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Free Barron's Booknotes-Light in August by William Faulkner-Free Notes
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Lena's fertility and her earthmothering womanhood are not in question, but her way of knowing, emphatically in the foreground, keeps her consciousness within the limitations of childhood. Faulkner, unlike many of his critics, refrains from passing any ultimate judgment on this child-woman, showing us instead the implications of her immunity from suffering. If Lena reconciles nature and society, it is because she sees in both only what reflects herself.

Carole Anne Taylor, "The Epistemology of Tragic Paradox, in William Faulkner's Light in August: A Critical Casebook, 1982

Light in August is the strangest, the most difficult of Faulkner's novels, a succession of isolated, brilliantly etched characters and scenes that revolve around, finally blur into, an impenetrable center-the character Christmas. As remote from us and his author as he is from the society around him, Christmas withholds some ultimate knowledge of himself, some glimpse into the recesses of being which we feel necessary to understanding. Yet just as obvious as his distance is the fact that he epitomizes every character and movement in the book. Whatever is in Light in August is here archetypally in this figure whose very name begins his mystery: Joe Christmas.

...Yet this mystery is the meaning of Light in August, for the impenetrability of Christmas becomes the only way Faulkner can articulate a truly inhuman, or larger-than-human, wholeness of being of which the others-Lena, Hightower, Byron, Joanna, Hines, Grimm-are the human shadows.

Donald M. Kartiganer, "Light in August," in William Faulkner's Light in August: A Critical Casebook, 1982

Certainly, the real Lena, more than slightly stupid and more than slightly selfish, and the real Confederate Hightower, who found an inglorious death in a chickencoop, are both unworthy of the dreams and the devotion they inspire. The responsibility, however, lies not with them but with the Byron Bunches and Gail Hightowers who can be moved to save or to deny Joe Christmas because of their dreams. Reason and imagination can prove an integrative force, identifying the interests of the individual with those of the community and establishing a link between the private and public worlds. They can also be destructive insofar as they enable man to invent infinitely various excuses which permit him to live while ignoring life itself. Rationally conceived categories and myths may render morality simpler and clearer by providing formulas of universal applicability, but in the process they destroy those essential motives for morality which must be found by the individual in life itself. This is the truth that Hightower could only know; it is also the truth which Byron, in fumbling and often farcically inadequate fashion, seeks to live.

Olga W. Vickery, The Novels of William Faulkner: A Critical Interpretation, 1964

Lena is so fully immersed in the flow of life, and so slightly developed in the dimensions of conscious thought and feeling, as to seem almost subhuman. Christmas, isolated by his refusal either to identify himself in relation to other people and the world or to be content with anonymity, lacking the ties of tenderness and mutual dependency that keep normal people from going beyond the bounds, becomes inhuman. Hightower, retreating from life in the present, exiles himself to an extrahuman region from which even Byron's exigencies cannot quite rescue him.

Richard P. Adams, Faulkner: Myth and Motion, 1968


One can look at Faulkner's comedy in still another way. We may say that Faulkner tends to take the long view in which the human enterprise in all its basically vital manifestations is seen from far off and with great detachment. If the view is long enough and the perspective full enough, the basic attitude is almost inevitably comic. James Joyce comes to mind. His Ulysses, though it has much pathos and horror in it, is also finally a comic work. In Light in August Faulkner observes even the tragic events that involve Joanna Burden with detachment and in a full perspective. It is Lena and her instinct for nature, Lena and her rapport with the community, Lena as a link in the eternal progression from mother to daughter who provides the final norm for our judgment. In this connection Faulkner's abiding concern with man's endurance and his ability to suffer anything-compare the Nobel Prize speech-is worth remembering. Tragedy always concerns itself with the individual, his values, his tragic encounter with the reality about him, and the waste which is suffered in his defeat. Comedy involves, on the other hand, the author's basic alignment with society and with the community.

Cleanth Brooks, William Faulkner: the Yoknapatawpha Country, 1963

The form of Light in August is both tragic and comic: the content both existential and mythic: the final effect both meaningful and affirmative. Joe Christmas faces the problem of twentieth-century man-trying to be human in a chaotic and hostile world. His story follows a basic pattern of experience that is found in myth, religion, philosophy, tragic drama, and life. His discovery of himself as a human being becomes an affirmation of the nature of man. And love and death, birth and rebirth are revealed as part of the larger dynamic process of life, "the eternal joy of existence."

Robert M. Slabey, "Myth and Ritual in Light in August," in The Merrill Studies in Light in August, 1971


What is the quality of consciousness displayed in Light in August? Surely, it is not a consciousness which broods over the whole range of action, associating people with each other or with a culture, establishing their manners and morals in a whole containment. It is a consciousness in flight and pursuit, wonderfully aware of fact, the physical and animal fact, wonderfully in possession of extreme emotions and the ecstasy of violence, cognizant too of the tender humorousness of love, and in general wonderfully fantastic and magical. Par excellence, it is the American folk-literary consciousness.

Richard Chase, "The Stone and the Crucifixion," reprinted in The Merrill Studies in Light in August, 1971


...we are left with a suspension too varied and complex to organize into any clear pattern. We can, of course, discover a great many relationships between the three stories and between parts of the individual stories, and we can, as a number of critics do, trace various themes which recur with some frequency throughout the book. None of these themes, however, as I hope this analysis makes evident, governs enough of the book or resolves enough of the problems in the book to provide any over-all sense of unity. They, too, come to form part of the insoluble suspension, for they cannot be clearly related to one another.

Walter J. Slatoff, Quest for Failure; A Study of William Faulkner, 1960

The book is focused on a series of confrontations: Lena-Burch, Lena-Bunch, Lena-Christmas, and then another series: Bunch-Hightower, Christmas-Hightower, Grimm-Christmas. These meetings, mostly between strangers and some of them mere suggestions of possibility, form the spinal column of the book. If, as I have been saying, Faulkner means to dramatize both the terrors of isolation and the erosion of relationships, it is appropriate that several characters, each breaking out of his own obscurity, should collide, cause pain and then part. There are large possibilities for drama in such a pattern, if only because it virtually insures strong climaxes; and Faulkner has mined these possibilities to their limits. There are also troublesome problems of organization-for one, how to avoid a split of the narrative into several divergent lines. It would be excessive to claim that Faulkner has quite solved these problems.

Irving Howe, William Faulkner: A Critical Study, 1975

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