Thomas Cousineau, Professor of English (Emeritus) at Washington College in Maryland, was a Fulbright Scholar in American Studies at the University of Bucharest during the Fall 2014 term. His books include After the Final No: Samuel Beckett’s Trilogy, Waiting for Godot: Form in Movement, Ritual Unbound: Reading Sacrifice in Modernist Fiction, Three-Part Inventions: The Novels of Thomas Bernhard, and An Unwritten Novel: Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet. The website for his current project, The Séance of Reading: Uncanny Designs in Modernist Writing, is at https://sites.google.com/site/thedaedaluscomplex/home
Framing Stories in Light in August
“Now the final copper light of afternoon fades; now the street beyond the low maples and the low signboard is prepared and empty, framed by the study window like a stage.”
This essay will eventually become the final chapter of my current work-in-progress entitled “The Séance of Reading: Uncanny Designs in Modernist Writing,” which began several years ago when I stumbled upon Vladimir Nabokov’s advice that “A wise reader reads the book of genius not with his heart, not so much with his brain, but with his spine. It is there that occurs the telltale tingle.” William Faulkner’s novel Light in August has always produced tingles in me ever since I first read it as a graduate student in California back in the 1960s. My experience of a truly telltale tingle, however, came only recently, while I was reading an article entitled “Framing Joe Christmas: Vision and Detection in Light in August,” in which the author, Randall Wilhelm, argues that the narrator of Faulkner’s novel “uses the window frame for a variety of narrative functions, each one implicated in the framing of Christmas as a murderer” (401; my emphasis). The word “frame” has been a commonplace in discussions of Light in August since its publication in 1932, but it had always been used to describe the way that Faulkner surrounds the main story of the novel – involving the tragic fates of Joe Christmas, Gail Hightower, and Joanna Burden – with the comic “frame-tale” of Lena Grove’s quest to find the father of her baby, who was about-to-be-born in the first chapter and recently born in the last. See, for example, Alan Friedman’s “The Frame-like Structure of Light in August.” Thanks to Wihelm’s article, I suddenly saw for the first time the “uncanny design” of a novel in which “framing” points both to stories that are told by members of the fictional community to unjustly frame certain characters as guilty of punishable acts and Faulkner’s technique of framing these same stories to achieve an aesthetic effect. The forward movement of the plot of Light in August, which begins with the framing of Joe Christmas as a “nigger” and concludes with his lynching as a “murderer,” coexists uncannily with the static structure of the novel as a whole, which is epitomized by the frame tale with which it begins and ends.
The word “frame” itself – although holding the key to the uncanny design of Light in August – only appears three times in the novel. It is twice used as a noun to indicate a merely literal frame: on one occasion, the narrator describes Joe as lying on the cot in his cabin and watching fireflies as they “began to drift across the open frame of the door” (237); several pages later, in the course of recalling one of his meetings with Joanna Burden, Joe describes her demeanor as being “as grave and tranquil as a portrait in a frame” (269). Its third appearance – which occurs in the passage that I have chosen as the epigraph for this essay – is in the form of a commonplace metaphor that describes the way in which the window of Gail Hightower’s study frames the street that runs in front of his house. The near-invisibility of the word “frame” is curiously mirrored by the subliminal ways that the act of framing achieves the ambiguous co-presence of movement and stasis that the narrator attributes in the opening pages of Light in August to the wagons that are taking Lena on her journey: “she advanced in identical and anonymous and deliberate wagons s though through a succession of creakwheeled and limpeared avatars, like something moving forever and without progress across an urn” (7; my emphasis).
* * *
Faulkner sets the stage for the uncanny design of a novel characterized by what we might call “still movement” by first creating a fictional community founded exclusively on the changeless distinction between “white folks” and “niggers.” The word “nigger” pervades the novel from beginning to end, first appearing in Joe Brown’s complaint that his job at the saw mill involves his “starting in at daylight and slaving all day like a durn nigger” (44), and is used for the last time by the unnamed furniture repairer and dealer who refers to Jefferson as the town “Where they lynched that nigger” (497). Most of its intervening appearances serve to divide the community into two mutually exclusive sub-groups. Mooney, the foreman at the saw mill, clearly distinguishes between the work habits of each group: “a nigger wouldn’t last till the noon whistle, working on this job like some white folks work on it” (44); we are later reminded of the strict segregation of the races by the suggestion that Joe Christmas, if the so-called truth about his Negro blood is revealed, risks being sent to “the nigger orphanage”; much later, he lives in the “nigger cabin” on Joanna Burden’s property (79), and Joanna herself wants him to study law at a “nigger school” (276). The sexual mores of Negro women are likewise held to be different from those of white women, a detail that comes to light when the Negro woman who lives with Hightower says that she quit because he asked her to do something that was “against God and nature,” to which some of the younger men respond that “if a nigger woman considered it against God and nature it must be pretty bad” (72).
One of the most detailed expositions of the dichotomy between the two races is offered by Gavin Stevens, who presents a lengthy explanation as to why Joe Christmas, after escaping from jail, undertakes a flight that takes him alternately to back and white communities:
But his blood would not be quiet, let him save it. It would not be either one or
the other and let his body save itself. Because the black blood drove him first to the
negro cabin. And then the white blood drove him out of there, as it was the black
blood which snatched up the pistol and the white blood which would not let him
fire it. And it was the white blood which sent him to the minister, which rising in
him for the last and final time, sent him against all reason and all reality, into the
embrace of a chimera, a blind faith in something read in a printed Book (449).
* * *
Against the background of a stable community founded upon this “natural” and unchanging racial dichotomy, Faulkner introduces three protagonists – Joe Christmas, Gail Hightower, and Joanna Burden – whose framing as a destabilizing threat to this foundation sets in motion the plot of Light in August: Joe Christmas is a “white nigger,” Joanna Burden is a “nigger lover,” and Gail Hightower is said to have sexual relations with a Negro woman.
Our first encounter with Joe Christmas’s framing occurs in chapter 6, where the dietitian at his orphanage, fearing that he will reveal her sexual encounter with her lover, decides to tell the matron about his Negro blood. The actual truth about Joe’s ancestry is, to be sure, obscure; he is a Negro only by conjecture. (Faulkner had given him a Negro father in an early draft of Light in August but left his parentage indeterminate in the published version). So indistinguishable is he with respect to skin color from the other children at this all-white orphanage, that it is only his “framing” as a Negro by the dietician that will, as it were, make him one: “‘All I need do is to make the madam believe,’ she thought. And then she thought He will look like a pea in a pan full of coffee beans.” (130) Joe is similarly framed by the other children at the orphanage, all of whom call him “Nigger” (127). He does the same to himself when he tells his girlfriend Bobbie “I got some nigger blood in me” (196); not long afterwards, he is beaten for being a “a nigger son of a bitch” (218).
Gail Hightower, who has no “nigger blood,” was born and bred into a well-to-do southern family, had a father who served in the Confederate Army, and was well on his way to becoming a respected pillar of the community when he arrived in Jefferson to serve as the minister in its Presbyterian church. His father, however, did not share the community’s acceptance of slavery: “But though born and bred and dwelling in an age and land where to own slaves was less expensive than to not own them, he would neither eat food grown and cooked by, nor sleep in a bed prepared by a negro slave (467). We learn as well that his father was “an abolitionist almost before the sentiment had become a word to percolate down from the North” (472).
What we might then call the suspect “abolitionist blood” that was passed on to Hightower by his father manifests itself in certain aspects of his behavior that frame him as an outsider. He allows a Negro woman to live with him in his house (71), for which “un-white” misdeed he is beaten unconscious by the Ku Klux Klan (72) and, as we had learned just a bit earlier, was judged as “done damned” by the community as a whole (60-1). His having delivered a stillborn baby to a Negro woman further contributed to his framing: “Because within two days there were those who said that the child was Hightower’s and that he had let it die deliberately.” (74)
Like Gail Hightower, Joanna Burden, although unambiguously white, is by no means fully integrated into the white community. As Byron Bunch explains to Lena Grove, who has asked him about the house that she sees burning in the distance: “It’s a right big old house. It’s been there a long time. Don’t nobody live in it but one lady, by herself. I reckon there are folks in this town will call it a judgment on her, even now.” Byron then enumerates the offenses that would lead the community to regard the destruction of Joanna’s home as a sign of divine retribution: “Her folks come down here in the Reconstruction to stir up the niggers. Two of them got killed doing it. They say she is still mixed up with niggers. Visits them when they are sick, like they was white. Won’t have a cook because it would have to be a nigger cook. Folks say she claims that niggers are the same as white folks. That’s why folks dont never go out there.” (53) As Joanna herself tells Joe Christmas, her Yankee origins frame her in the eyes as the community as an undesirable alien: “They hated us here. We were Yankees. Foreigners. Worse than foreigners: enemies. Carpetbaggers…” She likewise supposes that Colonel Sartoris was considered a “townhero” for killing her grandfather and her brother (249).
* * *
At the same time that the community frames Joe Christmas, Gail Hightower, and Joanna Burden in a way that leads each of them inexorably towards a tragic outcome, Faulkner creates a narrative diptych by attaching them to another trio – Lena Grove, Byron Bunch, and Lucas Burch – who represent a threat, not to racial, but to marital norms. Lena Grove is framed as an unmarried mother, who attracts nothing more than mildly disapproving attention. Upon discovering her pregnancy, her brother “called her whore” (6). Armstid, who drives her into Jefferson, notices – but in a nonjudgmental way – “that she wears no wedding ring” (12). He expects that “womenfolk are likely to be good [to Lena] without being very kind” (12). While Armstid thinks he knows exactly what his wife will say (presumably words expressing her strong disapproval), she is actually quite kind to Lena, telling her to stay off her feet rather than helping in the kitchen (17) and giving her savings to the unwed mother-to-be before she departs (22). She chastises Lena, not for her pregnancy, but for her naïve belief that Lucas will welcome her arrival wherever he happens to be: “And you believe that he will be there when you get there. Granted that he ever was there at all. That he will here you are in the same town with him, and still be there when the sun sets.” (21)
Byron Bunch, in turn, is framed as an unmarried father. His friend Gail Hightower warns him against serving as Lena’s would-be husband: “there begins to come into Hightower’s puzzled expression a quality of shrinking and foreboding as Byron talks quietly, telling about how he decided after they reached the square to take Lena on to Mrs. Beard’s” (82-3). Hightower, likewise counsels him against “attempting to come between man and wife” (307) and advises him to marry a virgin rather than sacrificing himself “to a woman who has chosen once and now wishes to renege that choice” (316). The price that Byron pays for failing to follow Hightower’s advice is, however, nothing more than his becoming occasionally the object of good-natured scorn: “Byron Bunch, that weeded another man’s laidby crop, without any halvers. The fellow that took care of another man’s whore while the other fellow was busy making a thousand dollars.”
Lucas Burch, for his part, has fathered a child without, however, bothering to become a husband. He flees from Lena shortly after discovering that he has impregnated her and, after arriving in Jefferson, moves into the “nigger cabin” where Joe has been living. Upon entering the cabin after the birth of Lena’s baby (and where he expects that his reward for identifying Joanna Burden’s killer awaits him) and discovering the unwelcome surprise that actually awaits him there – “he was gone, through the window, without a sound, in a single motion almost like a long snake” (432).
As was true with Byron, his wayward behavior leads to nothing more threatening than his becoming the object of sarcasm. He is described as a man who “was just living on the country like a locust” and who “can’t even do a good job of shirking.” He reminds Byron of “one of these cars running along the street with a radio in it. You cant make out what it is saying and the car aint going anywhere in particular and when you look at it close you see that there aint even anybody in it” and Mooney, his foreman, “of a horse. Not a mean horse. Just a worthless horse” (37).
The transgression of marital norms that creates a counterpoint between this trio and the novel’s three tragic protagonists together is framed by the community in a way that leaves them essentially unchanged. Like the Negro woman who, as Hightower remembers, returned after the Civil War “still a slave” (476), at the end of Light in August, Byron is still in love with Lena, who is still searching for Lucas, who is still fleeing from her.
* * *
The effect of stillness Faulkner achieves by portraying the trio of characters formed by Lena, Byron, and Bunch as “moving forever and without progress” mirrors uncannily the frame-tale of Light in August. Lena arrives in Jefferson in chapter 1 and departs in chapter 21. In both chapters, she comes and goes in the company of an amicable man – first Armstid, then the unnamed furniture dealer – who offer to take her in their wagons. Her first thought, expressed silently in the opening paragraph of the novel, are “I have come from Alabama: a fur piece. All the way from Alabama a-walking. A fur piece” (3). The final words of the novel, which she speaks aloud, echo this thought: “My, my. A body does get around. Here we aint been coming from Alabama but two months, and now it’s already Tennessee” (507). A similar framing occurs between the story that Lena tells Mrs. Armstid in chapter 1 about Lucas leaving her, whose purpose is to deceive her into believing that Lucas is better than he is by inventing a tale about his going in search of better work prospects – and the story that the furniture repairer and dealer tells his wife in chapter 21 for the purpose simply of amusing her at Byron’s expense.
This framing technique applies as well to chapters 2 and 19. Joe Christmas arrives at the saw mill at the beginning of chapter 2, where he is immediately framed as an outsider: “He looked like a tramp, yet not like a tramp either… there was something definitely rootless about him” (31). Words like “stranger” and “foreigner” come naturally to the lips of his co-workers, whose foreman says to them “We ought to run him through the planer… Maybe that will take that look off his face.” (32) The violence that is invoked here as only a potential threat is finally fulfilled when Percy Grimm kills and castrates Joe in the kitchen of Gail Hightower’s home at the end of chapter 19: “Grimm emptied the automatic’s magazine into the table; later someone covered all five shots with a folded handkerchief.” Following the castration, Grimm taunts Joe Christmas with the prophecy that: “Now you’ll let white women alone, even in hell.” (465)
Likewise, in the first sentence of chapter 2, we see Gail Hightower sitting at the window of his study: “From his study window he can see the street. It is not far away, since the lawn is not deep. It is a small lawn, containing a half dozen low growing maples… From the window he can also see the sign, which he calls his monument.” (57) The window, the street, the maples, and the sign all return in the opening sentence of chapter 20, which I have chosen as the epigraph for this chapter, and the window reappears at the very end of the chapter, in which we see Hightower “leaning forward in the window, his bandaged head huge and without depth above the twin blobs of his hands upon the ledge” (493). As was true with the first and last appearances of Joe Christmas, the chapters in which we see Hightower for the first and last times are framed by acts of violence: in chapter 2, we learn that he was beaten into unconsciousness by the Ku Klux Klan; in chapter 20, this physical attack returns as the (completely gratuitous) blow that Joe Christmas deals to Hightower’s head with his manacled hands: Grimm and his men “stooped and raised Hightower, his face bleeding, from the floor where Christmas, running up the hall, his raised and armed and manacled hands full of glare and glitter like lightning bolts, so that he resembled a vengeful and furious god pronouncing a doom, had struck him down” (463).
* * *
The obvious as well as the not-so-obvious ways in which Faulkner frames, not only the novel’s “frame-tale,” but all three of the opening and closing chapters of Light in August to create an effect of “movement without progress” occurs, as well, in his framing of episodes that occur elsewhere in the novel Light in August contains 21 chapters, which are arranged in such a way as to create a loosely constructed chiasm, with the couple formed by Joe Christmas and Joanna Burden, which occupies the entirety of chapter 11, placed precisely at its midpoint. On either side of this pivotal chapter, Faulkner frames implicit narrative couples.
Joe’s early years at the orphanage, for example, are recounted in chapter 6, where we learn of the circumstances that led to his expulsion; his actual arrival at the orphanage is not, however, recounted until chapter 16. His sexual relationship with Bobbie (a prostitute whose masculine name at first confuses him) begins in chapter 8; gender confusion then returns in chapter 12, where Joanna Burden is described three times as “manlike.” Joe hits McEachern over the head with a chair midway in chapter 9, leaving him – at least he thinks so – for dead; this motif then returns at the end of chapter 19, when he hits Hightower over the head with his manacled hands, leaving us to wonder if he has perhaps died (Faulkner claimed that he hadn’t).
Yet another coupling of episodes occurs between the two accounts of Joe’s flights: in chapter 10, we see him in flight from the McEachern’s for a period of fifteen years, during which time he moves back and forth between black and white communities; in chapter 19, a similar flight – this time from the town jail and lasting only a few hours – takes him once again from one racial community to another. Finally, Faulkner presents the birth of Lena’s baby in such a way as to frame it in relation to the birth of the negro baby over which Hightower had similarly presided many years previously. In chapter 17, as Hightower and Byron are preparing to leave Hightower’s home and to be on their way to the “nigger cabin” in which Lena is about the give birth, Byron asks Hightower if he has “the book you used when the nigger baby came” (394). The episode to which Byron is referring here occurred in chapter 3, where we learn that Hightower “ran back to his house and took one of his books from the study shelf and got his razor and some cord and ran back to the cabin and delivered the child. But it was already dead” (70).
Faulkner also creates an uncanny framing of “movement without progress” by narrating in close proximity to each other certain episodes that are widely separated in time. We notice, for example, that Joe is framed as a “nigger” by the dietitian at the orphanage (an event that occurred in 1900) in chapter 6 and again in 1932 by Joe Brown, an event that is reported in chapter 5, where Joe tells the sheriff that Joe is “part nigger” and taunts him with the charge of “Accus[ing] the white man and let[ting] the nigger go free” (97). Likewise, the birth of Lena’s baby in 1932 is recounted in chapter 17, just a few pages after the account in chapter 16 of Joe Christmas’s birth, an event that occurred either in 1895 or 1896. His strategy here bears an uncanny resemblance Mrs. Hines’s hallucinatory conflation of the birth of Lena’s baby with the birth of Joe Christmas, two events that occurred more than thirty years apart: “Her movement roused it [Lena’s baby] perhaps; it cried once. Then the bafflement too flowed away. It fled as smoothly as a shadow; she looked down at the child, musing, woodenfaced, ludicrous. ‘It’s Joey,’ she said. ‘It’s my Milly’s little boy.’” (397-8)
* * *
Returning to the passage that I chose as the epigraph for this essay – in which the window of Hightower’s study “frames” the street in front of his house – we now notice the way in which the window itself serves throughout Light in August as a literal framing device that is uncannily associated with both movement and stasis. References to actual windows occur more than one hundred times in the novel, a great many of them in reference to the window of Hightower’s study, next to which he is always portrayed as unmoving. As was already mentioned, we first see him looking out of this window, “from which he can see the street,” at the beginning of chapter 3; as the chapter continues, Faulkner shows him “tak[ing] his place in the study window just before dusk… waiting for that instant when all light has failed out of the sky” (60); at its conclusion, we see him “still sit[ting] at the study window, the room still dark behind him” (75-6). Hightower’s study returns in the final section of chapter 13, which begins with him “sitting in the study window in the first dark” (311) and concludes with him “lean[ing] there in the window, in the August heat, oblivious of the odor in which he lives” (317) and “hear[ing] now only the myriad and interminable insects, leaning in the window, breathing the hot, still rich maculate earth, thinking of how when he was young, he had loved darkness, of walking or sitting alone among trees at night” (318). The entirety of chapter 20, in which we will see Hightower for the last time, has the study window as its setting. It begins with him sitting by it, remembering his youth, passing from there to memories of his middle age, and being left at the end “leaning forward in it” suspended ambiguously between life and death.
While Hightower either sits or stands at his window, almost all of the other windows in Light in August are, unsurprisingly, associated with movement. Lena sneaks out of a window of her brother’s house to meet Lucas Burch: “It had a window which she learned to open and close again in the dark without making a sound.” (5) Discovering that she is pregnant and deciding to go in search of Lucas, she leaves once again through this window: “Two weeks later she climbed again through the window. It was a little difficult this time. ‘If it had been this hard to do before, I reckon I would not be doing it now,’ she thought.” (6) We remember, too, the circumstances of the death of Hightower’s wife: “she had jumped or fallen from a hotel window in Memphis Saturday night, and was dead.” (67)
Joe Christmas’s nocturnal assignations with Bobbie are likewise associated with the bedroom window of the house where he lives with the McEacherns: “he climbed from his window and dropped the ten feet to the earth and walked the five miles in to town” (186). Faulkner later conflates the McEachern years with those he spends in the company of Joanna Burden by having him first enter the latter’s home through the window of her kitchen (229-30), where eating the peas that he finds on the table suddenly brings back the past: “his jaw stopped suddenly in midchewing and thinking fled for twentyfive years back down the street, past all the imperceptible corners of bitter defeats and more bitter victories, and five miles even beyond a corner where he used to wait in the terrible early time of love, for someone whose name he had forgot” (230). He also connects Joe’s first experience of love with Bobbie and his sexual relationship with Joanna Burden by associating the latter both with secrecy – “She insisted on a place for concealing notes, letters” – and a window: “for a whole week she forced him to climb into a window to come to her” (259). Finally, we notice that the window of her brother’s house, out of which the pregnant Lena has climbed with difficulty returns towards the end of Light in August as the window of the “nigger cabin” out of which Lucas Burch leaps with preternatural agility upon discovering that he has been made a father: “Then he was gone, through the window, without a sound, in a single motion almost like a long snake.” (432)
* * *
Throughout my “The Séance of Reading Project,” I use Vladimir Nabokov’s advice to the reader as the touchstone for a series of readings of classic literary works of the modernist period whose “uncanny design” emerges in two stages: in the first of these, we discover that a nearly invisible word – “framing,” for example, in Light in August – is mirrored by a virtually ubiquitous activity. The framing of certain characters as guilty of a misdeed is not focused exclusively on Joe Christmas, and Faulkner’s use of framing as a narrative technique goes well beyond the frame-tale itself. In the second phase of our séance, we discover the uncanny way in which the ubiquitous activity designated by this word is both a stumbling stone for the protagonists of the work in question and the cornerstone of the work itself.
My introductory chapter lays the foundation for subsequent chapters by uncovering the archetype of this paradoxical symmetry between a stumbling stone and a cornerstone in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Entitled “The Daedalus Complex,” it points our attention to the curious way in which the dream of flying – which leads to tragic consequences both for Icarus, who falls to his death, and for Daedalus, who is left to bury him and to mourn his loss – coexists with the apotheosis that Ovid predicts for himself in the concluding lines of his poem:
And now my task accomplished, such a work
As not the wrath of Jove, nor fire nor sword
Nor the devouring ages can destroy.
Let, when it will, that day, that has no claim
But to my mortal body, end the span
Of my uncertain years. Yet I’ll be borne,
The finer part of me, above the stars,
Immortal, and my name shall never die. (379)
I then discuss the revisiting of this archetype, first, in Dante’s Inferno in which love leads both to damnation for Paolo and Francesca and, thanks to the intercession of Beatrice, to Dante’s salvation and, second, in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, in which being bound to double-business is both a human predicament to which its characters fall victim and a dramatic technique of which Shakespeare proves himself the unparalleled master.
As their titles indicate, the nine chapters that follow this introduction invite readers to observe – in nine masterpieces of modernist literature – the ways in which nearly invisible words reveal the ubiquitous reciprocity of stumbling stones and cornerstones. They include: “Fixing Things in The Great Gatsby,” “Incarnating Loss in The Book of Disquiet,” “Doing Nothing in Waiting for Godot,” “Turning Back in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” “Finishing It in Endgame,” “Transfiguring Inconvenience in A Short History of Decay,” “Making Misfits in A Good Man is Hard to Find,” and, finally, “Framing Tales in Light in August.”
Cousineau, Thomas J. “The Séance of Reading: Uncanny Designs in Modernist Writing.” https://sites.google.com/site/thedaedaluscomplex/home.
Faulkner, William. Light in August. New York: Random House, 2002. Modern Library Edition.
Friedman, Alan. “The Frame-like Structure of Light in August.” In Clarice Swisher, ed. Readings on William Faulkner. San Diego, CA: Greenhaven, 1998; 134-40.
Ovid. Metamorphoses, trans. A. D. Meville. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986.
Wilhelm, Randall. “Framing Joe Christmas: Vision and Detection in Light in August. Mississippi Quarterly, 64 (3-4): Summer-Fall 2011, 393-407.