"An Older Light Than Ours": Faulkner's Reflections on Race and Racism in Light in August.

Abstract: This article examines William Faulkner’s reflections on race and racism in Light in August, by focusing on the crucial role that consciousness and psychology play in the novel for the construction of characters and their view of reality and of themselves. Light in August does not reproduce the South’s pervading racism as experienced by Faulkner, but undertakes a close dissection of a collective racialized imaginary. In order to support this argument, the analysis focuses on three different aspects: First, the narrative strategy of alternating subjective perspectives that explores the consensus-building dynamics, which condition perception and cognition as much as they generate prejudice and racism. Second, the community’s conception of race as an existential condition of insurmountable ontological difference appears to be intimately wedded to common concepts of gender. This conception is radicalized through a Protestant spirit of guilt and punishment as existential imperatives. Finally, the article analyzes Joe Christmas as a psychotic character by examining the process of his narrative construction and analyzing the extent to which his dubious racial identity and existential dilemma are presented as the result of racist discourse and not of “incompatibilities of blood.”

Light in August does not begin with the key to its pit-black center, but with its bright margin, its luminous frame. The book that was to be entitled “Dark House” does not open with the story of Joe Christmas, that ungraspable vortex forcing us to look closer while frustrating our desire to see and understand. Instead, it opens with the story of hope, courage, and faith around Lena Grove, a character rendered with the mythical aura of nature’s elemental wisdom. A wisdom, which the reader wishes would shed some of its bounteous light upon the abyss of uncertainty, life-consuming doubt, and denial marking the fate of the novel’s enigmatic protagonist. If Joe Christmas1 seems to elude epistemological ground, as Donald Kartiganer believes, this is firstly because Faulkner himself did not know exactly how to account for this “shadowy figure, in whom a strange union of forces represents the impossibility of his existence in verbal form” (Kartiganer 12). However, the fact that Faulkner preferred for his finished novel the luminous title instead of the dark one of his work in progress, seems to bespeak more than his possible desire to stress the book’s ambiguously optimistic ending. It rather denotes the author’s appreciation of his novel as a kind of elaborate X-ray of the Southern way of thinking and feeling about race in general and miscegenation in particular.

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