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Free Barron's Booknotes-Light in August by William Faulkner-Free Notes
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Eupheus Hines, also known as Doc, is the most fanatical of Light in August's several religious extremists. He believes that the Lord talks to him directly and makes him the instrument of His will. Hines sees blacks as inferior and women as evil temptresses. Some readers have surmised that Hines's religious views derive from a pre-Civil-War branch of Southern Presbyterianism that found divine sanction for slavery. Prone to violence, Hines is consumed by his anger over Joe Christmas, the illegitimate grandson whom he believes to be part black.

Mrs. Hines shares none of her husband's manias. Like most of the marriages glimpsed in this novel, their union seems deeply unhappy. A decent human being, Mrs. Hines sees her husband's fanaticism as the work of the devil rather than of God. For three decades she suffers passively over the loss of both her daughter and her grandson. When Christmas's arrest makes her aware that the grandson is still alive, her love for Joe moves her to try to save his life.


Stern, self-righteous, and punitive, Joe Christmas's adoptive father, Simon McEachern, is another practitioner of a loveless religion. But, unlike the maniacal Doc Hines, who lives in idleness and poverty, he is a frugal farmer who is as devoted to his work as he is to his beliefs. McEachern is not an explicit bigot. He voices no antagonism to blacks and is not as hostile to women as Doc Hines. But he sees sin everywhere, uses violence against his adoptive son, mistrusts pleasure, and never doubts that God is behind him.

The McEachern marriage seems as loveless as the Hines union. Mrs. McEachern stands in her tyrannical husband's shadow. She desperately wants to establish some bond with her adopted son but can't think of any way other than offering him little favors, which he rejects as if they were bribes (which they may well be).


The dietitian at Joe's orphanage, Miss Atkins is another character in the grip of an obsession, albeit a temporary one. She lives in fear that five-year-old Joe will tell about her sexual activity. And she projects onto the child a sexual sophistication and a punitive attitude that he doesn't have. After Doc Hines himself, she is the second of many people who form Joe Christmas's character.


A prostitute who also serves food at the seedy diner downstairs from her brothel, Bobbie Allen is Joe Christmas's first love. She's rather pathetic, but Joe is too naive to notice. Bobbie finds Joe's innocent gallantry appealing, and she is willing to defy her employers, Max Confrey and Mame, by going out with him. But Bobbie is troubled by the possibility that Joe may be part black. And she is too realistic to share his romantic fantasies. Bobbie's betrayal of Joe is the final shock that sends him on the fifteen-year journey that ends with Joanna Burden's murder.


The man who pursues, murders, and castrates Joe Christmas, Percy Grimm (a reference, perhaps, to the Grim Reaper) appears in Hightower's final vision as Joe's twin. Though Grimm fancies himself the patriotic guardian of the Constitution and of public order, his underlying racism reveals itself when he mutilates his victim. Many readers think it significant that Christmas is murdered not by a mob that might be representative of the Jefferson community, but rather by a fellow loner and outsider. Some also maintain that Grimm's patriotism is another form of religious fanaticism.


Handsome Lucas Burch is a shiftless, irresponsible coward. Like most of the significant characters in Light in August, Burch is a newcomer to Jefferson and a loner. Like several other men in the novel, he avoids sustained relationships with women. But probably no other character in Light in August has as little integrity as Burch. He deceives and jilts Lena Grove, then plays Judas to Joe Christmas by betraying him for a thousand dollars. While Faulkner usually lets you hear several different perspectives on his characters, all but one of the characters in Light in August hold Burch in contempt. The one exception is Lena Grove. Why does she persist in pursuing him?


Hightower's grandfather, also named Gail, was a hard-drinking, hard-fighting Southerner, whose legend was kept before Hightower by the family's slave turned servant, Cinthy. One of the novel's ironies may be that Hightower's obsession with this grandfather turns him into a dried-out shell quite unlike the man he worships. You could argue that Hightower is foolish to ignore the model of his father, a minister who took no slaves, served in the Confederate army only as a chaplain, and after the War learned to serve humanity as a doctor. Though Faulkner seems to criticize Hightower for living in the past, both of Hightower's ancestors are much more vital than Hightower himself.


The important people in Joanna Burden's past are her father and grandfather. As youths, like Joe Christmas and Lena Grove, both men rebelled by running away from home. Both practiced an unorthodox brand of Protestantism; both were prone to violence, and both were abolitionists. Despite their New England origins, Calvin and Nathaniel Burden passed on to Joanna a preoccupation with race and an angry religion that resembles those of the novel's other, purely Southern, characters. Does Faulkner condemn the influence of Calvin and Nathaniel? Or does he see them as grander and more vital figures than their lonely offspring, Joanna? What evidence can you offer in support of your opinion? The name Calvin comes from John Calvin, the founder of the school of Protestantism from which the religion of the Burdens, Hines, and McEacherns all seem to derive.


Gavin Stephens is Jefferson's Harvard-educated district attorney. Though he plays a larger role in some of Faulkner's other novels, he appears in Light in August only to explain Joe's actions during his brief escape from custody. Do you accept Stephens's explanation of Joe?

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