Light in August has drawn much critical attention by its heavy use of rhetoric. Fran¨ois Pitavy is one of the early critics who explored this aspect of the novel. His book, Faulkner's Light in August, gives a detailed analysis of the various rhetorical devices Faulkner employs in the novel and remains one of the best study about the novel. However, Pitavy's method is to show the effects of each rhetorical devices in their typical instances and as a result their dynamic workings throughout the novel are not fully examined. The aim of this essay is to reverse Pitavy's method by concentrating our attention on a few key words and to analyze the complicated workings of these words throughout the novel. Specifically, we will take "light" and "dark(ness)" and first give a general survey of their significances. Then we will analyze two scenes from the sequence of Joe's affair with Joanna and try to show the example of rhetorical dynamism in Light in August.
"Light" is used in the title of the novel and chiefly related with Lena throughout the novel. As for Lena's connection with "light," though, Andrˇ Bleikasten has already given a thorough treatment, which leaves little to add.
The first scene to examine is where Joe lies hiding under the shrubbery waiting the time to enter Joanna's house.
First, the shrubbery under which Joe lies is where Joanna waits for Joe burning with desire in the second phase of their affair. It is the locus of eros symbolizing Female sexuality. That Joe lies there before he enters her household anticipates his entrapment by Joanna's sexuality. It is the same place where he waits the time for their last confrontation, which affirms the relationship between sexuality and death in this novel.
He rose. He moved from the shadow and went around the house and entered the kitchen. The house was dark.... He mounted the stairs steadily and entered the bedroom. Almost at once she spoke from the bed. "Light the lamp," she said.
|"It wont need any light," he said. "Light the lamp." "No," he said. He stood over the bed. He held the razor in his hand. But it was not open yet. But she did not speak again and then his body seemed to walk away from him. It went to the table and his hands laid the razor on the table and found the lamp and struck the match..... "Will you kneel with me?" she said. "I dont ask it." "No," he said. "I dont ask it. It's not I who ask it. Kneel with me." "No." (281-2)|
The shadow Joe rises from at the beginning of this quotation is the same shrubbery he lies under in the first quotation. And the light Joe and Joanna quarrels over is the same light Joe sees go out in Joanna's room there. One is the beginning and the other is the end of their affair: the correspondence between these two scenes is unmistakable. The significances of the light has turned around, however. The light which suggests the promise of "home" there accompanies the dead end of their affair now. The suffocating hotness and smell of the kerosene lamp is a nice "objective correlative" of their ending relationship.
The working of "light" in the scene does not end here, though. It goes beyond the limit of the novel and widens its horizon with unexpected intertextual relationship.
For this scene is actually a parody of a scene from Othello, where Ohello kills Desdemona in her bedroom. The link between these two scenes is Joanna's saying "Light the lamp" and "Kneel with me." In Othello V. ii, Othello, determined to kill Desdemona, goes into her bedroom with a light. His soliloquy while watching his sleeping wife is "Put out the light, and then put out the light." And when Desdemona awakes, Othello asks her "Have you prayed tonight?" It is apparent that the scene from Light in August is a parody of that from Othello. In Faulkner, Joe goes into the bedroom just like Othello, but he does not put out the light but instead light the lamp. And unlike Othello, it is not Joe but Joanna who orders to kneel down and pray. While in Shakespeare the older husband kills his much younger wife, in Faulkner the wife is much older than her lover. Most significantly, Othello is a Moor who has married a young white wife, while Joe is a man suspended between Black and White and is soon to be killed as a "nigger." Thus they are contrary in many ways, but they share two things: life under the threat of racism and the overwhelming love which finally turns out to be self-destructive. This is a real tour-de-force by Faulkner and the culmination of the rhetoric of "light" in this novel.
There is another relation with Shakespeare in Light in August. That is with Macbeth's soliloquy: "Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow." This soliloquy is a constant source of inspiration for Faulkner, and he uses various echoes in this novel. The most apparent instance is Joe's meditation while waiting the time to go to kill Joanna, just before the quotation above: "since all that had ever been was the same as all that was to be, since tomorrow to-be and had-been would be the same." (281)
Macbeth's soliloquy also deepens the significance of "shadow" in the novel. As is mentioned above, "shadow" is a symbol of Joe, and Macbeth's ultimate observation about man's life-- "Life is but a walking shadow"--makes a brief summation of Joe's whole life. On the other hand, in many senses Joanna is a dark twin of Joe, hence his shadow. Her belief that the Black are "shadows" upon which the White are crucified adds more twist to the significance of "shadow" and makes a nice example of the endless working of rhetoric of "shadow" in the novel.
Thus the rhetoric goes on--sometimes contradictory, adding up continuously, developing beyond the work, and we cannot determine its working in one typical instance.
So far we have tried to show the rhetorical dynamism in Light in August. Though we have considered the working of rhetoric at its most simple level and limited ourselves to the examination of only a few words, we can say we have seen the dynamic working of rhetoric in this novel.
Bleikasten, Andr The Ink of Melanchory: Faulkner's Novels from The Sound and the Fury to Light in August. Bloomongton: Indiana University Press, 1990.
Faulkner, William. Light in August. New York: Vintage International, 1990.
Pitavy, Fran¨ois. Faulkner's Light in August. Trans. Gillian E. Cook. Bloomongton: Indiana University Press, 1973.