Exploring Reciprocity in Faulkner’s Light in August

Spring 2014

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Karlianne Seri

Karlianne Seri is a senior English Literature major at Towson University. Her critical interests include 19th-century American literature, the history of race and gender in the U.S., and post-structuralist theory. In the fall, she will be pursuing her Ph.D. in English at Stony Brook University.

Among the most intricate of William Faulkner’s works, Light in August (1932) dramatizes not only the economic and racial conditions of the post-bellum South, but also the fraught search for meaning that was so central to the modernist project. In exploring these themes, critical discussions of the novel have often focused on the split psyche of Joe Christmas.  The ambiguity of his race, lying purportedly between ‘black’ and ‘white,’ fosters in Christmas an internal struggle between two irreconcilable identities. This ‘in-between-ness’ of racial categorization, in which a visibly white person may still be classified as ‘black,’ draws attention to the social construction of race and, thus, to society’s role in creating an identity crisis that would otherwise not exist.

Although the study of Christmas’s psyche provides insights into his circumstances and behavior, it is the novel’s other characters—and their responses to Christmas—who reveal how his psyche is constructed.  As Michel Foucault suggests in his theories of “power-knowledge,” societies create discursive forms that regulate normative social categories. This kind of societal control over ideas of personhood, exemplified by the “racial hierarchy” of the Southern United States, lies at the heart of Light in August, which illustrates the Southern community’s effects on Christmas and, in turn, Christmas’s effects on the Southern community. Foucault’s “power-knowledge,” according to Ellen Feder, “can only exist with the support of arrangements of power, arrangements that have no clear origin, no person or body who can be said to ‘have’ it” (56). It can be described, then, as an overarching, invisible voice that works through individuals in order to dictate the “common sense” of any given place in any given time period. In the case of Light in August, the setting is the “Jim Crow” South, in a town governed by racist ideologies that work through, and find expression in, the white inhabitants of Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County.

By peering into the minds of those who shape Christmas’s identity, we see, by extension, the capacity of a racialized social organization for controlling individual thought. Yet Faulkner also demonstrates how this social power works in reverse: for just as Christmas is fashioned by those around him, so too does he, or what he represents, exert a kind of power over the figures in his life. Living in a society that relies upon the convenience of arbitrary, often institutionalized, racial categories, Christmas fits neatly into none, thus destabilizing the binary between “black” and “white” and subverting the various meanings that this binary reinforces. More specifically, Foucault’s concept of “power-knowledge” helps to illuminate both how Southern racial codes disrupt Christmas’s identity and, just as importantly, how Christmas himself undermines Southern society by invalidating its racial constructs. Indeed, Faulkner’s crafting of this reciprocal relationship, situated in a narrative replete with violence and chaos, portrays the potentially destructive force of society’s confrontation with the parts of life that seem to defy definition; yet it also raises the hope that the violent and chaotic “rupturing” of ingrained social meanings might also clear the way for new meanings to arise.

***

Understanding the cultural backdrop of Christmas’s society is crucial to understanding the ways in which he both affects and is affected by his environment. The town of Jefferson, a tight-knit Southern community in Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, is a place that clings to the past: that is, to traditions in which African-Americans are almost invariably considered inferior to the white power structure that surrounds them. Still unwilling to accept the end of the Civil War, and the abolition of slavery that came with it, many white residents of Jefferson are unable to view African-Americans as equals. As a result, racialized discourse (commonly accepted language that allows discriminating ideologies to remain strong) circulates throughout the culture, naturalizing white supremacy as a sort of social given. Voices throughout the community reduce African-Americans to the demeaning status of “niggers,” associating them with words like “slaving,” “vacuous,” and “idiocy,” and even more with behaviors that are inherently amoral.

The narration of Gavin Stevens provides an example of this discourse by dividing Christmas’s actions into categories based on his “two” racial identities: “His black blood drove him first to the negro cabin. And then the white blood drove him out of there, as it was the black blood which snatched up the pistol and the white blood which would not let him fire it” (Faulkner 449). As many critics have noted, this passage ascribes stereotypical traits to “whiteness” and “blackness,” thus bolstering and reflecting the racist ideologies that work through Stevens to subjugate Christmas. Even more, though, it demonstrates the confusion that Christmas generates in Stevens. In his effort to comprehend Christmas’s resignation to death, Stevens concludes, “It was the black blood which . . . swept him up into that ecstasy out of a black jungle where life has already ceased before the heart stops and death is desire and fulfillment,” leading Christmas to crouch “behind that overturned table and let them shoot him to death, with that loaded and unfired pistol in his hand” (449). Stevens understands Christmas’s condition so inadequately that he transforms blackness itself into a kind of death wish, thus maintaining for himself the illusion of a clear existential distinction between blackness and whiteness. At the same time, however, Stevens’ irrational conclusions reflect the operations of a mind unable, or unwilling, to recognize the fundamentally human nature of Christmas’s identity crisis. It is not Christmas’s supposed blackness, but rather his inability to reconcile the dueling identities within himself, that drives him to this virtual suicide. As a result, Stevens can respond to this event in only one way: manufacturing a mind-bending, if not self-corrupting, departure from the precepts of human dignity and the will to live.

Foucault’s “power-knowledge” helps to inform the dynamics of Southern racism as it plays out in Stevens’ understanding of Christmas. When using the word “power,” Foucault refers not to its traditional connotations of being held by an individual, but rather to its mode of working through individuals, as well as through culture, customs, and institutions. Similarly, his use of the word “knowledge” must be classified as an “implicit knowledge” surrounding a particular historical period, one assumed to be held by everyone residing in a specific place and/or time period. For Feder, this kind of knowledge “describ[es] the accidents of history that result in particular consolidations of what counts as truth or knowledge” (56). At base, it is Foucault’s recognition of the power of discursive meaning-making that outlines how socially-contrived ideas about race become a communal “truth” in the town of Jefferson. “Race,” according to societal norms, refers to supposed biological differences that create unbridgeable subjective divisions between “black” and “white.” At some point, the system of social determination decided that the “white” race would be above the “black” race, and even more, that the “black” race would be held physically subject to the “white” race. Since biological differences between races do not actually exist, all that remains is a segregation based on stereotypes and the myth of racial hierarchy. These ideas about race, and all of their attendant stigmas, have been passed down through generations, giving them the weight of historical legitimacy and continuing the cycle of African-American oppression as a normative social influence. Although Light in August is set years after the abolition of slavery, Joe Christmas’s world is fixed in the lingering beliefs that had been used to justify slavery. For example, one narrator refers to Joe Brown as “slaving all day like a durn nigger’” (44). The narrator here represents a voice in Jefferson that holds on to associations of “heavy labor” with African-American slaves. As James Snead writes, this language is an “example of a dividing trope, a figure that would engrave in language by repetition the economic connection between blacks and ‘slaving’” (158). By continuing to adhere to these old ideas about slavery, the Jefferson community allows them to become the “common knowledge” that Foucault describes. As Snead explains, “Hearsay would write such connections into normality, making them inflexible in the reality of verbal commonplaces” (158). This “power-knowledge” accounts for the ways in which others, like Stevens, come to understand Christmas’s “biracialism”: as something that must, as dictated by social and linguistic norms, be broken down into distinct parts. 

This impulse to sustain ideological tropes displays the oppressive potency of social codes, which Foucault explains in his concept of the Panopticon. A building plan with an “observation tower” at its center, the Panopticon theoretically forces its surrounding subjects to exhibit behavior deemed acceptable by the observer. It is important to note that the observer, or “watcher,” is invisible to the eye of the subject. This invisibility is crucial because it highlights the idea that, even if there is no “watcher,” the subject will still perform his expected role. While this model seems to emphasize the role of the “watcher,” Foucault focuses more on the subject’s part: “He who is subjected to a field of visibility, and who knows it, assumes responsibility for the constraints of power (58). Those subject to observation, then, are subject to “internalize” what Feder calls the “authoritative gaze,” or, in other words, to accept as absolute the power of the anonymous “watcher,” and thus to perform a role supposedly pleasing to the eye above.

In Light in August, Southern society acts as this “invisible eye,” with Christmas as its “subject,” by working through the voices of Jefferson, especially those that shape Christmas’s upbringing and govern the ideological patterns through which his idea of self takes shape. For example, Christmas’s awareness of Doc Hines’s constant gaze marks his first step in realizing his “otherness.” Christmas “knew that he was never on the playground for an instant that the man was not watching him…with a profound and unflagging attention. If the child had been older he would perhaps have thought…That is why I am different from the others: because he is watching me all the time” (Faulkner 138). The realization of this “otherness” begins when Christmas is only a child, but it does not yet sink in until his adulthood. While his racial identity remains a mystery throughout the novel, the voices that influenced Christmas’s development lead him to believe that he is biracial. The Panoptic “authority” that works through Doc Hines causes Christmas to become a “subject,” who, in turn, begins to view himself as separate from his surroundings and acts in accordance with racial stereotypes.

In addition to Doc Hines’ gaze, Christmas becomes aware of his partial “blackness” by internalizing the word “nigger,” a minimizing form of self-conceptualization thrown at him by other children as well as by the dietician at the orphanage where Christmas is raised. Faulkner provides us with no concrete reason why the others identify him in this way. When the dietician finds Christmas hiding in her room, “limp, looking [at her] with slack-jawed and glassy idiocy,” she verbally accosts him, saying, “You little rat! Spying on me! You little nigger bastard!” (122). On the one hand, the dietician, along with the other children, may have learned about Christmas’s “biracialism” in the same way that Christmas himself had: through word-of-mouth. Perhaps Doc Hines, the only character who possesses knowledge of Christmas’s supposed origins, had subtly spread the rumor that his grandson’s father was himself biracial, though Faulkner offers no clear evidence for this reading. On the other hand, the dietician could be using this word to describe Christmas’s behavior, or, at least, her impressions of it. In this case, the dietician would be identifying Christmas’s deviance, his hiding in her closet and “spying” on her, as conniving behavior that she associates with “blackness,” even if she has no reason, as yet, to believe that Christmas is biracial.

In this passage, Faulkner’s narration makes a similar connection between Christmas’s demeanor, his “slack-jawed idiocy,” to “black” behavior that is inherently salacious and undignified.  Yet Faulkner leaves this moment vague for a reason. Regardless of how it is read, this moment in the novel gestures toward the same idea: the instability of the discourse that regulates interpretations of racial category. If the dietician simply refers to Christmas by using racial epithets because Doc Hines has intimated his beliefs about Christmas’s parentage, she is participating in a spread of power-knowledge that is clearly fictitious. Similarly, by racializing Christmas’s behavior, she precipitates the unreliable discourse of racial stereotyping. In either case, she clearly understands that describing Christmas as part black will affect the way that people react to him: “I’ve known it all the time that he’s part nigger,” she says, “All I have to do is to think of some way to make the madam believe it…he will look just like a pea in a pan full of coffee beans” (Faulkner 129). Even more than spreading the rumor of Christmas’s “biracialism,” this scene portrays the instability of racial categories. Because Christmas’s “blackness” cannot be seen, it must be somehow proven, even if the “proof” takes the form of a linguistic construction. In other words, Christmas may not at first look black, but he “will” look that way if the dietician, like Doc Hines, can convince others that he is indeed “black.”

These subtle moments in the narrative represent Faulkner’s effort to expose the unreliability not only of racial categories, but also of meaning itself. By refusing to clarify who exactly knows anything about Christmas’s supposed biracialism, Faulkner casts doubt upon the activity of racial categorizing, similar to what he does in the conclusion of Absalom, Absalom! (1936) where Shreve proposes that “the Jim Bonds are going to conquer the Western Hemisphere”: “Of course it wont [sic] quite be in our time and of course as they spread toward the poles they will bleach out again like the rabbits and birds do . . . But it will be Jim Bond; and so in a few thousand years, I who regard will also have sprung from the loins of African kings” (302). Although readers know that Bond is biracial, and have every reason to assume that Shreve is white, their identities, like Christmas’s, become in Faulkner’s hands nothing more than contingent, environmentally determined coincidences of time and place, possessing no more meaning than we ascribe to them.

Andre Bleikasten discusses Christmas’s gradual acknowledgement of his biracialism as fueling his journey toward self-hatred: “And once the judgment passed upon him by hostile others had been internalized, he would never stop loathing himself, consumed by both the white racist’s hatred of the ‘nigger’ and the black man’s hatred of his white oppressor” (83). It is clear that these social influences are responsible for creating Christmas’s identity struggle. Acting as the Panoptic “watcher,” societal forces convince Christmas of his “blackness,” and Christmas, as the subject, performs in a way that adheres to the injunctions of the authoritative gaze. In this case, those injunctions cause a psychic split in which the subject, Christmas, is unable to determine the behavior he is “supposed” to display. We begin to see, then, how society creates identity and, in doing so, maintains control over the racial hierarchy. Christmas’s ability to exist in-between that hierarchy is precisely the tension that Faulkner identifies. As James Snead writes, because he cannot fit into a defined category, Christmas “come[s] to seem exactly the point of chaos that threatens to destroy false serenity” (157). Though a victim himself of the Panoptic gaze, Christmas also challenges the power of the all-seeing authority and thus acts upon those through whom that authority works.

***

Christmas’s supposed biracial identity is not something he can see, and it is not something that he feels inside; rather, it is something that he learns. In fact, it is brought upon him only by the speculation of Doc Hines about the race of Christmas’s birth father. “Old Doc Hines could see in his face the black curse of God Almighty,” Faulkner writes, “He knew somehow that the fellow had nigger blood . . . He aint [sic] never said how he found out, like that never made any difference” (374). Just like Christmas, his father had no visible signs of blackness; however, because Doc Hines decided that he was black, he became so. His speculation is never questioned; as soon as Doc Hines deems Christmas’s father black, Christmas himself becomes a child of mixed race. Bleikasten elaborates on this idea:

Just as Christmas’s split self has been generated by an old man’s manic suspicion, racism rests on nothing but preconceptions and misconceptions, and draws its power from a shared fiction. In the course of his erratic career Christmas is victimized by various people, but all of his victimizers pay allegiance to the same myths, and Christmas, the victim, is himself trapped within them. (84)

Bleikasten further emphasizes the role of society in creating Christmas’s split psyche by positioning him as the victim of a universal myth. Christmas’s race evolves from the same fictitious notions as racism itself. Whereas African-Americans are trapped in a white society that oppresses them, Christmas, because of his in-between-ness, becomes trapped in an entire society that oppresses him. Although he could “pass” as white, Christmas chooses not do so; he remains neither “black” nor “white,” unable to assimilate into either category. So, by assigning him this in-between-ness of race, Doc Hines prevents Christmas from finding acceptance not only within the community, but also from accepting himself.

This “assignment” of race occurs again later in the novel when Joe Brown exposes Christmas’s “race” to the townspeople of Jefferson. Faulkner writes, “They said it was like he had been saving what he told them next for just such a time as this. Like he had knowed that if it come to a pinch, this would save him. … ‘Accuse the white man and let the nigger go free’” (98). Like Doc Hines, the townspeople require no proof, aside from his supposed murder of Joanna Burden, to identify Christmas as black. After this point in the novel, he is treated like the Negro that Brown clearly intends, as he appears to justify the “truth” behind the belief that African-Americans are inherently murderous. The fact that Christmas’s blackness even has to be “revealed,” however, gestures toward the questionability of defined racial categories and, even more, to the nature of meaning itself.

Even as the community creates a feeling of anxiety within Christmas, his own ambiguity of race creates the same feeling. The racial hierarchy, regardless of how it is constructed, maintains a common sense of order. Jefferson’s “stability is guaranteed by unanimous acceptance of inherited values and unquestioning compliance with established cultural codes” (Bleikasten 81). As long as the “cultural codes,” or more specifically, the categories of “black” and “white,” remain distinct, society functions in the intended way. The problem occurs when these distinctions blend creating a new category that has not yet been defined. Bleikasten writes:

Any sign of ambiguity, any swerve from the straight path of conformity, should be interpreted as a potential threat to the established order. Nothing is more detestable and more alarming to such a society than the in-between, the intermingled, the impure—that which blurs its neat fictions and underlines its dogmatic certainties. (97)

Christmas, who does not fit into a clearly demarcated racial category, serves as the “potential threat” that Bleikasten discusses. In a community like Jefferson, this means that people can no longer count on human behavior as being either stereotypically “white” or stereotypically “black.” Christmas’s “biracialism” destabilizes the binary between these two categories and, as a result, reveals the contrived, or artificial, nature of Jim Crow’s “one drop rule.” He ruptures the normative order of white supremacy and, with it, the ideological coherence that allows African-Americans to remain in subjugation to the Southern community. So, even though Christmas is oppressed, the very nature of his existence dismantles the normative logic of Jim Crow that oppresses him. He acts as an anomaly, an incongruous excess or remainder “inassimilable” to the dominant narrative of Faulkner’s early twentieth-century South.

In the passage where Stevens reflects upon Christmas’s internal struggle, Faulkner provides an example of this “dominant narrative,” and the traits associated with “black” and “white” behavior: “it was the black blood which swept him up by his own desire beyond the aid of any man” (449). Here Faulkner exposes the dominant culture’s association of “blackness” with impetuosity and “whiteness” with rationality. Christmas’s “white blood,” as Chuck Jackson explains, “provides him with moral reasoning, but his black blood rises against it” (190). A comparable example of this distinction occurs in the community’s reaction to Joanna Burden’s murder. Speculation about the crime leads them to “believe aloud that it was an anonymous crime committed not by a negro but by Negro . . . [they] knew, believed, and hoped that she had been ravished too: at least once before her throat was cut and at least once afterward” (Faulkner 288). This scenario represents rape and murder as implicitly “Negro” behaviors, associated not with one man, but with the entire “Negro” race. It reveals the white person’s desires for a “negro” man to confirm the kind of monstrosities supposedly associated with the “Negro” race. The white denizens of Jefferson are fueled by a romantic primitivism, an idealized belief that essentializes “blackness” as inherently violent and criminal. They thrive on the stigma of “normative” racial categories: “whites” inherently portray positive behavior, and “blacks” inherently portray negative behavior.

Joe Christmas disrupts this idea, though: he, a visibly white person, commits a crime that the townspeople refuse to associate with “whiteness.” It is easy to see, now, why the gesture toward Christmas’s “blackness” is so quickly accepted. It provides a moment of relief, allowing the white residents of Jefferson to believe that such a terrible crime was not actually committed by a white person, but rather by Christmas, who, to them, now represents the entire Negro race.

It is interesting to note, however, that Grimm’s execution of Christmas is at least as heinous as Christmas’s purported murder of Joanna Burden. Faulkner writes:

They saw that the man was not dead yet, and when they saw what Grimm was doing one of the men gave a choked cry and stumbled back into the wall and began to vomit. Then Grimm too sprang back, flinging behind him the bloody butcher knife. “Now you’ll let white women alone, even in hell.” (464)

The castration of Christmas resembles the kind of brutality that Christmas supposedly enacts upon Joanna Burden. Most white citizens of Jefferson would prefer to think that such a ruthless crime could be committed only by a black person, but Grimm’s transgression disproves this notion. By choosing to put Christmas through an unnecessary torture, a kind of affliction that prompts witnesses to “cry” and “vomit,” he exhibits the very behavior that he is trying to prevent. In Grimm’s own mind, however, his own violence represents a justifiable counter to the chaotic lawlessness that would supposedly “erupt” had he not intervened to keep “blackness” in check.   

Jackson describes Christmas’s new public identity as supplying “the already in-crisis town of Jefferson with the information it is looking for, a racial truth that fits in with the myth of the black rapist” (201). The realization of this identity does not remain positive, though. The town quickly becomes angry, not at the miscegenation itself, but at the inability to see the miscegenation in Christmas, or “the visible invisibility of his blackness” (Bleikasten 98). This ambiguity creates feelings of intense racialized anxiety in the community; the newly realized unreliability of racial stereotypes leaves Jefferson with the same kind of confusion that creates Christmas’s identity struggle. As a result, we begin to see the public’s rejection of the “indefinability” that Joe Christmas represents.

Faulkner uses white supremacist Percy Grimm to “settle” this societal confusion, exemplifying the ways in which governmental figures act as authoritative voices over the community. Grimm says: “We got to preserve order . . . to show these people right off just where the government of the country stands on such things. That there wont [sic] be any need for them even to talk” (Faulkner 452). This is a discussion not of Christmas as a murderer, but instead of Christmas as a “white Negro.” Grimm serves here as a determining voice of “power-knowledge”; a governmental force that maintains the social order and seeks to remove the voices of the surrounding community. “Without knowing that they were thinking about it,” Faulkner writes, “the town had suddenly accepted Grimm with respect and perhaps a little awe and a deal of actual faith and confidence” (450). We see, then, how this engine of “power-knowledge” operates: the townspeople, like society, unconsciously accept the authoritative voice as “truth.” In this case, the authoritative voice is one of white supremacy, one in which the “preservation of order” refers to ensuring that African-Americans remain in their position, subject to the white power structure. Faulkner shows us how readily the community adheres to Grimm’s word; they respect, even admire, him, and, by extension, the racist philosophy that he stands for. Thus, understanding the ideologies of Percy Grimm, and seeing the way his power influences those subject to him, reveals how Foucauldian “knowledge” comes to be accepted as truth in the community.   

The overarching voice at work in Jefferson will not stand for disruptions in the racially-ordered American society. “For Percy Grimm,” Jackson writes, “identification with the state produces a pure and shining American identity” (203), and Christmas’s mixed blood conflicts with this “pure and shining” image of the white American. Thus, Grimm decides that Christmas, and all of the uncertainty that he represents, must die. The people of Jefferson agree with this solution, not only because of their unconscious acceptance of the authoritative voice, but also because it removes any trace of the “identity crisis” that they had begun to experience themselves. François Pitavy describes Christmas’s death as “ritual punishment,” and believes that it “purges the white community after the threat to its integrity, and confirms the code for and by which it lives. To doubt the justice of the code would be to doubt the identity of the community” (94). Thus, Christmas acts as the scapegoat for a community that is unable to accept deviations from the racial discourse they believe to be true. The “code for and by which it lives” refers here to two things: the dependability upon “whites” to be associated with morality and reason, and the reliability of skin color to accurately depict a person’s identity.  This is why, as Hightower puts it, they will accept Christmas’s death “gladly,” as a way of removing the blame from the white community and restoring order to traditional racist categories.

***

The struggle of society to understand Christmas’s identity rests on the notion that his very existence threatens to expose the artificiality of the entire racial hierarchy. As Bleikasten writes:

[I]f a black man can look and act exactly like a white man, if appearances fail to match and confirm essences, whiteness and blackness alike become shady notions, and once the white/black opposition has broken down, the whole social structure threatens to crumble. Christmas is thus a living challenge to the community’s elemental norms and categories…he subverts its either/or logic, draws attention to the fragility of the law, and points to the unacknowledged origin of racism by showing it up as a…mere thing of the mind. (98)

In Foucauldian terms, Christmas challenges the “power-knowledge” existing in Faulkner’s twentieth-century American South. The “power-knowledge” that allows society to dictate social norms imposes upon Christmas an unsolvable struggle for self-definition. The awareness of his biracialism, based entirely on speculation, is exposed through an invisible social voice that forces him to acknowledge his supposed “otherness.” However, Christmas’s ability to lie in-between ideological categories questions the reliability of those categories. As a result, society experiences an identity struggle of its own, losing hold of the comfortability it has always maintained.

Faulkner’s use of this reciprocal relationship questions the Southern community’s ability to cope with foreign and indefinable ideas, thus pointing to the potentially destructive relationship between society and the individual. If the individual’s identity lies outside of presupposed social norms, then the individual becomes an “indefinable” force, posing threats to society’s overarching sense of order. As a result, the two entities cannot be reconciled, causing either a breakdown in society or the persecution of the individual. As made clear through Christmas, the “power-knowledge” dominating social forces tends to trump individual identity. Both Faulkner and Foucault gesture, however, toward the idea that this power can be used to break out of such limiting tensions. In attempting to decipher the mystery behind social forces, Foucault sought not to “uncover the timeless and essential secret,” but rather to reveal the “secret that they have no essence or that their essence was fabricated in piecemeal fashion” (142). Similarly, Faulkner’s Light in August seeks not to propose a solution to such irreconcilable tensions, but rather evokes a sense of hope in our capacity for recognizing the artificiality of social constructs and, as a consequence, for building a more productive discourse, a richer world of meaning, out of our shared ability to re-imagine meaning itself.

Faulkner hints at this new world of meaning in the closing pages of the novel, where the reverend Gail Hightower undergoes a kind of “apotheosis.” Having been disgraced, defrocked, and exiled years earlier, Hightower finally returns to society in his attempt to save Christmas by claiming, falsely, that the fugitive had been with him at the time of Joanna Burden’s murder. As he dies, Hightower sees in his mind the pantheon of people he had once known: “The faces are not shaped with suffering, not shaped with anything,” Faulkner writes, “Not horror, pain, not even reproach. They are peaceful…; His own is among them” (491). This passage evokes the same tensions that animate the novel and afflict Joe Christmas; of all of the faces Hightower sees, [Christmas’s] face alone is not clear” (491), and it is only at the moment of his death when Hightower feels that “some ultimate dammed flood within him breaks and rushes away” (492). Even so, this passage emits a vague sense of hope in humanity. Much earlier in the novel, Hightower remarks to himself that he “should not have got out of the habit of prayer” (318), clinging at this moment to the religious zeal that had once defined his life, and that Faulkner repeatedly associates with the zeal of racism. Later, when his death seems immanent, Hightower once again thinks, “I should pray. I should try to pray.” “But he does not,” Faulkner writes, “He does not try” (492). Instead, Hightower turns his attention to the lived experience: not to flesh and blood, but instead to something “to be reaffirmed in triumph and desire with” as he claims for himself “this last left of honor and pride” (492).  Hightower’s liberation from a past that once governed his identity gestures toward the “Faulknerian” hope for a future where dominating ideologies cease to exist.

Works Cited

Bleikasten, Andre. “Light in August: The Closed Society and Its Subjects.” New Essays on Light in August. Ed. Michael Millgate. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987. Print.

Faulkner, William. Absalom, Absalom! New York: Vintage Books, 1990. Print.

Faulkner, William. Light In August. New York: Vintage Books, 1990. Print.

Feder, Ellen K. “Power/knowledge.” Michel Foucault: Key Concepts. Ed. Dianna Taylor. Durham: Acumen, 2011. Print.

Jackson, Chuck. “American Emergencies: Whiteness, the National Guard, and Light in August.” Faulkner and Whiteness. Ed. Jay Watson. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2011. Print.

Jerng, Mark C. “The Character of Race: Adoption and Individuation in William Faulkner's Light In August and Charles Chesnutt's The Quarry.” Arizona Quarterly: A Journal of American Literature, Culture, and Theory 64.4 (2008): 69-102. Web.

Pitavy, François. Faulkner's Light In August: A Critical Casebook. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1973. Print.

Wilhelm, Randall. “Framing Joe Christmas: Vision and Detection in Light in August.” Mississippi Quarterly: The Journal of Southern Cultures 64.3-4 (2011): 393-407. Web.