Light in August is probably Faulkner’s most critically acclaimed work. It is set in fictional Jefferson, a small poor town in rural Mississipi. This Southern Gothic work tells the story of a number of characters who are not native to the town, and have arrived at different times for different purposes.
The characters are:
Lena Grove – a basically unlettered young girl, pregnant by an itinerant young man, Lucas Burch, who, upon learning of her condition, immediately takes off, telling Lena when he finds work, he will make a place for her and send for her. He ends up in Jefferson, and changes his name to Brown. Lena, about 8 months pregnant or more, sets off one day on foot with no food or money, to find him so they can get married and make their child legitimate.
Byron Bunch, mid thirties, a bachelor, who meets Lena when she is mistakenly told by some townspeople that he is Burch .
Joe Christmas, 30, raised in an orphanage until age 5, of mixed racial blood.
Joanna Burden, a descendant of Yankee abolitionists who lives alone in a dilapidated plantation house two miles outside of town
Gail Hightower, a disgraced former minister , living alone on one of the side streets of the town. His dissatisfied wife was discovered to have been seeing men in Memphis, and who eventually committed suicide for which the good Reverend was seen by his congregation to deserve the blame.
The novel is set in the American South in the 1930s, during the time of Prohibition and Jim Crow laws that legalized racial segregation in the South. It examines not only racial issues, but class issues as well.
It has two main threads, that of the peripatetic Lena in search of the father of her child so they can get married, and that of Joe Christmas, silent, a loner, who lives in a cabin on the property of Joanna Burden, and who works at the local saw mill.
We have Lena’s story in chronological order, but Christmas’s story comes to us in chunks of back story.
A secondary thread is that of Reverend Hightower, whose life trajectory places him in the middle of the convergence of Lena, Byron Bunch, and Brown, and ultimately in the life of Joe Christmas.
The grandparents of Joe Christmas show up in town, and through the ravings of the completely mad grandfather, we learn more about the history of Joe Christmas.
It all comes to a head when the house of Joanna Burden is found burning out of control, and the body of Mz. Burden is found dead inside, her throat slashed. Christmas is deemed to be the perpetrator of both incidents, and goes on the run.
It is a complicated story in the reading. It is only when the reader has finished the book and thinks about it does it become clear, hammering home a damning indictment of the times in that region of the country. Faulkner tells us that the title refers to a certain luminosity that comes for a short time in the middle of August, when a hint of fall is in the air.