Places: Light in August

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1932

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Psychological realism

Time of work: 1930

Places DiscussedYoknapatawpha County

Yoknapatawpha Light in AugustCounty (YOK-nuh-puh-TAW-fuh). Imaginary Mississippi county in which William Faulkner set all his fiction from his third novel on. A map of the county that he drew for his novel Absalom, Absalom! (1936) provides details about where the events in his novels occur. These details make it clear that Yoknapatawpha corresponds to Mississippi’s real Lafayette County, in which Faulkner lived. Light in August is also set in Yoknapatawpha, with Lena Grove leading the action into Jefferson at the beginning and out at the end.


Jefferson. Seat of Yoknapatawpha. Almost all the action of the novel set in the present takes place in and around Jefferson. Byron Bunch and Joe Christmas work at the sawmill, Reverend Hightower lives on a quiet street, Byron Bunch and Lena live in the boardinghouse, and Joanna Burden lives on the outskirts of town. Lena literally walks into Jefferson in the beginning of the novel and walks out again at the end, providing the frame for the rest of the events. As she enters the town, a fire burns in the distance–at Joanna Burden’s house, where Joanna has been murdered. The rest of the novel provides the background explaining what has led up to this moment.

Reverend Hightower observes the town through his window and receives news of the outside world through his visitor, Byron Bunch. Hightower’s carefully maintained isolation crumbles as the outside events intrude on his home, both through Byron’s stories and through Joe Christmas’s murder there late in the novel. Joanna Burden’s isolation, not self-imposed as Hightower’s but forced on her by her neighbors, also crumbles, as Joe Christmas enters first her servants’ quarters, then her home. The scene of gruesome death, her property also gives hope when Lena gives birth in her servants’ cabin.

The people of Jefferson, named and unnamed, also play a role. Whether hounding Hightower out of his church, turning on Joe Christmas when they learn he is partly African American, or helping Lena when they really cannot afford it, these people show the compassion, pettiness, sensitivity, and bigotry of Jefferson.

Other locations

Other locations. Faulkner constructs much of his narrative out of the stories of how its characters have come to Jefferson and thereby portrays a variety of places. For example, he describes the Alabama farmhouse that Lena left and the road that took her to Jefferson in a vain search for her unborn child’s father. A long section of the novel occurs in the orphanage where Joe Christmas’s grandfather placed him, the McEachern house in which he lived after his adoption, and the many roads and towns he wandered. Hightower recalls the house where he grew up hearing the stories of his grandfather’s exploits in the Civil War, his seminary, and the Memphis hotel room in which his wife committed suicide. One of Joanna Burden’s sections recalls the Burdens’ long trek from New England, around the country, and finally to Jefferson, where Joanna’s relatives are shot by Colonel Sartoris for allowing African Americans to vote during Reconstruction, leaving her alone and isolated.

In order to explain the circumstances of the brief present time of the novel, Faulkner gives the factors that shaped each character’s motivations, responses, and actions. For example, the reasons behind Christmas’s murder of Joanna goes back to his experiences in the orphanage, in the McEacherns’ home, and during his travels.

Suggested ReadingsBrooks, Cleanth. “The Community and the Pariah.” William Faulkner: The Yoknapatawpha Country. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1963.Feldman, Robert L. “In Defense of Reverend Hightower: It Is Never Too Late.” College Language Association Journal 29, no. 3 (March, 1986): 352-367.Inge, M. Thomas, ed. The Merrill Studies in “Light in August.” Columbus, Ohio: Charles E. Merrill, 1971. Good collection of articles on Christ imagery and symbolism, myth and ritual, and the “Frozen Moment,” which clarifies Faulkner’s use of contradictions like movement and motionlessness. Also includes reprints of contemporary reviews.Karl, Frederick R. William Faulkner, American Writer: A Biography. New York: Ballantine Books, 1989. An interpretation of Faulkner’s life revealed with psychological, emotional, and literary precision. Focuses on the strengths on which Faulkner relied in his growth as a great American writer of the twentieth century. Includes an excellent bibliography, chronology, and notes.Kazin, Alfred. “The Stillness of Light in August.” In Faulkner: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Robert Penn Warren. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1966.Lewis, Wyndham. “William Faulkner (the Moralist with a Corn Cob).” In Men Without Art. New York: Russell & Russell, 1964. Analyzes Faulkner’s fatalism and melodrama in major novels. Uniquely argues that Faulkner is not a good or acceptable writer, but that, instead, he is just a flash in the pan. Accuses Faulkner of being old-fashioned, too romantic, and one of the “psychological” school.Millgate, Michael, ed. New Essays on “Light in August.” New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987. Includes a very good introduction, a clarification of the structure of the novel, an analysis of women, sexism, and racism in Light in August, and an exploration of “the difference between enduring and prevailing,” an analysis of Faulkner’s Nobel Prize speech about humanity’s endurance as it is revealed in Light in August.Pitavy, François L., ed. William Faulkner’s “Light in August”: A Critical Casebook. New York: Garland, 1982. A critical collection of the best available scholarship on Faulkner’s novel and a discussion of the genesis of the book as well as a superb annotated bibliography. Includes analysis of themes such as “God the Father and Motherless Children,” “Other Competitors for the Cross,” and various symbols, myths, voices, and style.Vickery, Olga W. “The Shadow and the Mirror: Light in August.” In The Novels of William Faulkner: A Critical Interpretation. Rev. ed. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1964.
Categories: Places