Reading Southern Gothic in the time of Black Lives Matter

While taking the knee is becoming a political statement de rigueur, I’ve been reading William Faulkner’s Light in August, set in America’s south in the early part of the last century.

It was impossible to read this novel without thinking about the stark differences in race relations between then and now. Along with the liberal use of the n-word, discrimination and violence against blacks was the unquestioned norm. Yet, at no point is the reader led to accept or even be dismissive of this world. It could have been written today with a liberal implied reader in mind.

One of the main characters, Joe Christmas, orphaned as a toddler, believes that he is of African heritage – his appearance is ‘white,’ but some characters say he ‘looks foreign.’ When background stories come into the fold, the reader learns that Joe’s biological father was of a mixed African-Mexican lineage. But given some unreliable narration, even this is uncertain. Nevertheless, Joe’s tragic life is shaped by his belief in his ‘tainted’ identity, along with the violence and cruelty of his childhood home, ruled by a staunch Calvinist. As a teenager, Joe runs away and becomes a drifter, unable to fit in with either black or white communities.

In a parallel storyline, another sympathetic character, Lena Grove, has also uprooted herself from her family home, where she was castigated for ‘being a whore.’ In contrast to Joe, she is not drifting but very much aiming for a target – the father of her unborn child with the naïve expectation that they will marry. Lena and Joe’s lives overlap without touching through the character of Joe Brown who works with Christmas (as he is often called) at a planing mill and later shares a house and moonshine business with him. Brown is also the drifter and shady character who made Lena pregnant.

With its interior monologues and experiments with narration, using multiple narrators, broken chronologies and some convoluted subplots, Light in August is categorised as modernist. It is a challenging read. But I found it worthwhile for its depth of characters and the ways it places extremes of human behaviour – racism and fanatical religiosity – side-by-side, exposing the irrationality and ability to destroy lives with hate that they have in common. Light in August 2

Although this story was written in 1932, it only has vague references to that time period and the decades leading up to it, and no precise year is ever mentioned. This helps to make the book feel timeless. Sadly, so too do the explorations of themes like racism.

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