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Free Barron's Booknotes-Light in August by William Faulkner-Free Notes
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POINT OF VIEW

Most of Light in August's story is told by a third-person narrator. In some third-person novels the narrator is omniscient (all-knowing) and objective. In others he takes the point of view of the central character. In Light in August the narrator is often objective, as, for example, when reporting dialogue. But what is unusual about this novel is the way in which the narrator's point of view shifts frequently from one character to another. And even when reporting from the point of view of one character alone, the narrator sometimes stays on the surface of that character's speech and thoughts, while at other times he has access to memories so deep the character himself may not be consciously aware of them.

The difference between this shifting point of view and the point of view of an omniscient narrator is important. For example, you first hear of Joe Christmas from Byron's point of view. Byron seems a sympathetic character, so you tend to accept what he says. Later you see Joe Christmas from his own point of view but without access to his deepest thoughts and feelings. When (in Chapter 6) the narrator finally dives into Joe's buried memories, you get a completely different picture of him. But in Chapter 19 you see his final escape and murder from the point of view of Percy Grimm. One of Faulkner's purposes in this approach is to contrast public images with private realities. The Joe Christmas that the town of Jefferson knows is different from the Joe Christmas seen from within, and Faulkner's shifting point of view keeps you aware of that and other such contrasts.


Occasionally one of Light in August's characters tells his story in the first person, for example, the furniture dealer in Chapter 21. But in this novel first-person narration is always addressed to one of the other characters and never directly to the reader. In evaluating whatever material a character presents this way, you must consider not only the speaker but also his audience. For example, the furniture dealer's approach to Byron and Lena is colored by his telling about them in the midst of love play with his wife.

FORM AND STRUCTURE

Light in August juxtaposes three different stories. The story of Lena Grove begins and ends the novel. The story of Joe Christmas begins in the second chapter and ends in the third-to-last. The story of Gail Hightower begins in the third chapter and ends in the next-to-last. None of these stories proceeds chronologically. For example, one of the novel's climactic events, the murder of Joanna Burden, has already occurred before Lena Grove arrives in Jefferson at the end of Chapter 1, but we don't see Joe Christmas enter Joanna Burden's bedroom to kill her until the end of Chapter 12.

The primary problem posed by Light in August's structure is whether these three stories fuse into one unified novel. Remember that, except for the accident of all three characters being in Jefferson for the few days between Burden's murder and Christmas's death, their tales are indeed separate and distinct. Who is the central character? The middle third and by far the largest section of the novel is about Christmas. But Lena opens and closes the novel. And Hightower is the character who ties the three stories together by officiating at the birth of Lena's baby and by trying to intervene against the killing of Joe.

These three characters contrast with each other in illuminating ways. But a kaleidoscope of comparisons may not be enough to make a unified structure. Some readers have felt that the novel's unity comes from elements other than the structure, for example, from the imagery or from the themes. Others say that Faulkner unified the novel by making Lena's story encompass Christmas's. They point out that she opens and closes Light in August as a way of placing Joe Christmas's individual tragedy in the broad context of ordinary and reasonably happy people like Lena Grove and Byron Bunch. And still others argue that Faulkner deliberately left his novel loose and open as a way of presenting a truer picture of the stream of life than if he had encased his characters in a more classically "artistic" form.

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