William Faulkner's Light in August focuses particularly on the American South, so often the focal point of Faulkner's work. The novel interweaves the stories and histories of Joe Christmas and Joanna Burden, Lena Grove and Byron Bunch, as well as supporting characters whose backstories illuminate hundreds of years of the American past. On the one hand, many scholars have analyzed the story as a criticism of race in the American South and particularly society's self-destruction through this unsustainable and irrational system it has itself created. For instance, scholar Abdul-Razzak Al-Barhow writes, "The force of Light in August derives from its ability to dramatise the social and racial contradictions, which are set in motion by Joe Christmas's indeterminate racial origins. The need for, if not the inevitability of, social change in racial relations is made even more pressing through Faulkner's demonstration of how the racial ideology that holds this society together is the same ideology that will tear it apart." In this way, the question of Joe's passing marks a profound social transgression and precludes the possibility of his finding happiness, social acceptance, or a "happy ending." Even though he passes from both black to white and the less common white to black, as Marta Puxan-Oliva suggests, he is perceived to have violated society's most salient divide, a divide which Faulkner suggests is an arbitrary one.
On the other hand, many scholars such as Ilse Dusoir Lind have considered the story as one deeply influenced by the Calvinist roots of much of the United States – including Puritanism, Presbyterianism, and other evangelical faiths that came to prominence in the Second Great Awakening. Locating Puritan principles in the work, these scholars consider the ways the novel is a cautionary tale that exposes the centrality of religion, and especially rigid and self-abnegating Calvinism, as a part of American society.
However, few have considered these two frames of race and religion together. In particular, this essay examines the possibility of extending analysis of Puritan doctrine further to include racial systems, racial passing, and ambiguity. Rather than necessarily thinking of Joe as a Christ figure – for which there is ample evidence – this essay considers Joe through the Puritan doctrine of "visible saints," which emphasized that members of the Puritan Elect mark themselves to be accepted by the community as definitively saved. Using this analysis, the essay shows that like religious belief, race itself is societally constructed, but ultimately relies on facts unknowable to those perceiving and producing these identities. In this way, Faulkner's Light in August is a deeper criticism of the illusion of a stable or agreed upon truth, the implications of which continue to haunt us today.
The Puritan doctrine of "visible saints" revolved around the Calvinist premises of both original sin and predestination. Original sin emphasized that all men are marked by the "original" sin of Adam and Eve eating from the tree of knowledge. This legacy meant that all men were fundamentally sinful and were likely to return to wrongful behavior if not kept in line. Calvinists thus generally believed in strict social laws that limited man's behavior (as inherently sinful beings who otherwise couldn't be trusted to do the right thing). In order to be saved and go to heaven, it wasn't enough that they simply believe as many other Protestant faiths professed, but instead that the only power able to save them from this inherent and original corruption was an omnipotent God. Moreover, predestination emphasized that good deeds or even how one lived life didn't matter so much as God's predetermined decision on who would make it to heaven and who would face an eternity of fiery damnation. Some Puritans, particularly infamous dissenters like Anne Hutchison or Roger Williams, challenged some of these beliefs. First, if an omnipotent God had already decided humanity's fate, these thinkers reasoned, free will, laws, or even proper behavior was irrelevant in terms of salvation. People like Hutchison who challenged social laws and norms were often exiled from society for their dissent.
Another crisis occurred, especially in later generations, among Puritans who doubted how they could actually ascertain that they had been saved as "visible saints." Normally, this proof meant publicly professing a vision or visitation from God, an angel, or other divine being who told them they had been chosen as the elect. As piety waned, however, the church risked losing members who didn't feel comfortable professing this kind of visitation, forcing some sort of compromise. The result was something called the "Halfway Covenant," which made it possible for Puritans to remain a part of the church so long as they professed a desire to do so and to be saved. This more lenient doctrine allowed for the then Congregational Church to survive and continue to evolve in line with other American denominations then in the young colonies. It is this tendency to want to be a part of the community without necessarily being visibly saved that allows deeper analysis of the intersections of race and religious belief for Joe Christmas in Light in August.
Although not Puritan per se, the Calvinist connections in Light in August are clear, coming from Joanna Burden's family history as well as the pasts of Joe Christmas and Reverend Hightower. Like her grandfather Calvin, Lind explains, Joanna's religion is "Unitarianism…the direct historical descendant of Calvinism." In addition, Lind suggests that even her name Burden is a reference to "Calvinistic Burden," tied to her family's belief that white men had sinned in creating race and causing the suffering of black Americans. As a consequence, Joanna's family believes that white men would forever be tied to the "mark of Cain" they had created by wronging black Americans. Similarly, both Joe Christmas's father figures, his adoptive father Simon McEachern and grandfather Doc Hines, express strong Calvinist leanings. Lind further explains that McEachern's "sect is Presbyterian. What is more, he is Scotch, and Scotch Presbyterianism in the South was known for its extreme literalism of Calvinistic doctrine." In addition, Doc Hines is another personification of Calvinist conservatism since he believes that men (and his daughter in particular) might be corrupted by sex, especially when the sex transgresses, by involving racial mixing.
Hightower also suggests the often destructive but pervasive influence of the church not only reinforces white supremacy but also leads him astray in trying to reclaim his family's morality and honor as well as save his wife from disgrace. Al-Barhow proposes, "As Hightower reflects on his life further, he finds in religion and the church system another destructive factor…the religious institution appears to be the antithesis of what it is meant to be…'against truth and against…peace.'" Finally, one climax of the story occurs when Joe murders Joanna – likely because she seems set to murder him – because she had attempted to force him to pray; Joe repeats, "She ought not to started praying over me. She would have been all right if she hadn't started praying over me." In these ways, Calvinist religion heavily influences the main characters, and its world of belief is subtly implied to bealmost as important as the real world around them.
Equally interesting are the many allusions to Christ and the suggestion that Christmas is a Christ-like figure. Beyond his name's obvious reference to the birth of Christ, Joe is also thirty-three when he dies (the same age of Jesus Christ at his death) and ultimately is killed publicly, after having incurred five wounds, like those of the crucifixion. In addition, just as Christ faced doubts from among his disciplines and society around him, there is always doubt as to Joe's actual racial identity. Faulkner seems to suggest that Joe's body is in conflict with itself, in a sort of fight between good versus evil, very much like the Manichean world of Calvinist doctrine: "His blood would not be quiet, let him save it. It would not be either one or the other and let his body save itself. Because the 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. And it was the white blood which sent him to the minister, which rising in him for the last and final time, sent him against all reason and all reality, into the embrace of the chimaera, a blind faith in something read in a printed book…It was the black blood which swept him by his own desire beyond the aid of any man, swept him up into that ecstasy of the black jungle where life has already ceased before the heart stops and death is desire and fulfillment." Because Faulkner intentionally leaves Christmas's race ambiguous, he underscores the phenomenon of passing and major crises of truth produced for Southern society built on "Jim Crow." These confusions undermine the fiction that race is a stable and visible category, or that it is a divide that can be policed. The ambiguous race of Joe Christmas – like his status as a tragic hero or villain – is never established with any certainty. His passing and his own conclusion that he has "Negro blood" despite a lack of any definitive proof suggests how feelings and assumptions have always produced truth, in which seeing may not always be believing, even though people throughout American history have believed race is always visible. Nonetheless, Faulkner emphasizes that the racial systems of the South destroy lives and render man's inhumanity to man an essential part of daily life.
In the work, Faulkner states, "Memory believes before knowing remembers. Believes longer than recollects, longer than knowing even wonders." This quote, among others, suggests the fickleness of knowing. As Mark C. Jerng argues, "racial identification is produced through an exchange between self and other in which the demands and projections of the other are met by the projections of the self, an exchange that in effect blurs the assumed opposition between self and the other." This statement means that it isn't simply enough that Joe believes his racial status; his race only has meaning when it is accepted or debated by others. Richard Godden points out that the novel relies on doubt throughout, emphasizing that members of the community as well as readers should carefully reconsider our assumptions and what we think we know about others, especially those we conclude are racially or religiously different.
In addition, like visible saints who had to declare themselves saved, or subsequently trust that others would accept that they were saved during the time of the halfway covenant, Godden reminds us, race is not an individually produced concept but rather an ideology that must be constructed by the community. Connecting this part of Calvinist ideology allows us to think about Joe's choice to belong in the community and how destabilizing his very presence is because he confounds not only the idea of race itself, but also truth. Emphasizing Joe's ambiguous racial identity is related to the idea of visible saints as the concept of the Elect challenges the whole system of truth on which society is built. However, by provoking a crisis which unlike Christ, does not lead to salvation, resurrection, or even meaningful catharsis, the novel emphasizes the failure of racial knowing on terms that evoke religious themes, which would have been well known to the Calvinist characters of the novel. Nonetheless, the novel underscores the destructiveness of racism or even presuming to know the facts that produce differences and inequality among people – even when these seemingly believable facts feel almost religious in their certitude and importance. In the end, though, the fact that we never arrive at certainty in terms of Joe's racial identity means that he remains a "tabula rasa, a white sheet of paper on which anyone can write out an identity for him and make him [and us] believe it," as Alfred Kazin argues. In a moment of "fake news," "alternative facts," and "truthiness" all over the media in the current society, it is important to think about the stakes of deciding who belongs in our community and why. Collins Dictionary named "fake news" its word of the year for 2017, but this novel shows that truth has always been a contested concept, in terms of race, religious belief, and other parts of identity. Most importantly, by using religious language and imagery to talk about race, Faulkner emphasizes the significance of race in our current society. Almost sacrosanct although intangible in reality, the novel treats race like a Puritan's personal, though publicized, relationship with God. At the same time, the book undercuts religious conviction by suggesting that this relationship only matters in a collective setting where others can judge whether they think one is telling the truth – even about oneself.
Light in August illustrates a compelling story about the ways in which we judge others, bringing in not only American racism but also American religious fervor to underscore the characters' complex cycle of judging and misjudging each other. For this reason, the novel does offer a powerful criticism of American society, as many scholars have pointed out, and does so in ways even deeper than readers may realize initially. Unfortunately, Faulkner's criticism holds true as much today as it did when he wrote the book almost a century ago. At one point in the novel, Christmas asks, "Just when do men that have different blood in them stop hating one another?" American society today seems as ready to hate each other as at any other time in history, highlighting the importance of taking the novel's moral to heart and to appreciate that our differences are only as powerful as we allow them to be, and only as real as we imagine.
From guest contributor JeongSoo Ha