Light In August: Religious symbolism

KeskusteluWilliam Faulkner and his Literary Kin

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Light In August: Religious symbolism

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1theaelizabet
Muokkaaja: tammikuu 28, 2010, 2:35 pm

My response over at the Character Names thread:

Yes, the names certainly carry some baggage, but I've thought about them mainly where they amplify Faulkner's overwhelming use of Christian symbolism and imagery. I read the short stories and As I Lay Dying years ago so my memory of it all is a bit dim, but I don't remember the symbolism in those works being so blatant, though I'm sure it was there. I've thoughts on the use, but I think that's all I'll offer until I'm finished (which will be soon).

Was anyone else struck by the religious allusions? I mean, Christmas's foster mother washed his feet! I've yet to fully gather my thoughts and process what Faulkner was trying to do, but would love to hear what others are thinking in the meantime.

2theaelizabet
tammikuu 28, 2010, 6:00 pm

From a 1959 interview with Faulkner, excerpted from Twentieth Century Interpretations of Light In August:

Q. Mr. Faulkner, did you intend any Christ symbolism in Light in August in Joe Christmas?

A. No, that's a matter of reaching into the lumber room to get out something which seems to the writer the most effective way to tell what he is trying to tell. And that comes back to the notion that there are so few plots to use that sooner or later any writer is going to use something that has been used. And that Christ story is one of the best stories that man has invented, assuming that he did invent that story, and of course it will recur. Everyone that has had the story of Christ and the Passion as part of his Christian background will in time draw from that. There was no deliberate intent to repeat it. That the people to me come first. The symbolism comes second.

"There was no deliberate intent to repeat it." Hmmm, I don't know about that.

3laytonwoman3rd
Muokkaaja: tammikuu 29, 2010, 7:37 am

I suspect he would admit otherwise with regard to A Fable. But he was always adamant that his goal was to tell a good story, and that his characters dictated to him how that story was to go, rather than the other way around. The symbolism works better that way, in my opinion, as it is more subtle. I hate to be hit over the head with it.

ON THE OTHER HAND...("Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself.") It's hard not to be hit over the head with the Ascension imagery of the description of Christmas's death, where his blood "seemed to rush out of his pale body liek the rush of sparks from a rising rocket; upon that black blast the man seemed to rise soaring in their memories forever and ever."

And Brown/Burch, the sidekick who betrays Christmas to the law, is even referred to as his "disciple". If Christmas isn't Christ, why did Faulkner make Brown such an obvious Judas?

At least he left out the solar eclipse.

4absurdeist
tammikuu 28, 2010, 11:31 pm

Great thread; great stuff. I may re-dig in to this after IJ in March.

5kokipy
tammikuu 29, 2010, 7:09 am

We can be sure that his characters had the Christ story well in mind, inasmuch as many of them were true believers and even if they weren't they were immersed in a culture that was - as he was himself, of course. With no books, papers, magazines, tv or movies, the only input, as it were, for the country people was church, and they went often and while there these were the stories they heard, over and over. Their lives must have been full of conscious and unconscious references and imagery to Bible stories. So when Christmas's mother washed his feet, surely she was in fact thinking about Christ and doing this thing fully aware of the imagery, as well as of her love for Christmas. She was the kind of person who would humble herself to wash the feet of others, particularly those she loved and cared to nurture, having internalized the story. Faulkner doesn't have to spell out for us what's in their minds - their actions telegraph what they are thinking and how they are motivated. So I don't think he deliberately put Christ imagery there as an overlay, the way Flannery O'Connor tends to - it is organic in his books, innate and deeply revealing. Does that make any sense?

6laytonwoman3rd
tammikuu 29, 2010, 7:39 am

#5 I was editing my No. 3 above while you were posting, kokipy. I think Faulkner was being a little coy or at least disingenuous with his protests. He knew what he was doing, all right.

7kokipy
tammikuu 29, 2010, 10:10 am

Yes m'dear, and I didnt have the benefit of your edits to your 3 when writing my 5. I agree he knew what he was doing, but for me it works so well because it is inate to the people, their culture and their lives, and what he was doing was far more sophisticated than merely imposing imagery on the story. The imagery is integral to how these people see and experience the world. I think it makes it so much more powerful.

8laytonwoman3rd
tammikuu 29, 2010, 11:16 am

Very well put, kokipy. The imagery is integral...that's true.

9theaelizabet
helmikuu 1, 2010, 11:47 pm

"The imagery is integral to how these people see and experience the world. I think it makes it so much more powerful." I agree, kokipy. I may go back to read certain passages just to see how he how seamlessly he accomplished it.

As to Faulkner's response in message two, well, in my experience, good southern boys who weave the number three throughout their stories know exactly what they're doing:)

10theaelizabet
Muokkaaja: helmikuu 4, 2010, 9:47 pm

From a chapter in The American Novel and Its Tradition by Richard Chase:

"... The specifically Christian symbolism in Light in August is not made deeply significant. ... The symbolism of the circle would certainly, if we had here a specifically Christian novel, include the traditional symbolism of death and the newborn spiritual life. But this central mystery of Christianity is not present. And Light in August reminds us that Faulkner's imagination is not characteristically stirred by incarnation, catharsis, and harmony, but rather by separation, alienation, and contradiction. If Light in August were a Christian novel it might use the symbolism of the book as it stands--the circle, the opposition of light and dark and so on. But in some way it would have to employ the idea that life comes about through death, that in some way a new spiritual life had come to the community of Jefferson through the death of Joe Christmas. But this does not happen; there is no new life, no transfiguration anywhere that would not have occurred without Joe Christmas. There is no new religious consciousness or knowledge. In Joe Christmas we do not celebrate the death and rebirth of the hero."

11kokipy
helmikuu 5, 2010, 7:32 am

Yes, that makes sense, I would not view Faulkner as a Christian writer, but his imagery is permeated with the culture about which he wrote-the harsh protestant tradition of Hines in particular. Hellfire and damnation, not incarnation, catharsis and harmony.

12laytonwoman3rd
helmikuu 5, 2010, 8:32 am

It is certainly true that Joe Christmas's death was no one's salvation. This is what has always bothered me about the critics who refer to it as a symbolic crucifixion. It may have been a sacrifice, even an almost willing sacrifice, but there was no redemption to follow.

13wrmjr66
helmikuu 5, 2010, 9:25 am

It seems to me that Christianity can play a thematic role in a novel without the novel having to be specifically Christian in focus or goal. In other words, I think Joe Christmas's death could be permeated with crucifixion imagery without requiring some sort of Easter rebirth to complete it. In fact, given the way Faulkner talks about the Easter story in #2 (his use of "invented") might indicate that he sees the Christ story less as a religious whole and more as an archetypal story that he can pull from as needed.

14kokipy
helmikuu 5, 2010, 10:37 am

I agree with that. Faulkner clearly didn't mean there to be redemption. this story is a tragedy, unremittingly so. Joe was doomed from the moment the children in the orphanage tagged him as black, if not before. To permit redemption would dilute Faulkner's condemnation of the racism and the hellfire form of religion embraced by the society. Wouldn't it? Whatever the religion HInes practiced couldn't conceivably be fairly characterized as Christianity, involving compassion, pity and forgiveness. Could it?

15theaelizabet
Muokkaaja: helmikuu 5, 2010, 10:58 am

Religious symbolism (specifically Christian) obviously permeates LIA, notwithstanding Faulkner's protestations. It seems as though Faulkner wove them into the story purposefully, teasinginly, perhaps misleadingly. He leads us down a Passion story path (via some "red herrings" by the way) only to jerk us away from the expected resurrection/transfiguration through Joe and hand us a potential ray of hope through the story (which we are told by yet another character) of Lena and Byron and the baby. So by not giving us the catharsis through Joe's story, doesn't he force us to look at Joe, and what his story represents, more closely? I'm thinkin' off the cuff here, so bear with me.

>13 wrmjr66: Yes, I agree. I don't think the writer quoted in message 10 meant "Christian novel" in a literal sense. It think he meant what you note about Faulkner, "that he sees the Christ story less as a religious whole and more as an archetypal story..."

16wrmjr66
helmikuu 5, 2010, 12:32 pm

>15 theaelizabet: I haven't read LIA in years, so I don't recall closely enough how Faulkner might employ the passion narrative misleadingly. What I wonder is this: could Faulkner be doing so in order to emphasize the tragedy of Joe Christmas's story? If you think of older tragedies (e.g. Romeo and Juliet), it is not uncommon to play with the generic conventions of comedy in order to make the tragedy more stark or ironic. Is this a partial explanation for some of the Christian imagery?

17theaelizabet
Muokkaaja: helmikuu 5, 2010, 2:00 pm

>16 wrmjr66:--Yes, I think that's it exactly. That's what I was trying to say above, though perhaps not so well!

As to the misleading info, nothing too blatant, but I think it's there: Joe is 33 when he arrives in Jefferson, which sticks in your mind, though he actually is killed after living in Jefferson for three years. And when Christmas is on the run, right before he goes to Mottstown (on the bottom of page 335 in my Vintage International copy): "It is just before dawn, daylight. He rises and descends to the spring..." Christmas is captured on a Friday, though he will be killed on Monday and so on. All very minor, arguable examples, but I think Faulkner uses them to accomplish a certain effect. "Yes, think of the Passion story, but beware: It's not going to offer the closure that you expect or desire."

18kokipy
helmikuu 5, 2010, 2:31 pm

I would characterize these references as ironic, rather than misleading.

19theaelizabet
Muokkaaja: helmikuu 5, 2010, 2:53 pm

Good point. Though I would say the effect is the same.

20kokipy
helmikuu 6, 2010, 7:50 am

I agree completely.

21kambrogi
Muokkaaja: helmikuu 8, 2010, 10:41 am

I like the idea that it is an ironic use of the Christ story. It seems to me that Faulkner turns a traditional story of hope into one of tragedy, and he does it by turning the language and symbols of Christianity inside out, just as his characters do. Most of the Christian characters are cruel, brutal, weak, corrupt or insane, so the church destroys rather than creates.

Interesting to me is that the rather hopeful ending of Lena and Byron and the baby is just starting the story over again -- another fatherless child is born without a home into a society likely to crucify it. Of course, Christ was a bastard, too, in a sense, and had a surrogate father just as Lena's son will -- but look at the irony in who the true father is! Instead of God, its Brown, one of the lowest characters in the story, a man with no sense and no conscience.

22kokipy
helmikuu 7, 2010, 5:51 pm

Kambrogi, this seems to me to relate to your post in the racism thread about fathers and sons. I think that Lena and Byron will be very fine parents indeed for that baby, and I don't think they are starting Joe's story all over again. Byron is the only character in the story that seems to have true compassion as well as formal religious faith (except maybe for Joanna, but is her feeling compassion or guilt? not sure). I think ending the book with them heading off down the road is a break in the ugly cycle and is meant to suggest hope. Visually, that is - they are not going in a circle , they are linear and progressive, perhaps.

23kambrogi
helmikuu 8, 2010, 10:44 am

Yes, kokipy, I think this idea does relate to the father-son thing that seems to be stuck in my head at the moment. I did get a positive feeling from the ending, and that may very well be the point. Only later did the darker possibility occur to me. It is certainly undeniable that Lena and Byron are the purist and most decent people in the book -- so it is logical to assume that they have the greater chance of breaking the cycle of tragedy. They are also forward-looking, willing to move away, perhaps willing to leave their history as well as their previous homes.

24theaelizabet
helmikuu 8, 2010, 10:51 am

"but look at the irony in who the true father is! Instead of God, its Brown, one of the lowest characters in the story, a man with no sense and no conscience." Excellent catch. I hadn't thought about that.