Books

Selective Hearing: Barriers to Truth in Faulkner’s Light in August

Intro

The essay that I have adapted into a blog article below was one I wrote for the class Civilization and Literature at Grove City College. It is on the book Light in August by William Faulkner, which was written in 1932.

Warning! Spoilers below!

Summary

In this book, there are two main characters. Lena Grove, a pregnant white woman who is searching for the man who got her pregnant, since he had promised to find a job and then send for her. The other is Joe Christmas, a man of uncertain ancestry who believes he might be part black. He passes for white for most of the book. He is having a sexual relationship with Joanna Burden until she threatens him at gunpoint. She later shows up dead, and Joe is the one eventually accused of murder. In the most brutal act of the book, Joe is shot and castrated by the authorities. It is never clear whether he actually committed the murder.

Analysis

C.S. Lewis claims that when one says one “believe[s] in” anything, this can have two potential meanings: “to accept as true” or “to approve of” (65). In Faulkner’s Light in August, society wholeheartedly embraces the latter definition. To them, truth is a social construct, grounded in desire and expectation. If any concept is contrary to their societal ideology, or is outside the scope of their interests, characters not only ignore it—they are deaf to it. It is for this reason that Armstid fails to tell Lena, the pregnant girl whose lover has left her, the truth of her hopeless situation, for she “would not have believed the telling and hearing it” (Faulkner 17). Nor would any other member of Faulkner’s constructed society believe a truth that was not pleasing to them, because first they would have to hear it. By creating a fictional society that refuses to accept objective truth when it does not match the predominant prejudices of the majority, Faulkner reveals how indifference to truth cripples society and creates a culture of apathy and hypocrisy.

Perhaps no scene in the novel so clearly depicts the immorality of this society’s egotistical and skewed view of truth as that of the Burden house during the devastating fire. The reactions of townspeople to this incident range from casual mutilation of the truth to a total disregard for it. For example, rather than say that the “countrymen” offered theories on who perpetuated the crime, Faulkner says that they “believed aloud,” as if by merely speaking the words, they conformed the world to their expectations (Faulkner 213). In the rest of the sentence, it is almost as if Faulkner is seeking the correct word for their treatment of this crime, for he says, “they knew, believed, and hoped that [Joanna Burden] had been ravished too: at least once before her throat was cut and once afterward” (Faulkner 213). In this society, “to know,” “to believe,” and “to hope” are synonyms; in fact, they are so similar that listing all three is redundant. Members of this society cannot discern that their so-called knowledge is based on a voyeuristic and sadistic hope, because if they were to admit this, they would be faced with their own hypocrisy. Al-Barhow theorizes that by “combining her assumed murder with rape” the community can “read the incident according to their conception of the relationship between white women and black men, and consequently assure themselves about the soundness of their beliefs” (54). As such, the aim of this perverted hope is to confirm their preconceived notions of the racial identity of a person who would commit such a heinous crime, and their assumption that a white woman would not have consented to a sexual relationship with a black man.

As the crowd is straining to detect any hint of closure on the case from the sheriff, Faulkner describes a strange phenomenon. Standing before the fire, suddenly “their faces [became] identical one with another,” and all of their senses were reduced to sight in a process called “apotheosis” (216). According to Merriam Webster, this word can refer to a thing’s “quintessence,” which is “the essence of a thing in its purest or most concentrated form” or to an “elevation to divine status,” which is equivalent to deification.

Arguably, both definitions of apotheosis apply in this case. The people are relying purely on sight to distinguish the truth. However, the compounding of all their senses into one leads to a deficiency, rather than a sharpening, of their ability to discern what is actually occurring. The faces of the townspeople even become indistinguishable, which emphasizes the simplification of their mindset as they all begin to act in accordance with each other. The essence of the town’s values and prejudices becomes distilled as the people of the town recognize and attempt to affirm the strongest and most prevailing attitudes of the crowd, and as they adopt what they think is the societally acceptable opinion. As a result, the individuality of each person is concentrated into a pure manifestation of their societal ideology.

To think of apotheosis as what Merriam-Webster calls “an elevation to divine status” would be equally valid. When clustered together in a crowd, the townspeople become a representative for society as a whole, which, by creating and continually affirming an ideology that cannot be rejected without dire consequences, sets itself up as a god. Toomey supports this in his argument that the narrator of Light in August exhibits symptoms of schizophrenia; including a manifestation of “the grandeur complex” which often leads one to think one is Christ (453). This thought could be expanded to encompass Faulkner’s entire fictional society, since the townspeople have effectively been severed from reality, exhibiting “emotional detachment in situations which should arouse emotion” and accepting societal judgments, regardless of evidence, to be sufficient grounds for condemning a man to death (Toomey 453).

As a result of this grandeur complex, Faulkner’s society attempts to assert its set of stereotypes as undeniable truth, even when it becomes clear that acceptance of these views is contrary to reason and to the Christianity they profess. It is for this reason that they will condemn a man more for his racial identity than for an actual crime—it is compatible with their concept of truth. Fr. Dominic Legge, while reflecting on moral relativism, indicated that while it is permissible for a Christian to “judg[e] actions, which we can observe and assess,” it is not reasonable to judge “persons” (353). Legge gives this as his reason: “To judge a person implies making a judgment about the interior movements of the heart. This is God’s domain, not ours” (353). Society in Light in August is incapable of making this distinction, and cannot recognize that morality is exclusively determined by God, and not by what merits social approval.

A consequence of the townspeople’s reliance on socially approved ways of thought is that they are unable to handle uncertainty. They would rather grasp at any explanation, regardless of evidence or lack thereof, than deal with the discomfort of ambiguity. As soon as they see the body, they assume Joanna was raped and killed by a black man. As soon as they see the sheriff question a black man, they think “Sheriff’s got him. Sheriff’s already caught him” (Faulkner 216). These thoughts come from no one in particular, they are less “unsourceless” than the crackling fire (Faulkner 216). The word itself is vague; it is as difficult to pinpoint its meaning as it would be to track down the originator of the condemning thoughts of the townspeople. It would be far clearer for Faulkner to write that the roaring fire had a more obvious source, but that would not convey the unreflective morass of ideas held by the vast crowd. Goellner calls this phenomenon “choric,” and “not so much a public voice as a private consciousness” (107).

Before the sheriff even began interrogating the stranger, the townspeople were standing about in apathetic restlessness, first staring at Joanna’s body, then at the place where the body had been, and then just the fire. Their gaze is disturbing and violating, “static and childlike,” until the sheriff takes “the poor thing” away from them (Faulkner 213). They are in a permanent state of the impudence and self-centeredness of childhood, without any of its innocence. They do not have the maturity to think of their own children, who they bring with them to this scene of violence and desolation. Before they knew that the fire was set deliberately, or that a murder had occurred, they armed themselves with the expectation of finding a scapegoat. As soon as they see the body, they begin to “canvass about for someone to crucify” (Faulkner 214).

Furthermore, this desire to find the culprit does not stem from a need for justice. Joanna was in many ways despised by the town, since she did not subscribe to the social ideology that all its members accepted. Even her acts of kindness in offering the people of the town a feast did nothing to reconcile the relationship—they “would never forgive her and let her be dead in peace and quiet” (Faulkner 214). They imagine that the body itself asks to be avenged, unwilling to admit that she is beyond any pain now. They attribute to her a desire that they would be ashamed to admit was their own, and they do this because it makes for “nice believing” (Faulkner 214). It has already been stated that the townspeople equate knowledge, belief, and hope. This is proved by their later obsession with finding Christmas, who falls victim to the town’s self-righteous anger, and is punished with castration and death. They believe desperately that they are doing it for Joanna, even though she had been “born and lived and died a foreigner” (Faulkner 214). Faulkner even compares the townspeople to a doctor who makes his patients believe that his only wish is for everyone to get better, when in reality that would be self-defeating and make his skills obsolete. They pretend that they are doing something that is good for another person, when in reality they are sating their own selfish desires, for they “have ever loved death better than peace” (Faulkner 215).

Even the sheriff, who is more focused on his duty than on staring at a corpse or the devouring flames, is unable to feel any empathy for those who society sees as inferior. He asks his men to find a black person, not because segregation has caused them to live on the rims of society near the social outcast Joanna, but because he knows that he can compel a black man to speak. The sheriff knows that the law is based on the whim of society, without regarding what is true or noble, and that since he is in charge of enforcing the law, he will not be contested no matter what lengths he goes to, as long as his behavior is in accordance with the right stereotypes. He could not have advanced in society if he did not have the proper opinions.

As a result of his position of power, the sheriff is able to seize and torture a man with vicious threats and a brutal whipping. Knowing that this man is innocent, he threatens to hand him over to the people, knowing the crowd would be provoked to violence, that they “aint got no jail to put him into” and “wouldn’t bother to put him into a jail if they had one” (Faulkner 217). There is no evidence that could justify his action, and the reader can suppose from the prevailing attitudes of the town that this outrageous conduct would never be directed toward a white man. The sheriff is not satisfied until the prisoner tells him exactly what he wants to hear—that the notorious Christmas and Brown are to blame. Even those who stand for justice in this town will only hear what they want to believe, and will equate this belief with truth.

When the people of Jefferson are faced with a scene of tragedy and violence, they can only see their own “inescapable portrait,” projecting their own desires onto the voiceless, and using this to justify their cruelty (Faulkner 213). The townspeople are selectively deaf to the truth, hearing only what confirms their bias and maintains their shared ideology. Ultimately, they “believ[e] aloud” that they are Christians while groveling at the feet of an idol—through the mirage of apotheosis, they worship Society as their god (Faulkner 213).

Works Cited

  • Al-Barhow, Abdul-Razzak. “Focusing on the Margins: Light in August and Social Change.” Southern Literary Journal, vol. 42, no. 2, 2010, pp. 52–72. JSTOR, doi:www.jstor.org/stable/4105764. Accessed 1 Nov. 2018.
  • “Apotheosis.” Merriam-Webster, 2018, www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/apotheosis.
  • Faulkner, William. Light in August. Random House, 1932.
  • Goellner, Ellen. “By Word of Mouth: Narrative Dynamics of Gossip in Faunkner’s ‘Light in August’.” Narrative, vol. 1, no. 2, May 1993, pp. 105-123. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/20107002. Accessed 1 Nov. 2018.
  • Legge, Dominic. “Who Am I to Judge?: Politics and the Problem of Moral Relativism.” Nova et vetera, vol. 15, no. 2, 2017, pp. 351-364. Project Muse, doi: doi.org/10.1353/nov.2017.0019. Accessed 10 November 2018.
  • Lewis, C. S. “Modern Man and His Categories of Thought.” Present Concerns: Essays by C. S. Lewis. Edited by Walter Hooper, Harcourt Brace & Company, 1987, pp. 61-66.
  • Toomey, David M. “The Human Heart in Conflict: ‘Light in August’s’ Schizophrenic Narrator.” Studies in the Novel, vol. 23, no. 4, 1991, pp. 452-469. JSTOR, doi: www.jstor.org/stable/29532818. Accessed 12 Oct. 2018.

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