The rhetorical dynamism in Light in August


    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.
    "Light" is an opposite idea to "dark(ness)." While "dark(ness)" is associated with "Black" or "Female" in the novel, "light" is a symbol of "White" or "Male." The phrase "the lightless hot wet primogenitive Female," (115) a metaphor for the air in the Freedman Town, the Black-populated district in Jefferson, is its typical illustration. It explicitly shows the relationship among "dark(ness)," "Black" and "Female," and thus implies the connection of "light" with "White" or "Male."
     However, there is another significance of "light" which has been neglected: "the promise of home." One example is when McEachern first brings Joe to his farm. He points up a single "light" shown in the dusk, and says to his adopted son , "Home." (143). Another is when "light" implies the destination of Joe's escape from the McEacherns. After he knocks down McEachern and robs his adoptive mother, he rushes toward the only light shown in the dark to marry Bobbie. Though in these instances the promise of "home" is never fulfilled, this implication of "light" is unmistakable.
     While the importance of "light" is implied in the title of the novel, its tentative first title "The Dark House" definitely imprints the significance of "dark(ness)" on the novel. That it implies the link "Night - Black - Sexuality" or "Mother - Female - Earth" has long been a critical agreement. Besides, just as "light" is a symbol of Lena, "dark(ness)" is inseparable with other two protagonists in the novel: Joe Christmas and Gail Hightower.
     Joe Christmas is associated with "shadow," a variant of "dark(ness)." Since "shadow" is "darkness" upon "white" projected by "light," it is quite suitable for the person who, suspended between Black and White, is finally killed and castrated as a "nigger" by a white supremacist.
     "Dark(ness)" is the word for Gail Hightower. His stagnant house is another "dark house" in the novel. The image of his sitting in the dark window watching out the street is an apt symbol of his timid existence. At the end of the novel he sums up his life in a cry, "I have been a single instant of darkness in which a horse galloped and a gun crashed" (491) So far we have generally surveyed the significances of "light" and "dark(ness)." In the following we will take two scenes from the sequence of Joe's affair with Joanna and try to show the dynamic workings of rhetoric in Light in August.


     The first scene to examine is where Joe lies hiding under the shrubbery waiting the time to enter Joanna's house.
    Lying in a tangle of shrubbery a hundred yards from the house, Christmas heard a far clock strike nine and then ten. Before him the house bulked square and huge from its mass of trees. There was a light in one window upstairs. The shades were not drawn and he could see that the light was a kerosene lamp, and now and then he saw through the window the shadow of a moving person cross the further wall. But he never saw a person at all. After a while the light went out. (228)

     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.
     Secondly, Joanna's house is another "dark house" in the novel. This is the place of her birth and death, and a symbol of her body. It also symbolizes a heritage from her father, the most influential of which is his view of the Black as "curse upon the White." However, it use to be a plantation house, built upon the exploitation of slaves, and thus implies a heritage of racism in the South. These complicated implications make this house an apt symbol of Joanna, a daughter of a New England Abolitionist, who devotes her life to "lift" the Black and at the same time consumes herself with the belief that they are curse upon the White.
     The most suggestive part in the quotation above, however, is that concerning with the "light" in the window.
     As is mentioned above, one of the significances of "light" in this novel is "the promise of home." This is another instance: it is apparent that the "light" Joe sees in the window suggests "home," for he is now attempting to break into the house to get some food. Food in this novel is inseparable with "home" (the case of Mrs McEachern) and sex (the cases of the dietitian and Bobbie.) As for Joanna, she is source of food in the beginning of their affair and then becomes a kind of wife for him. Thus with Joanna Joe experiences what "home" he can get in his life. The light he sees in the quotation above anticipates that "home" for him.
     However, it is not "home" only that the light signifies here. It is the light of kerosene lamp, the hot suffocating light and smell of which is always associated with the life of the Black throughout the novel. Therefore, the light he sees in Joanna's room implies both "home" he yearns for and the Black life he fears all his life. Thus the "light" has contradictory significances : it is the object of desire and hatred at once.
     At the end of the quoted scene, the light in Joanna's room goes out. That may imply that here again the promise of "home" will not be fulfilled for Joe. There is another implication, though: it anticipates the Joanna's death at the end of their affair. Actually, the scene of their last confrontation apparently corresponds with the one examined so far. Then we have to quote and analyze the scene to see the dynamic rhetoric in Light in August.

     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.