The Burden of the Past in "Light in August" by William Faulkner

Term Paper, 2013

14 Pages, Grade: 1,2



I. Introduction

II. Joanna Burden

III. Reverend Gail Hightower

IV. Joe Christmas

V. Conclusion

VI. Bibliography

I. Introduction

As almost in all of William Faulkner’s novels in “Light in August” the past determines the present like nothing else in the whole story. Although the book is considered as primarily Christmas’ story it is noticeable that the story of Christmas life from adolescence to his present age of thirty-three just takes a few pages in the whole novel. Therefore it is likely that another point in the novel is far more important than simply the story of Christmas’ life: the past that determines the present and burdens its owners. The novel also explores issues of gender and race specifically, but these particular thematic currents intersect to become part of Faulkner’s larger inquiry concerning the nature of identity and how it is influenced by ones’ own history. The past is one of the most important facts in the whole story for half of the book is written in flashbacks, while the story itself seems to take just a small part from the whole large part. To understand Faulkner’s characters actions in the present it is necessary to understand and know their history in the past, which determines their present greatly. Although the novel explores the issues of gender and race specifically, these particular thematic actions are part of Faulkner’s larger, more all-encompassing inquiry concerning the nature of identity and how it is influenced by a families history, the society and individual lives of the protagonists. But not only the actions of the main protagonist Joe Christmas, are caused by the events in his past. Altogether there are three of Faulkner’s protagonists in “Light in August” which are prominent examples for how the past of a person can determine their actions in the present or their whole life in general. This three are for one Joe Christmas, whose troubled past determines his actions and his self-consciousness, Joanna Burden, who is namely affected by her ancestors religious beliefs and Gail Hightower, who is also affected by his ancestors history, but instead of Joanna not by religion, but the civil war. The townsfolk of Jefferson has resolved a acceptance of Reverend Hightower, Joanna Burden, and Joe Christmas, but each of these characters deliberately resists or abandons the distorting influence of a rigid social and moral order. They live their lives in solidarity because of the past, their ancestors left them as heritage and burden. The key theme of the novel is therefore that memory is more real than objective knowledge because of how enduring and how pervasive it is.

Memory believes before knowing remembers. Believes longer than recollects, longer than knowing even wonders.” (p.91)

II. Joanna Burden

Joanna Burden is a very good example for a life directed by the history of her family, although she has received almost no critical attention as a significant symbol in the novel.[1] Maybe this is due to her personality and background which is so unlike those of Joe Christmas. Yet Joanna’s past deserves attention, which could already recognized in the fact that Faulkner gave her the allegorical surname of Burden, that already implies a generation of struggle with society and the inheritance of a very complex legacy of family pride. This rich naming continues in Joanna’s ancestors, which carry the historical names as Calvin or Nathaniel.[2] Notable is the fact, that the families last name originally was Burrington and was later changed from Joanna’s grandfather into Burden because he was poorly illiterate and wasn’t able to write his name properly. He changed the name from Burrington into Burden to simplify the spelling.

When telling the history of her family dates are really important for Joanna and a significant way of organizing the experiences. This importance of dates alone already shows that the history of her family determines what she herself is.[3] The history of her family itself goes back, in her telling, more than a hundred years and seems quite complex. Despite the often appearing names of Calvin and Nathaniel certain decisions also seems to have a twisted kind of tradition in the family. Joanna’s grandfather Calvin Burden moved with his family from New England down in the south to Jefferson before Joanna was even born, what made the Burden-family strangers for the townspeople since Joanna is able to think. Calvin Burden himself was an anti-slavery agitator, who fought for the rights of black people. This fact made him and his family almost enemy-like in the after-Civil-war Jefferson. Both her grandfather Calvin and father Nathaniel spend their youth with many years of wandering, before they married dark skinned women, one a Huguenot descendant, the other Mexican-Spanish. For Calvin and Nathaniel there was never a sense of a place called home as there is for Joanna, who has never been away from Jefferson for more than six months at a time and who was desperately homesick after this short amount of time. About the fact Joanna says on page 241: “And we were foreigners, strangers, that thought differently from the people whose country we had come into without being asked or wanted. And he [her father] was French, half of him. Enough French to respect anybody's love for the land where he and his people were born and to understand that a man would have to act as the land where he was born had trained him to act” (p. 241).

But not alone the fact that the Burden-family was not originally from the city took its toll on the family’s reputation. Because of his strict Calvinistic religious belief Joanna’s grandfather fought pretty hard for the rights of black people, what made him and his family not only to strangers but also to some kind of enemy for the townspeople. The civil war was still lingering in the past and the subject of black people was a very sensitive topic in the South. In her present Joanna continues her ancestor’s struggle for the emancipation of black people, what made her an outsider in the society of Jefferson as well. Although she has lived in her house since the day she was born, she is still disregarded by the townsfolk, who dismiss her as a Yankee and spinster “crazy on the subject of Negros”.[4] The fight for black people is still based on the religious belief of Joanna’s grandfather and her father. Although throughout the book Joanna doesn’t seem to show a very intense religious belief she still lives like her ancestors told their family for years and years. Her grandfather Calvin for example thought his children to “hate two things. And those things are hell and slaveholders” (182). It is remarkable that his strong religious belief and therefore his fight for black people finally lead to his and his grandson’s death, because former Colonel Sartoris shot both of them "over a question of Negro voting." At the same time, it is quite confusing that Calvin Burden seemed to have been some kind of racist. Like mentioned above it seems to be like a family tradition that the sons in the Burden-family run away from home. Also Joanna's father practiced this and, as he returned to his father years later he brought his new wife with him. In this scene Calvin Burdens racial tendencies are quite recognizable. He greeted his dark-skinned stepdaughter and his grandson with “bewildered outrage”. About his grandson Calvin says on page 186: “Another damn black Burden […] Folks will think I bred to a damn slaver.” The sentence at the beginning could also be read as if in Calvin’s opinion black-skinned people are some kind of burden for mankind. This could be linked to his strong religious belief into the Calvinism, that formed his opinion that black people are “low built because of the weight of the wrath of God, black because of the sin of human bondage staining their blood and flesh. They’ll bleach out now. In a hundred years they will be white folks again.” (186) In the Calvinistic religion it is assumed that sin is in mankind no matter what people do against it. The human race can’t escape its sinfulness, because it lays in its nature. But it is also implied that the sin is equal with the black color, which raises the assumption in Calvin Burden that black people have to be full of sin, which tainted their skin dark. This believe combined with the family’s mission to help black people confuses Joanna about her family’s position in regard to the black people and reflects one of the burdens she carries. The other burden Joanna inherits from her family is the Calvinism belief of the sinfulness of mankind. Her father also shared his father’s Calvinistic belief as well as anti-slavery prejudices. After his years of wandering he returned to Calvin Burden to work on behalf of the freed Negroes. Joanna herself remembered very little about her father as a person, so whatever fanaticism may have been latent in him was truly brought out after the events that lead to his fathers and sons death. He constructed these deaths as God’s will and the curse of Adam expressing themselves in the Southern race problem. So this event left him bereft and embittered and also settled the idea in his thoughts of leaving the South. But he stayed on, but the grieving and outrage in him never settled down, so one day he leads Joanna to the secret burial ground of his slain kin.[5] There he expressed his grim philosophy to the four-year-old Joanna:

Your grandfather and brother are lying there [in their graves], murdered not by one white man but by the curse which God put on a whole race before your grandfather or your brother or me or you were even thought of. A race doomed and cursed to be forever and ever a part of the white race’s doom and curse for its sins […] None can escape it.” (p.190)

This extreme puritanistic statement, the burden of the original Biblical transgression, takes a great tool on Joanna's life and formed her from early childhood on. On the same page it is described how Joanna uses to describe her new feelings towards black people with her fathers word in mind. Born late in the lives of parents already set in ideas and outlook, she was unduly ex-posed to these concepts, unduly "shaped" psychologically.

I seemed to see them [Negros] for the first time not as people, but as a thing, a shadow in which I lived, we lived, all white people, all other people. I thought of all the children coming forever and ever into the world, white, with the black shadow already falling upon them before they draw breath.” (p.190)

This statement expresses all of Joanna's helplessness in the face of the sinfulness of mankind and reveals the great burden she carries thanks to her families believes. She knows that she can’t relieve herself from the curse that God had lain above mankind but at the same time continues her family’s fight for the black emancipation. The shadow makes her helpless and let her feel weighed down although she does everything to relieve some kind of this shadow. The black people are sinful people, but because all of mankind are sinful, Joanna has to help them, because everybody could be born with black skin, god’s sign of the all humans sinfulness. Joanna can’t do anything to relieve herself of the burden her family has left her. The third and last part of her burden is the knowledge that she is the last remaining Burden. The mission of helping the black people was given from father to son like a family tradition, but Joanna hasn’t got children and her half-brother was killed in young years together with her grandfather. Joanna seems to recognize this fact too late. When she meets Joe Christmas she seems to be desperate to give birth to a new Burden, which can continue her work. This fact is seen in the scene, were Joanna believes herself pregnant, although she is already too old to give birth to any children. It is really paradox that Joe Christmas kills her in the end, because he seems to be one of those dark skinned minorities, which she helped all her life and for which she lives in isolation. The only time that Joanna starts some kind of rebellion against her all directing past is at nighttimes. There a rebellious side can be recognized at her and she is able to cut herself lose from the history and religion of her ancestors. When she has sex with Joe Christmas an astonishing symmetry emerges between the two of them. In Joanna, the sense of Joe's difference supplants all awareness of him as a person, reducing itself to three formulas governing three patterns of conduct, all different and contradictory: herself in relation to a Negro in the sexual act; herself in relation to him as the white mistress of a Southern house-hold; and herself in relation to him as an agent for his regeneration.[6] The forces which shaped Christmas are identical with those which shaped Joanna. An irony of history brings the two of them together and leads to the finally mutual destruction between the two of them.[7] Joanna’s own fanaticism, brought to her by her ancestors, finally leads to her murder although she is, at this point, obsessed with the thought that she will be the last one in the Burden-family that could carry on their work for black people. Her talk to Joe of hell and damnation forever and her almost violent insist that he pray with her, leads Joe to murder her. The words that she learned from her father seems to create a delusion for Joe of having surrendered himself to the Almighty and are quite similar to the ones that McEachern told Joe.

III. Reverend Gail Hightower

Reverend Gail Hightower is the third protagonist in “Light in August” that is burdened by his past. He, like Joanna and unlike Joe Christmas, doesn’t create his burden himself, but is burdened with it because of his family’s history and is on the other hand all past and no present. His life, Faulkner reminds us half a dozen times, ended twenty years before it began, with the death of his grandfather. It ended again with his wife's suicide and his expulsion from his church. It is punctuated, when the novel begins, simply by the music from the Wednesday and Sunday evening services and by Byron's visits. These are briefly described in Chapter 3 and more fully developed in Chapter 20, where Faulkner emphasizes Hightower's withdrawal into anomie again. The burden of Gail Hightower is quite similar to the burdens of Joanna, because Hightower also is caught in the memory of his grandfather, but unlike Joanna Hightower just lives in his own imagination of his grandfathers past and is not burdened by any idea of religious heritage.

Reverend Hightower was an only child, born to a fifty-year-old father and an invalid mother. His father had gone to fight in the Civil war, although he never fired his musket, and he always wore a frock cloak rather than an army uniform. It could be said, that Hightower grew up with people who while alive already seemed like ghosts. So Hightower's primary source of joy as a child was listening to the servant tell him stories of his grandfather killing hundreds of Yankee soldiers, although the idea of his father killing even one would make him ill for days. So not the father’s actions in the Civil War, but his grandfathers were Hightower’s beloved stories. These stories made Hightower became oddly obsessed with the Civil War and with his grandfather in general.


[1] Ilse Dusoir Lind, p.310

[2] Ebd.

[3] Harold Hungerford, p. 188

[4] Ilse Dusoir Lind, p.319

[5] Ilse Dusoir Lind , p.322

[6] Ilse Dusoir Lind, p.325

[7] Ilse Dusoir Lind, p. 310

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The Burden of the Past in "Light in August" by William Faulkner
University of Stuttgart
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burden, past, light, august, william, faulkner
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Lisa Speidel (Author), 2013, The Burden of the Past in "Light in August" by William Faulkner, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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