Most criticism concerning Faulkner’s novel, Light in August, usually considers the character of Joe Christmas. Christmas certainly deserves the attention paid to him, but too often this attention obscures other noteworthy elements of the complex novel. Often lost in the shuffle is another character, the Reverend Gail Hightower, who deserves greater scrutiny. A closer examination of Hightower reveals Faulkner’s deep concern for the South and the collective suffering of its people. Hightower, through his own personal epiphany, transcends the curse under which the South has suffered for so long.
Of course, the central character of Joe Christmas has dominated criticism of the novel, primarily because he represents the problematic and touchy issue of racism. Those who wish to prove that Faulkner either was or was not a racist often turn to Christmas–who is abandonded as a baby outside an orphanage and found on Christmas day (hence his name); called a “nigger bastard” (LIA 135) by the dietitian at the orphanage when he catches her with a young doctor; and ever after suspects that he might possess some Negro blood. All this prompts many readers to see in Christmas a symbol of racial tensions and conflict. For instance, in his italicized amendments to the excerpt from the novel he used for The Portable Faulkner, Malcolm Cowley refers to the character as “Joe Christmas, the mulatto” (51).
Unfortunately, such readings assume facts not in evidence. Cowley’s additions do more than provide a necessary context; they resolve a question about which Faulkner was definitely non-committal. He said of Christmas’ background, or lack of one:
I think that was his tragedy–he …
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… Douglas Day. New York: Vintage, 1973.
——. Light in August. 1932. New York: Vintage, 1987.
——. The Unvanquished. 1938. New York: Vintage, 1959.
Gwynn, Frederick L., and Joseph Blotner, eds. Faulkner in the University. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1995.
King, Richard B. A Southern Renaissance: The Cultural Awakening of the American South, 1930-1955. NewYork: Oxford University Press, 1980.
Longley, John L., Jr. “Joe Christmas: The Hero in the Modern World.” Faulkner: A Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. Robert Penn Warren. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1966: 163-174.
Runyan, Harry. A Faulkner Glossary. New York: Citadel, 1964.
Snead, James. Figures of Division. New York: Methuen, 1986.
Taylor, Walter. Faulkner’s Search for a South. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1983.
Comparing Death in Do not Go Gentle into That Good Night and Australia, 1970
Rage against Death in Dylan Thomas’ “Do not Go Gentle into That Good Night”, and Judith Wright’s “Australia, 1970”
Mortality is a subject often contemplated in both traditional and modern poetry. Traditionally, death has been viewed as a great leveler of people, and as a frightening, yet noble experience that is best approached with a quiet, dignified, Christ-like acceptance. In the work of some modern poets such as Dylan Thomas and Judith Wright, however, the message is a different one altogether. These poets advise the dying to not assume the role of the martyr, teaching by quiet example; rather, the dying are instructed to “rage, rage against the dying of the light” (Thomas) and “die like the tigersnake” (Wright) in order to send their messages to the living. While these two poets give these startling instructions with different goals in mind, one idea comes across clearly: that the image of the martyr quietly and knowingly accepting death is no longer an image that will satisfy modern poetry as it looks for reason in its examination of impending mortality.
In his 1952 poem “Do not Go Gentle into That Good Night”, Dylan Thomas examines the idea that entering quietly into death is not the proper way to leave life; instead, as life draws to a close, he instructs his readers to “rage, rage against the dying of the light” (Thomas). At first glance, this could appear to be futile advice, for raging against an inevitable, unalterable experience such as death obviously does nothing to impede its course, and could therefore be seen as a pointless exercise. However, upon closer examination, it becomes clear that Thomas’s poem does not attempt to fight or ward off death; rather, it attempts to convince others to live fully and …
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…ugh mercilessly taunted by the turncoat crowds, those dying in these poems are instructed to do so violently and wildly, to kick and scream, yet at the same time accept the fact that death is an unstoppable force. By depicting these violent, unorthodox, traditionally ignoble methods in a positive light and instructing others to partake in them, Dylan Thomas and Judith Wright are disassociating themselves with the ‘beneficial martyr’ outlook on life and death adopted by Christianity and instead aligning themselves with a far more rebellious and modernistic school of thought
Works Cited and Consulted
Stanford, Derek. Dylan Thomas. New York: The Citadel Press, 1986. 116-118.
Thomas, Dylan. “Do Not Go Gentle.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 1996
Thomson, A.K. Critical Essays on Judith Wright, ed. 1968.
Wright, Judith. Collected Poems 1994.