Hope is a funny thing in literature. It can come in the form of a Pollyanna-type looking through rose-colored glasses singing “keep on the sunny side of life”. Or it can come in the form of a small glimmer in an otherwise dark story as in William Faulkner’s Light In August. Hope is barely there – but it’s still hope:
“I don’t think that the old lady had any hope of saving him when she came, any actual hope. I believe that all she wanted was that he die ‘decent,’ as she put it. Decently hung by a Force, a principle; not burned or hacked or dragged dead by a Thing.”
“She just didn’t hope. Didn’t know how to begin to hope. I imagine that after thirty years the machinery for hoping requires more than twenty four hours to get started, to get into motion again.”
“I don’t think that the hoping machine had got started then, either. I don’t think that it ever did start until that baby was born out there this morning, born right in her face…”
One of the images of hope that has stayed with me is that of Lena Groves, pregnant, unwed, walking for weeks on end from Alabama to Jefferson, Mississippi in the hope of finding the father of her baby who had left “to find work” and not returned to her. During her travels, she tends to draw people to her even if the societal norms of the time might say otherwise. They want to help her as she tells her story but they, and the reader, have an understanding that she’s probably not going to find the man she’s looking for. But she persistently puts one foot in front of the other all the way to Jefferson.
The darkness that encompasses this novel revolves around Joe Christmas, born of mixed race and cast off as an orphan never fitting in with anyone. He tends to repel the people he meets. Faulkner brilliantly manipulates time to let the reader know the crime Christmas commits before it occurs in the narrative which makes the scene of Christmas “mounting the stairs” over and over again (same scene, several tellings) all that more terrifying. Faulkner also lets the reader know Joe Christmas’s horrible childhood and while this allows the reader to see the result and the horror of the times in which Christmas had to grow up and its influence on him, Faulkner doesn’t seem to allow for much sympathy for Christmas, himself.
If Faulkner does present any sympathy toward Christmas, it’s through his grandmother Mrs Hines who is referred to in the quotations above. When she discovers Joe is her grandson, the reader feels her sympathy and her love for Joe. In a form of redemption, Mrs. Hines gets to be at the birth of Lena’s baby. The birth of Lena’s baby promotes that small amount of hope, that ability to see a new life in the midst of such darkness.
When I read this book in my senior high school English class (which was thirty-six years ago), I remember discussing the title. According to my teacher, the term “light” was a southern farming term meaning “pregnant”. And while pregnancy has a significant place in the plot, this passage stood out toward the end:
In the lambent suspension of August into which night is about to fully come, it seems to engender and surround itself with a faint glow like a halo. The halo is full of faces.
At least based on this one passage, light in terms of the opposite of darkness doesn’t seem that far-fetched as a meaning behind the title. It’s also not uncommon for the theme of hope to be represented by light especially in contrast with darkness. I realize, though, titles can have more than one meaning. It’s interesting that Lena is also described as traveling light in the sense of traveling pregnant and traveling on foot with very little baggage. Light, as in the opposite of heavy or as in pregnancy and new life, might also represent hope as well.
I haven’t even gotten to Faulkner’s use of point of view or the characters of Byron Bunch and the Reverend Gail Hightower. I may need a separate post about them.
In some ways it’s intimidating to talk about Faulkner. I know very little about him and his work but I know that this was definitely the right time for me to re-read this story. Any insight out there would be greatly enjoyed and greatly appreciated.