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Society Revealing Morals and Values

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As one of the great stylists of the twentieth century, William Faulkner explores the South’s haunting past throughout several novels. His novel Light in August is one of many set in Yoknapatawpha County, a fictional place in Mississippi, where he explores the fallout and change in the early to mid 1900’s caused by Reconstruction. In this novel, Faulkner uses a strange protagonist, Joe Christmas, to reveal that society’s moral and social values. Joe, a man allegedly from racially diverse parentage, is never proven to be part black. His alienation from white society, however, is just one example of the influence of the white supremacist theology on the people with whom he interacts. Faulkner also seeks to illustrate how religion can be misused, becoming nothing more than an instrument of racisms. The interactions between Joe Christmas and the townspeople reveal that truth and fact are ambiguous and not always consistent; but that it does not stop public opinion from casting judgment on what they interpret as the truth.

Joe Christmas is alienated by society because of his presumed race and behavior. Christmas is brought up in a white orphanage and appears to be white. However he is ostracized by the other children and becomes the subject of racial slurs. During his time at the orphanage, the dietitian notes that, “They have been calling him nigger for years.” (133). Additionally the dietitian asserts,to her own benefit, that he should be moved to an orphanage for black kids and tells the matron that, “I don’t see how we failed to see it as long as we did. You can look at his face now, his eyes and hair.” (134). Even though the dietitian wants to get rid of Christmas because he threatens her job security, her comment originated from the fact that he must not have resembled the other white children. Faulkner deliberately keeps the race of Christmas’s father a secret. Earlier, Christmas is described as not black, but foreign. Later on, Mr. Hines, Christmas’s grandfather, recounts how when he asked the circus manger about the employee that his daughter slept with, the manager initially replied that he was black, but then moments later changed his answer and replied that he wasn’t sure. When Christmas is talking with Joanna, when she questions his race, Christmas is forced to answer “I don’t know it.” (254). Even though Christmas’s race is never confirmed, the townspeople in Jefferson judge him to be black on the word of Joe Brown, an unreliable man who illegally distilled alcohol with Christmas, and then seek retribution for murder with religious and social undertones.

Faulkner’s fictional county embodies the racial bias and strong influence of religion that was present in the south in the early 1900’s. Faulkner uses a unified town voice to articulate the opinions and moral assumptions of that society. In his novel Faulkner often uses the word “them” or “they” to describe the town. For example, “They believed for a while that he helped do it.” (in relation to Joe Brown’s responsibility for the murder) and

“They would have not have suspected him then if it hadn’t been for a fellow named

Brown, that the nigger used to sell whiskey while pretending to be a white man and

tried to lay the killing and the whiskey on Brown, but brown told the truth.” (pages 420, 449).

The town speaks as one voice and chooses to believe Joe Brown because he is white. In addition to the way he writes, Faulkner highlights the segregation of whites and blacks and the implied racial superiority of whites in his description and imagery of the town. In his childhood, the dietitian describes the difference in conditions between the white and black orphanages, commenting that “It’s bad for the child to have to go to the nigger home, after this, after growing up with white people.” (135). The dietitian’s comments imply that the black orphanage is not as good and that that the company of black people is undesirable.

In Jefferson City the blacks and whites live in different areas and go to different churches. Joanna Burden and Rev. Hightower are ostracized by their peers because they choose to associate with black people. Joanna was ostracized for being an abolitionist and promoting equality. Rev. Hightower also shows kindness to blacks and is considered suspect for his actions. The town views blacks as inferior people and views voluntary interaction with them as suspect.

Caucasian racial superiority is reinforced by the influence of religion. Mr. Hines is described as expressed of “twofisted evangelism which had been one quarter violent conviction and three quarters physical hardihood.” (343). This quotation reveals how Faulkner emphasized certain words by removing the spaces, in addition to making the story line a discontinuous time sequence. This quotation shows how devote Mr. Hines was to his religion. Mr. Hines made it his task to go into the country side and hold revivals at black churches. During these revival Mr. Hines made speeches with “violent obscenity, {and} preach to them humility before all skins lighter than theirs, preaching superiority of the white race.” (343) Mr. Hines justified barging into churches and screaming at the congregation as his divine calling to help save their souls. Mr. Hines delusions were perpetuated by the combination of religion and racism. Towards the end of the book, Percy Grimes kills Christmas as an act of patriotic and religious duty. After he is dead, Grimes castrates Christmas in a symbolic crucifixion so that Christmas “would let white women alone, even in hell.” (464). The strong influence of religion did not stop persecution of blacks and illustrates the important entanglement of white superiority and religion in the town.

In addition to a enigmatic past, Faulkner does not even say that Christmas actually killed Ms. Burden. Faulkner describes how her throat was slit and that Christmas carried around a razor blade, but Faulkner never does more than hint at the relationship between Christmas and the crime. Christmas’s conviction is perpetuated by the racism of the town that drives people to get rid of him because he is a “guilty black man”, and therefore an inherently sinful being that deserves to rot in hell. Christmas is sought out because people in the town feel that it is their duty to make the town safe for moral white people. Faulkner’s novel shows the backwardness and shortcomings of the south during the 1900’s and how prejudicial stereotypes were still pervasive and powerful in that society.

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