Light in August by William Faulkner
This was my first Faulkner novel. I’ve read short stories, but never a novel. I chose to read this because a group of fellow teachers formed a book group, which I signed on for.
I am impressed by the craft demonstrated in the novel. For instance, Faulkner’s ability to switch between tenses and points of view amazed me. His way of giving just a little and withholding the rest built suspense and made getting through what was a fairly complex 500 pages seem like a quick read. Usually when I have to go back and reread whole sections I don’t feel like it was a quick read. Somehow this book was though, and I did have to go back and reread a lot.
I was impressed by Faulkner’s what could have been excessive use of pathetic fallacy to build tension, foreshadow, and establish mood. For all the suffering the characters of this book go through, it’s made even greater because the trees—the houses—the air itself suffers too.
There’s lots that I could write about: his use of light/dark imagery to comment on good/evil, his treatment of race, the motif of heritage, and what we inherit as individuals and as whole societies, the collective sins of families, cities, nations—but I’ll choose one thing—his treatment of women.
Womanfilth is a word I’d never seen and, at first, was put off by. When I think about it though, my question about what is Lena doing in the story—she’s barely fleshed out at all—is answered.
Lena is a figure of hope for womankind. She remains uncorrupted to the end. She perseveres, remains sober and dignified. As she says toward the end, “When they [men] up and run away on you, you just pick up whatever they left and go on.” She does not go crazy for the love of a man. She does not burn up in her desire. She does not sacrifice her own integrity to please him. Unlike other women in the novel, she bears new life and remains strong enough to nurture it. Does Faulkner suggest that there is hope for humankind to be found in the strength and leadership of the matriarch?
Why does humankind need redemption? Because evil exists and sin is also our nature, and no matter how hard our fathers try to beat us pure, or how many criminals society jails or executes, the sins just keep compounding. Faulkner was interested in paradox, the inevitability of suffering, and in offering hope in the face of that. Purity is impossible, Faulkner seems to suggests, but one can just “go on” as Lena does, be strong, like Lena is.