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AMST 246: Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner
- Faulkner's Light in August
Professor Wai Chee Dimock focuses her introductory lecture on Faulkner’s Light in August on the “pagan quality” of his protagonist Lena. She argues that Faulkner uses Lena to update the classic story of the unwed mother by fusing comedy with the epic road novel. In doing so, he also updates the Greek tradition of the kindness of strangers, drawing attention to it through certain stylistic markers, including the “switchability” between the protagonist and her supporting cast, the use of gerunds as a linguistic safe haven for Lena, and the allegorical naming of Byron and Burden as social types with scripted trajectories.
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Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner
AMST 246 - Lecture 22 - Faulkner's Light in August
Chapter 1: The Pagan Quality of Lena and Light in August [00:00:00]
Professor Wai Chee Dimock: OK. We’re starting on our final novel. Faulkner. There’s so many stories to tell about Faulkner, just about the composition of the novel. This started out having a different title. It started out being called Dark House. You can see that the eventual title is right on the other side of the spectrum. It’s an interesting fact that actually this novel could be described as either Dark House or Light in August. Light and dark obviously are the two constitutive parts of the novel, even though it’s the light that has been foregrounded in the present title. In fact, it could just as well have been dark.
This is what Faulkner says about the title that we now have, Light in August. This is much later when he was talking about it at the University of Virginia in 1957. “In August, inMississippi there’s a few days somewhere about the middle of the month when actually there’s a foretaste of fall. It’s cool, there’s a lambence, a luminous quality to the light, as though it came not from today, but from back in the old classic times. It might have fauns and satyrs and the gods from Greece. And that’s all that the title meant. It was just to me a pleasant, evocative title, because it reminded me of that time of the luminosity older than our Christian civilization. Maybe the connection is with Lena Grove, who has something of that pagan quality.”
This a great entry point to the novel. It’s about quality of light inMississippi. It has this very important, local dimension to it. But it also sees itself as looking back to a long literary tradition, going back to the classic times. And in fact, it predates Christianity. So that’s very important to consider this, that while Christianity is very, very important in this novel, but it’s very important to remember that Faulkner actually also has a reference point that is older than Christianity.
Because Faulkner was talking about fauns and satyrs. I think that those words are just words to most of us, so I just found some illustrations. This is from the Roman mosaics, the satyr. You see basically it’s like human beings, except, the feet are the hooves of a goat. This is not a very pretty image of the faun. I think that in our minds, we tend to think of the faun as very delicate and graceful, but actually it has kind of an animalistic dimension to it. And this is probably looking more like our stereotypical image of the faun, very graceful, but nonetheless with the hooves of a goat.
In As I Lay Dying, we talked a lot about the relation between animals and humans. So it’s very important to keep that in mind here as well, and not just in the reference to the faun. Faulkner is invoking that whole uncertain boundary, uncertain in betweenness between human and animal.
The satyr actually has an even long history. The faun basically is Roman. Satyr, it goes back to the fifth century BC. Basically it’s Greek. There’s a whole genre called the satyr comedies, featuring this creature. It’s again, looking for most part like a human being, but having the tail of a horse, and also the ears of a donkey.
Let’s see the way in which the satyr has been reactivated, and picked up and reincarnated in the twentieth century. Here is someone with the ears of a satyr. We call them Vulcan’s ears, but looking exactly like the ears of a satyr. And here is another image, basically the ears are the giveaway of this creature. Also it’s small, not very noble looking compared to a human being, or to a god.
But Faulkner, even though he’s interested in the satyr and fauns, he’s not really writing about them. He’s mostly interested inLenaand the fact that she is a pagan character to him. More onLena. “She was never ashamed of that child whether it had any father or not, she was simply going to the conventional laws at the time… and find its father. But as far as she was concerned, she didn’t especially need any father for it anymore than the women that– on whom Jupiter begot children were anxious for home and a father.”
Faulkner seems to be really interested in women who get pregnant out of wedlock. We’ve seen this in As I Lay Dying, in Dewey Dell, and the way in which that is the constant burden on her mind. And it seems that now he has gone to the other side of the spectrum. If pregnancy was a constant burden on Dewey Dell’s mind, here it appears that it is not a burden at all on Lena’s mind. And maybe that’s why she’s a pagan. It’s that it’s completely OK to be pregnant out of wedlock, not to have a father, not to have a wedded father as the father of your child.
The reason that is this case is that Jupiter has had this long history of having fathered many children who can point to Jupiter as the father– Jupiter or Zeus– as the father, but otherwise not having a human father. So it’s a completely honorable thing to have a baby when you don’t know who the father is. And the most famous example of course is someone called Leda.
You guys know—here are two very chaste illustrations of Leda and the swan, the swan being Zeus, obviously. But if you would just go and look it up, you can find numerous other illustrations– some not so chaste– showing Leda and the swan. And this is the most famous example. Leda was married to someone else, and Zeus was just enamored of her. He comes to her in the form of a swan. And the offspring, one of the most famous offspring from that union, was Helen. The whole of The Iliad, the whole of The Odyssey really comes from this union between Leda and Zeus. There would have been no epic at all if there had not been this union between Leda and someone who’s not quite human.
Here’s another illustration. This one is Greek and this one is Roman, once again Roman mosaic, and many modern incarnations as well. Yeats also has a poem about Leda. So basically someone who goes down in history as– even though it’s not presented in this is way, but she’s really going down in history as the most honorable instance of pregnancy outside wedlock.
Chapter 2: Updating the Story of the Unwed Mother as Comedy [00:08:10]
But Faulkner is also not writing Leda’s story. He’s writing Lena’s story. So this is very much a case of the American Lena’s updating the Greek Leda, even though maybe she doesn’t know the father, or maybe she’s not sure that she can get the legitimate wedded husband to be the father of the child. She’s definitely going to go and she’s going to get someone.
“It was her destiny to have a husband and children and she knew it, and so she went out and attended to it.” Completely matter of fact. This is the American version, it’s not the old classic times anymore. In twentieth century America, you need to find a guy. So she’s on the road to find this guy, whom she still thinks ought to be the actual father.
Today’s lecture is about the updating of the old classic unwed mother. And this is the structure of today’s lecture, the way that I’ve been talking about it, obviously you know that this is going to be a comedy on the part ofLena. So it’s comedy – and essentially sex as comic. But because this is a road novel, one of many, it also has an epic dimension to it. And another innovation that Faulkner is bringing to bear on the novel– and that really is a serious updating of the classic epic comedy– is the introduction of two allegorical names, Byron and Burden.
I want to go back still, just linger with the classics for a moment in defining comedy in a particular way. Usually we just in think of comedy as like a Jane Austen. That would be comedy, it has a happy ending. But actually in the Poetics, Aristotle defines comedy in a slightly different way that actually is closer to the way that I would like to talk about comedy in this class.
In the Poetics he says, “The participants in comedy were called komoidoi not from their being revelers, but because they wander from one village to another. So wandering, on the road. Persons who are inferior, not however going all the way to full villainy, but imitating the ugly of which the ludicrous is one part. The ludicrous that is, is the failing or a piece of ugliness which causes no pain or destruction.”
This is a very counter-intuitive definition of comedy. A lot of it is not that nice. It has to do with villainous people, but not going all the way to full villainy. Ugly people, but again, not going all the way so they’re utterly despicable. It has a lot to do with people who are not noble. And that really is the classic definition of comedy. The emphasis really lands on the happy ending, that on the fact that they are low born, that they are low in another way, that they don’t rise to the tragic height of nobility, which is the elevation proper to tragedy.
Comedy is of a much lower elevation. Characters are sometimes ludicrous, they are not completely admirable. But one result of not being completely admirable is that they actually survive quite well. They actually manage to hang in there. They bring no pain or destruction either to themselves, or to other people. Don’t forget, this is the exact opposite of tragedy. We have mass destruction at the end of tragedy– if you think about the tragedy of Troy, or the tragedies based on the story of Troy– mass destruction. Here a comedy suggests that everyone is going to be able to survive.
With that definition in mind, let’s think about the ways in whichLenais pagan, especially in relation to her sexuality, and way that Faulkner represents this aspect of the human condition. This is the story of how Lena gets pregnant.
The entire story what could have been seen as tragic, traumatic, devastating in person’s life, one whose life’s been ruined, all that is told through Lena’s relation to the window, that she can open it without making a noise, that’s she’s done it a few times, and then she realized she shouldn’t have done it, and then the final time it’s very hard. But she wished that it had been that hard to begin with.
It’s all told through this completely off focus, off center relation to the main event. It doesn’t seem especially bad, really, even though it’s a matter of inconvenience. And that really is what the pregnancy is to Lena. It is a matter of inconvenience. It is a nuisance, that it is not so easy for her to get out the window at this time.
Just to remind you: Faulkner doesn’t always write about sexuality in this way, let’s just go back to a character who is completely non-pagan. There’s no more striking example than Quentin in The Sound and the Fury. This is what he thinks about women’s sexuality. “Delicate equilibrium of periodic filth between two moons balanced. Moons he said full and yellow as harvest moons her hips thighs… Liquid putrefaction like drowned things floating like pale rubber, flabbily filled getting in odor of honeysuckle all mixed up.”
For Quentin and indeed for most non-pagan characters, there’s a good part of the world that is repugnant, that is just really repulsive. And it turns out that women’s sexuality is part of that very repugnant world. It’s not great to live in a world like that. That’s really why Quentin does what he does.
For someone likeLenawho is pagan – much of the world, in fact, probably all the world is not repugnant. It’s inconvenient, sometimes it’s a little ugly, it’s a little messy, but it’s not repugnant. That’s why she is what she is. This is one way we can think aboutLena. I should tell you that she’s not the only protagonist. This novel is actually not that comic, but her share of the novel is comic in that way.
Chapter 3: Light in August as Faulkner’s Epic Road Novel [00:16:17]
Even though Aristotle defines comedy as the journey that is undertaken by ignoble persons, the more recognizable model obviously is the epic journey. So any time we think of someone traveling on the road, we think of the epic genre. And that is the case here. We’ve seen it in play elsewhere in Faulkner. It’s very much in play here as well. This is actually not entirely funny– It’s interesting to see what the tone of this is, of the description ofLenabeing on the road.
Great description. And it’s on a different register. We can see that it’s really on a different tonal register fromLenahaving trouble climbing out the window. I would say that there’s a complicated relation between the epic genre and the comic genre in this novel.
On the whole, what the epic genre brings to this novel is the sense of a journey that somebody has to go on. It’s not even especially pleasurable. It just stretches on. Yesterday listening more in terms of paradigms that we’ve been using. Tomorrow is going to be exactly like today, and going to be exactly like yesterday. It’s the repetition of the same that defines this kind of epic journey. It is peaceful and monotonous.
The image that Faulkner uses is that it’s like an already measured thread being rewound onto a spool. There’s absolutely nothing new under the sun. It is just an old story being told over and over again and the complete exclusion of anything that is dramatic from this sense of the journey. In many ways it’s very hard to write a novel based on the fact that it’s completely monotonous. That’s part the challenge. Although I promise you, the rest of the novel actually is anything but monotonous.
Lena’s part of it actually aspires to be monotonous in a good sense. In a sense that there’s really– It’s good. There’s no dramatic development. There’s no catastrophe. That’s what Faulkner has at the back of his head, is that catastrophe is what defines tragedy. Non-catastrophe is what defines comedy.
Just to give you an overall sense of the way in which this epic journey is being incarnated and reincarnated in American literature. Two other celebrated novels, Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, and more recently this apocalyptic instance of that, Cormac McCarthy, The Road.
Faulkner’s On the Road is a little different from those two. Today we’ll think all the ingredients that go into his making of his road novel. It has to do with kindness of strangers, it has to do something like switchability: if the journey is going to be pretty monotonous for Lena, there’s got to be some variation. It has to alternate with something else.
It turns out that actually even though the protagonist herself too is peaceful for this story to be very dramatic, there will be other people, the supporting cast actually, who supplies the drama. There’s kind of a switchability between when the action or where the drama is going to come from. As far as Lena’s concerned, the drama’s going to come from the supporting cast, rather than fromLenaherself. This is switchability in terms of the reversible relation between the weighty and the mundane. Then I’ll talk about gerunds as well. This is an outline of what we’ll be covering.
Chapter 4: The Kindness of Strangers [00:21:12]
Let’s just stay with the kindness of strangers for a little bit. Lena has come quite far. And the reason that the journey is so peaceful and monotonous is that there’s an endless supply of people who would do things for her, who will be the supplies of hospitality to keepLenagoing.
That’s is very Greek. We know that hospitality is one of the key virtues in Greek culture. When a stranger comes, you’re supposed to feed them, shelter them, give them presents when they go away. This is the understanding, the basic mode of exchange between human beings, is that you’re good to people you are seeing for the first time, and that you never see again. There’s something of that in a way thatLenais being treated. “The evocation of far is the peaceful corridor paved with unflagging and tranquil faith and peopled with kind and nameless faces and voices. Lucas Burch. I don’t know. I don’t know of anybody by that name around here. This road? It goes to Pocahontas. He might be there. It’s possible. Here’s a wagon that’s going a piece of the way. It will take you that far.”
These people are completely faceless and nameless. They are complete strangers. They are not meant to be remembered or to be encountered again, even though Faulkner sometimes actually picks up some of them in his other novels. But they’re meant to recede into the background as part of that peaceful and monotonous corridor, which it is completely safe forLenato travel. It’s the sense of guaranteed safety due to the guaranteed hospitality of strangers.
We know that the kindness of strangers has got to take a dramatic turn for there to be a good story to the novel. We’re actually seeing it very soon. And it comes about throughLena’s interaction with a couple. She’s been taken in by this couple. It turns out that the arrival of Lenacreates a major upheaval in the life of this married couple. All of the sudden,Lenarecedes into the background. Switchability also includes the switching between foreground and background.Lenarecedes into the background as the supporting cast comes to the foreground, which is the case in this exchange between the Armstids.
This is all we’re going to get – I mean, we’ll get one more, a little bit more of this. But this is really as far as Faulkner is concerned, this is completely adequate freestanding snapshot of the marriage. I would say that it is as interesting as the marriage between Cora and her husband Tull, except that it is at the moment a tension between the two. We know that what kind of people these are, they are the poor white, more people who can’t afford a towel and use a split floursack for a towel.
They actually know each other very well – Armstid doesn’t have to look at all, to see if she’s watching him or not. It says a lot about what kind of a relationship it is, that you can just tell by the tone of voice whether or not the person’s looking at you. That for me is a measure of how good the marriage is, that you know your companion that well. Just a tone of voice will be able to tell you exactly the posture, the physical posture of this person.
Initially we can’t really tell. But once he says something – once he says, this guy is not going to be able to escape fromLena, once he says this – then he knows instantly that she’s looking at him. And we know what she is like, a much sterner version, I think, of Addie, but very much belonging to the same socioeconomic group, in a gray garment, “workhard” all her life. But also not just “workhard” and all these interesting coined adjectives, coined by Faulkner. “Manhard”– I don’t exactly know what that means. Manhard. Maybe she is completely resistant to the charms of men. Maybe that’s one definition of what it means to be “manhard.” Certainly, she’s worked hard all her life. And maybe the two adjectives are related in that way. There’s a way in which if you work so hard all your life you’re kind of immune to the charms of other people, men and women.
She is immune to the brandishing of her husband, and her face is like the face of generals who’ve been defeated in battle. It is a weird reference. The Civil War is really not important in this– Well no actually. The Civil War is very important to another character, but it’s not important toLena. The Civil War is front and center for another character, but it oddly intrudes into this moment when it really is not the reference point. But the entire history of the South is indexed in this reference of Mrs. Armstid’s face looking like the face of generals.
In many ways, she’s more like a man than like a woman. I know there’s actually that– when I came to this sections last week and I enjoyed them very much, some of you mentioned that Nicole is financially more like a man and so is Rosemary. Rosemary is financially more like a man. Fitzgerald has also thought about the ways in which there could be a cross-gender dynamics in people who are otherwise completely feminine. Here she doesn’t look especially feminine, and the cross-gender dynamics are much, much more powerful here. She’s like a general who’s been defeated in battle. So maybe she’s been defeated in life, just because it’s been such a hard life, or just that it didn’t go exactly the way she wanted.
We don’t know the context of that phrase, why her face is like the face of generals who have been defeated. We also don’t know, but that’s the least of it. We don’t know why she’s suddenly saying what she’s saying to her husband. “You durn men.”
Armstid’s not contemplating having an affair withLena. So the “durn men” is not a specific complaint against her husband. It is a grievance that is probably directed against half of the human population. This is what men would do to women and her husband, being an instance of that. Although – there could be other moments in the marriage that could be in the back of her mind. In any case, this completely out of the blue, out of context, outburst from Mrs. Armstid suggests that this is both a very good marriage, but also a complicated marriage as all marriages would have to that have lasted for a long time. These two people know each other very well. He seems to know, he knows better than we do exactly what is going on in her mind when she says, “You durn men.”
Then there’s a further development to this episode. Now we’re getting dramatic action from Mrs. Armstid herself. ”What are you fixing to do with your eggmoney this time of night, he says. I reckon it’s mine to do with what I like. She stoops into a lamp, her face hushed, bitter. God knows it was me who sweated over them and nursed them. You never lifted no hand. Sho, he says. I reckon it ain’t any human in this country is going to dispute them hens with you, lessen it’s the possum and the snakes, that rooster bank, neither, he says. Because, stooping suddenly, she jerks off one shoe the strikes the china bank a single shattering blow. From the bed, reclining, Armstid watches her gather the remaining coins from among the china fragments and drop them with the others into the sack and knot it and reknot it three or four times with savage finality.”
This is one of the most satisfying representations of almsgiving, or people being charitable, and looking completely not charitable when they’re doing it. The only way this woman will allow herself to be charitable is by looking as harsh and bitter as she could. Before that, it looks as if she’s in a jealous mood and she’s not going to allowLenato stay in the house. But it turns out that it’s quite the opposite. And it probably was a kind of a complex combination of recognizing that, yes this is a young woman, very attractive, that she’s not that young woman. But recognizing also in some sense that this woman is embodying a long nursed grievance that she has had against men in general.
Whatever the psychology, she is in solidarity withLena, without ever wanting to betray that solidarity. It is that complicated kind of behavior that you want to do something for that person, but you never want to give yourself away as doing something. It really is the most dramatic and psychologically and behaviorally complicated kind of kindness of strangers. It’s not, definitely not, the traditional kind of almsgiving.
Chapter 5: The Switchability between Lena and the Supporting Cast [00:33:42]
In terms of the narrative dynamics, we can say that the Armstids have completely taken over the narrative. There’s a complete switch between Lena, the supposed protagonist, and the two of them being the supporting cast. It turns out that the supporting cast– that Faulkner probably spends more time thinking about the supporting cast, than he does thinking about the protagonist.
That is an interesting way to define the protagonist – that maybe a protagonist is someone you can actually afford not to spend a lot of time thinking about. That it is really the supporting cast that you have to give your energy to. It’s a very interesting kind of reversibility, of the distribution of narrative space, distribution of attention within the story. We’ll see many instances of this. And because we’ve just done with Fitzgerald, I want to remind you of a similar instance of switchability in Tender Is the Night, in the description of Nicole, that her brown back is hanging from the pearls. The human body is hanging from the appendage, a reversed relation between the person who’s supposedly the protagonist and what is supposed to be just an appendage.
And of course that switchability is played out not only in terms of that one particular detail, but also in terms of the entire narrative of Tender Is the Night. It turns out that Dick Diver is completely upstaged by Nicole as she becomes really the principal actor in the novel. It has becomes her story. She gets to dictate the outcome of that story, and he becomes her appendage, dispensable appendage at the end of the novel. We’re seeing this in Faulkner. Basically on a very large macro scale, in terms of the entire narrative structure of Tender Is the Night. In Faulkner, it is much more local. It is just this one moment that there’s this switched relation between protagonist and supporting cast. But it also plays out on different registers in Light in August.
Chapter 6: Switchability Between the Weighty and the Mundane [00:36:09]
We’ll look at one other, also local, instance of switchability. If the Armstids represent the dramatic arm of the novel, where Faulkner can give us high, human psychological drama, when it comes to Lena, what he gives us is kind of very small upheavals on what is basically a level platform. But even on that very level platform, they have mild upheavals. It has to do with the switchability between the weighty and the mundane.
This is the essence of the drama – to be or not to be, or in this case, to do or not to do. The to do or not to do inLena’s consciousness revolves around a box of sardines. That is completely OK for Faulkner. It qualifies her to be the protagonist of his novel. We really have to give some thought to what it is that entitles a person to be the protagonist of a novel. We know that in Greek tragedy, a person has to be noble and to have a very drastic downfall in order to qualify to be the hero of a tragedy. In the modern comic novel, nothing like that. Just a minor upheaval is OK.
It is because of that level platform, because of that basic, very reliable continuum, backed up, supported, by the kindness of strangers, it’s because of that continuum that we get a particular linguistic practice, and a kind of a stylistic tick almost in this particular novel. We’ve seen a little bit of that in the other novels, but this novel it’s really pronounced. It has to do with the use of gerunds, especially turning verbs into nouns. We’ve seen a little bit of that earlier in the passage, but here it becomes in the foreground.
Chapter 7: Faulkner’s Stylized Use of Gerunds [00:38:19]
Highly stylized. Basically, there’s no way we can not notice the fact that the verbs are being used as nouns in this instance. The way that we can maybe try to make sense of this very self conscious practice on Faulkner’s part, is by noticing how different an image of Lucas Burch we’re getting fromLena. How different from the image that we’ve been getting just a moment ago. No, actually just a moment later from Armstid. Armstid knows exactly what Lucas is doing. He’s running away from her. He’s just really unlucky that he hasn’t put the Mississippi River in between himself and this woman. So Armstid has a completely accurate diagnosis and portrait of what kind of a man Lucas Burch is.
Lena has a completely unrealistic, out-of-touch-with-reality portrait of Lucas. She thinks that he’ll be very glad to see her and he’ll be excited that, in fact, it’s not just one person who’s coming, but two. In many ways what Faulkner is giving us in this very stylized, linguistic practice – to create a kind of linguistic cocoon around Lena, that she is insulated by this unidiomatic use of English, just as she’s insulated by an interpretation of reality that really has very little to do with the reality that is Lucas Burch. It is very much a kind of linguistic shelter, in which she can afford to keep on thinking in this way about the man who keeps running away from her. This is why she can afford and why she can continue to be completely unworried, unanxious about her pregnancy. This is how she can avoid– she can prevent that from becoming a burden on her. So we can think of this as one element– Faulkner is very artistic, intervening to make certain things possible for one character that would not be possible for other characters, and this particular intervention, the use of gerunds, is one stylistic device to make sure that Lena is preserved in a state of constant well-being.
He’s also clear-eyed enough to know that she really is dead wrong about Lucas Burch. Fast forwarding to a much later moment – just to bring Faulkner into a discussion that we’ve been having all through the semester which is about types, where certain people, characters, can be classified, they belong to broader groups, groups that have labels. He’s is quite conscious of the fact that Lucas Burch actually is not so much an individual as a type, a type of man.
Chapter 7: Allegorical Names and Types [00:43:08]
And this is his commentary– This is actually Hightower’s commentary, but it’s as good as Faulkner’s– commentary on the fate of Lena Grove. “For the Lena Groves, there are always two men in the world. And the number is legion. Lucas Burches and Byron Bunches.” All of them are suddenly appearing in the plural. Lena Grove is a type. We have the Lena Groves of the world. And then there’s the Lucas Burches and Byron Bunches. And this is really what savesLena, is that she actually is one of the Lena Groves. And her fate is to be unlucky in one sense, in that she’s stuck with a man like Lucas Burch. But she’s lucky in a sense that we can be sure – it’s almost a statistical truth – that to every Lucas Burch, there will be a Byron Bunch, who will take care of her. She is saved in this way – there always will be the pairing of two kinds of men in her life.
Here is the allegory thick and fast, definitely very heavy handed and meant to be noticed. Byron, Lord Byron, the stereotypical romantic poet. And with the added little joke, I think, that he actually died inMissolonghi,Italy. It has some reference, some affinity toMississippi, as well. It is not beyond Faulkner to think that that’s a nice connection.
Here’s Byron, being the namesake for Byron Bunch. And sure enough, Byron lives up to his namesake, the romanticism of his namesake. “Then Byron fell in love. He fell in love contrary to all the tradition of his austere and jealous country raising, which demands in the object physical inviolability. It happens on a Saturday afternoon while he’s alone at the mill. Two miles away the house is still burning, the yellow smoke standing straight as a monument on the horizon. They saw it before noon, when the smoke first rose above the trees, before the whistle blew and the others departed. I reckon Byron’ll quit too today, they said. With a free fire to watch.”
This switchability is in high gear in here. It starts out with Byron falling in love, but that romantic side of this story doesn’t even get to control the entire paragraph. It gets on;u two sentences. Then the rest of the paragraph is taken over by something that has nothing to do with romantic love. All of a sudden we realize that yes, Byron is falling in love at the same time as another unfolding event. This drama in Byron’s life is synchronized with a drama that’s going to overtake the entire town – the burning of a house.
It says something– we’re also getting another glimpse of what kind of people are living in this town in the reference to the “free fire to watch.” These are not the strangers who are kind to other strangers. It’s a very different portrait of the local community.
It turns out that Byron is not the only person who has an allegorical name. Another character does as well. “It’s a big fire, another said, what can it be? I don’t remember anything coming out that way big enough to make all that smoke except the Burden house. Maybe that’s what it is, another said. “My pappy says he can remember how 50 years ago folks said it ought to burned, and with a little human fat meant to start it good. Maybe your pappy slipped it out there and set it afire, a third said. They laughed.”
This is the others allegorical name: Byron’s always going to be paired with someone whose name is Burden. And Burden is not as well known– there’s no Lord Burden to clue us in. However, there is a very famous poem that might suggest to us the origins of that name, Kipling’s poem, “White Man’s Burden.” “Take up the white man’s burden / and reap his old reward: / The blame of those ye better, / the hate of those ye guard.” I think we have a completely misguided, wrongheaded notion actually of Kipling’s “White Man’s Burden.” It’s not really about how great it is to take up the white man’s burden, but how awful it is and that you incur the hatred of lots of people.
The allegorical names – how they function in Light in August, and how Faulkner’s really updating the old classic story – the story is about the fate of someone called Byron and the fate of someone called Burden. There are other characters who are invoked through those two characters, but they’re both on fire. Byron is on fire because he’s falling in love. Joanna Burden is also on fire in that she’s being burned alive. No, she’s dead by that point. But she’s on fire, her body’s on fire. So that is also what contributes to the Light in August, and why the alternative title, Dark House, is just as appropriate.
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