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In his novel Light in August, Faulkner presents one of his most biting critiques of religious and social intolerance in early twentieth-century society. Faulkner uses the fictional town of Jefferson to confront the presence of racism, sexuality, gender, and religious discrimination in his endemic state, Mississippi. The novel focuses on the unforgiving social standards that Faulkner feels are sanctioned by religious institutions, particularly in isolated rural areas. Light in August is comprised of the personal stories of several women. The misconceptions that Faulkner underscores are part of a paternalistic world where society endorses men’s abusive actions while religious and social intolerance imprison women in victimhood. In the novel, the men justify their prejudices through their belief that women naturally hate other women, especially the fallen ones. Faulkner traverses the strange territory of gender-discrimination through the characters of Byron Bunch and Lena Grove.
Right away, the reader becomes aware that a gaping double standard exists in the social realm of Light in August. Men are not faulted for indulging in sex or impregnating a woman outside of matrimony. However, when a woman becomes pregnant out of wedlock, it is her own fault. One of many “kind” strangers, the man Armstid contemplates Lena’s folly unsympathetically, feeling badly for Lucas Burch, “I reckon that fellow is fixing to find that he made a bad mistake…” (13). Unmarried women are condemned for the actions of those who take advantage of them. Women such as Lena are devalued by the very traits that should be considered their finest attributes. Because they are soft, attractive, and devoted, they are fully responsible for enticing men. However, amid the judgment cast upon her by the oppressive principles of Jefferson’s society, it is important to note that Lena is “unshakeable, sheeplike, having drawn upon that reserve of patient and steadfast fidelity…” (6). This fidelity will preserve Lena from accepting the castigation Jefferson would like to place upon her and it will be the silent solace of the subdued women in this novel.
Misogyny also plays out in the lives of the wives and mothers in this novel. Mrs. Hines and Mrs. McEachern both endure abusive husbands who see no fault in their actions, sanctioned as they are by the strict, judgmental and unforgiving religious and social standards that reinforce them via male-dominated churches. Faulker portrays Mrs. McEachern as:
A patient, beaten creature without sex demarcation at all…hammered thinner and thinner like some passive and dully malleable metal, into an attenuation of dumb hopes and frustrated desires now faint and pale as dead ashes (165).
Furthermore, these adults impress their hateful views upon their children, who learn to disrespect their mothers and revile women as the embodiment of sin. This is the case with Mr. McEachern, who effectively beats his brand of discrimination into Christmas. Mr. McEachern constantly uses the Bible to justify his actions, embodying his ideals of righteousness. Eupheus Hines is a man dominated by insanity and prejudice against African Americans that takes second only to his hatred of the “bitchery and abomination” of women (370). Both of these men justify their actions through the conviction that they are doing God’s work. Even sane, apparently good men, such as Reverend Gail Hightower, cannot escape the social mentality of intolerance. Hightower’s emotional destitution causes him not only to be unable to provide for the spiritual needs of his church, but to neglect the emotional and physical needs of his wife. Hightower’s particular brand of misogyny is not so blatantly pronounced as that of McEachern or Hines, but nonetheless, it is present and effective. Hightower considers Lena sinful and believes that she deserves the judgment society sees fit to dole out to her, telling Byron:
No woman who has a child is ever betrayed; the husband of a mother, whether he be the father or not, is already a cuckold. Give yourself at least the one chance in ten, Byron. If you must marry, there are single women, girls, virgins. It’s not fair that you should sacrifice yourself to a woman who has chosen once and now wishes to renege that choice (289).
While Hightower is still capable of playing positive roles in the lives of women, such as in delivering Lena’s child, his derisive attitude toward women reflects the oppressiveness of the religious principles he preserves. Even the main male protagonist falls into the misogynistic thinking promoted by his society. Byron, discouraged by those who recommend that he help Lena but not marry her, begins to consider her a harlot after the baby’s birth and himself the cuckold of whom Hightower speaks.
Joe Christmas is the heightened symbol of Light in August’s misogyny. Faulkner imbues Christmas’ character with the refined versions of McEachern’s tyranny, Hines’ cruelty, and the town of Jefferson’s intolerance. The reader sees the possibility of redemption for Christmas in his relationship with Joanna Burden. However, Christmas’ fundamental belief that the world is a cruel place without mercy and kindness renders Miss Burden’s acceptance unnatural. The cycle of cruelty is made unbearable through the kindness of women such as Mrs. McEachern and Joanna Burden, who undermine the natural order of the world.
It was not the hard work which he hated, nor the punishment and injustice…
It was the woman: that soft kindness which he believed himself doomed to be forever victim of and which he hated worse than he did the hard and ruthless justice of men (169).
Christmas sees women as the epitome of what weakens a man and bares his throat to the world. It is unsurprising then, that Christmas murders a prostitute when she reacts to him with indifference rather than hate. Moreover, Christmas is repulsed even by the physical act of sex with Miss Burden, likening it to falling into a sewer.
The social and religious bigotry which Faulkner writes about is a dark house with many rooms. It sanctions oppressors and it encloses victims, neither of whom are able to see past the fallible social constructs that render them slaves to a system of gender-bias and exploitation. However, Faulkner offers hope in the form of Byron, who begins to overcome the misogynistic mentality of his society by the end of the novel and Lena, whose unwavering fidelity is finally rewarded through the hope of a better life; a better man.
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