Joe Christmas’ racial uncertainty and its consequences are arguably the driving force behind William Faulkner’s Light in August. The title of the book, given to a number of interpretations, is for Joe a final revealing light – not of redemption, not of peace, but of clarity of his role as nigger and function as whipping boy for the racism and desire for revanche, respectively, in the 1920s South. Joe is hardly innocent, but the “light” at the end of this novel is provided in the searingly brutal castration and murder scene in which Grimm sneers, “Now you’ll let white women alone, even in hell” (439). The reader is left with the unequivocal impression that Joe was a nigger and got a nigger’s comeuppance.
Faulkner, due to the way the novel is arranged, doesn’t allow for a chronological realization of this truth. One of the most trenchant lines about Joe’s race can be found almost three quarters of the way through the book:: “…the black shoes smelling of negro: that mark on his ankles the gauge definite and ineradicable of the black tide creeping up his legs, moving from his feet upward as death moves” (321). In this fascinating and captivating image, Faulkner paints Joe’s blackness as an organic and living thing – subject to growth and expression in given situations. In this situation Joe is on the run for the murder of a white woman. Here he is markedly “the other” and the shoes that he traded with a negro woman are those of her husband’s and its “negro scent” finds the blackness within Joe and brings it out.
Yet this blackness is at other times in the novel invisible. As he walks into Freedman Town, the beating heart of a negro neighborhood, a man remarks: “It’s a white man” (109) and asks “What you want, whitefolks?” (109). The blacks don’t accept him as a black man. Interestingly enough, neither do the whites: “Is he really a nigger? He don’t look like one” (205). When Joe is simply going about the business of every day life – taking a stroll through Freedman Town or paying a visit to a whorehouse – he is seen as part of the established white patriarchy.
Joe’s primary identification with the establishment whites makes sense given his childhood with the McEacherns. The prototypical couple that could easily have been models for Grant Wood’s American Gothic, the McEacherns imbue Joe with a “white” upbringing. Yet, Joe never allows himself to fully believe that whiteness. One night, after yet another indulgence from his doting adoptive mother, he pretends to tell her what he really is: “…tell him (McEachern) what he has nursed. That he has nursed a nigger beneath his own roof, with his own food at his own table” (157). Yet this same certainty is absent some time later as he, in post-coital conversation, whispers to his mistress/prostitute Bonnie: “I think I got some nigger blood in me…I don’t know. I believe I have” (184). This very premise of uncertainty is what makes the mercurial rise of blackness vs. whiteness within Joe plausible. As Joe gets into “trouble” more – he is more black. As he is more “innocent” – he is obviously white. Yet through the obvious (and troubling) self-fulfilling prophecies inherent in this dichotomy, Faulkner dispassionately displays an exacting portrait of the early 20th century South.
This portrait composes an entire civilization – lower, middle, and upper classes – that despises Negroes, and essentially, their black/other-ness. The word nigger can be used casually, as the Sheriff and his deputies do. Their usage mirrors the use of “Black” or “African-American” in contemporary speech. It is not a pejorative – it simply expressed race. But for the mob in Mottstown, anxious for a lynching, “nigger” is more than an epithet – it is a living vitriol that speaks of a cursed lower life-form. One that is hated and loathed and spat upon, in a manner much like Antonio might have spat upon Shylock on the Rialto. This hatred finds its deepest and most sinister expression in Doc Hines’ cold-blooded murder of Joe Christmas’ father:
But he rode up behind the buggy, the first buggy he had seen that night. He rode up on the right side of it and he leaned down, still in the pitch dark and without saying a word and without stopping his horse, and grabbed the man that might have been a stranger or a neighbor for all he could have known by sight or hearing. Grabbed him by one hand and held the pistol against him with the other and shot him dead and brought the gal back home behind him on the horse. He left the buggy and the man both there in the road. It was raining again, too.
This scene is rich in symbolism and terrifying in its brutality. The blackness of night cloaks further the blackness of Doc Hines’ heart and makes even blacker his deed. This deed – a murder – is a punishment visited on the father of a child who looks white to all who look upon him. This inability of the white to abide the darkness – the hatred of the negro which needs expulsion – is a motif that finds its natural conclusion in Doc Hines’ murder of the father of his own grandchild.
This fluctuating ambiguity of Joe’s whiteness/blackness given any moment or situation is only further exacerbated by Faulkner’s masterful, if at times disorienting, fast-forward and backward prose. That is perhaps why the murder scene brings so much clarity and light. In that scene – that grisly scene in which one of Grimm’s own men has to look aside and vomit – we see the brutal reality: the otherness must be purged – and not with resignation, but with angry and Cain-like remorselessness. Faulkner, ever mindful of the importance of roles and parts, won’t allow a random mob or an angry denizen of Jefferson to do the dirty work. He introduces a minor character, Percy Grimm, a few pages before Grimm is standing over Joe’s almost-dead body with a bloody butcher knife. Faulkner does not take more than he needs and uses those few introductory pages to help the reader see that Grimm is a “true believer.” This former Army man, anxious for work, action, justice, or any wretched combination of the three, self-appoints himself and some of his former Army cronies as a secondary vigilante force. He won’t trust the mob. He won’t trust the sheriff. His self-condemning words: “it is the right of no civilian to sentence a man to death” (427) ring hollowly as he stands above Joe’s corpse. Faulkner ends the presence of Grimm after his bloody deed. The end of the chapter focuses entirely on Joe and his dying moments. Grimm has accomplished what Faulkner created him to do – he must now fade into the background after blazing forward as the personification of white hatred of the other – in this case – Negroes. That white hatred would now too fade back into the environment, ever present, ever latent.
It is jarring for the modern reader to see the word nigger, which is such a loaded word in the early 21st century, used so often. Yet, taken in an objective light, the reader cannot help but see the word for what it was – Faulkner painting a true portrait of that time period. The people of those times, who saw things as very white or very black, could not abide a man who was sometimes one and other times the other. So they killed him. And all their shades of gray with him. And for them, and for Joe, it was finally light, in August.
Faulkner, William. Light in August. New York: Book of the Month Club, 1997.