Dissent in William Faulkner’s Light in August

Book cover
Book cover

The main character in Faulkner’sLight in August, Joe Christmas struggles for “peace” in a world unable to accept his troubling identity. Possibly patterned after the social dissenter, Homer Plessy, who gained national (if not international attention) in the case of Plessy v. Ferguson, Christmas’s ability to “pass” for white particularly threatens a social order based on strict binaries–white/black, male/female, light/dark. Featuring fatalistic determinism, the novel yet leaves the reader yearning for fairness in a cruel world. Reared in an orphange for white children, and then adopted out to a white rural family, the reader remains dumbfounded by Christmas’s insistence on acknowledging his racial ambiguity. Deeply troubled, Christmas transcends through a series of failed relationships with his adopted father, his first love (a prostitute), several anonymous lovers, and finally and fatalistically with Joanna Burden, the daughter of an abolitionist turned “carpetbagger,” to rise finally in his death at the hands of Percy Grimm, “into their [the community] memories forever and ever” (423). Although all circumstantial evidence seems to lead to Christmas’s guilt, the reader may be uncomfortable with the mob’s fixation on Christmas’s racial ambiguity as proof of his guilt in the crime. Set during the worst lynchings in the South, the novel examines the dark underpinnings in a social order dependent upon racial categorization.

Work Cited
Faulkner, William. Light in August. New York: The Modern Library, 2012. Print.

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