character explained by Faulkners statement? How does the reader react to Joe Christmaswith empathy, with distaste, with bewilderment?
16. In The Sound and the Fury Quentin Compson says, “a nigger is not a person so much as a form of behavior; a sort of obverse reflection of the white people he lives among” [p. 86]. Discuss the ways in which Joe Christmas functions among the white community as an idea, a symbol, a negative image of their own ideal selves, and not as a person. What is the effect of this function on Joes own subjectivity?
17. Chapter 19, which tells of Joe Christmass death and castration, is followed by a chapter narrated from the perspective of Gail Hightower which tells the story of his past life and his failures, ending in the present moment. What might Faulkner have meant to do by juxtaposing Hightowers meditation with the horror that has come just before? What role does Hightower play in the novel?
18. A furniture dealer who gave Lena and Byron a lift in his wagon is the narrator of the final chapter, and their courtship is the subject of the comical tale he is telling his wife. Lenas pursuit of the feckless Lucas Burch has also been a source of comedy. Why might Faulkner have chosen to end the novel on this note of optimism and good-humored comedy?