Joe Christmas: A Critical Analysis of William Faulkner’s Protagonist in Light in August

Seminar Paper, 2003

15 Pages, Grade: 1,3




2. Growing into Isolation
2.1.Search for Identity and Race
2.2. Self-destruction

3.Resignation or Acceptance

4.Release, Religion and Symbolism

5. Presentation of the Character, Language and Speech

6. Connections to Lena Grove and Gail Hightower

7. Conclusion



”...Here I am I am tired I am tired of running of having

to carry my life like it was a basket of eggs...”(Light in August 255)

These are the words of Joe Christmas at the age of thirty-six. They signify tiredness and resignation. Christmas is one of the main characters and a central figure in William Faulkner’s Light in August (LIA).

What causes this state of fatigue? What makes Joe Christmas give up?

This paper deals with several factors that become the trigger for Joe’s obvious resignation. Faulkner created a character who mainly suffers from elements like the race issue, womankind, self-destruction and society. These factors belong to a stirring complex of themes which can hardly be separated. Nevertheless, I will work on them separately in this paper in order to illustrate their connections. In Joe’s case these factors are not only strongly connected, they even cause each other. All his experiences, his behavior and his environment mold Christmas into an outcast from society and push him into isolation. He becomes a kind of third-rate human being who is not able to leave the vicious circle that captures him until he is killed by Percy Grimm.

Christmas embodies a constant struggle for identity which already starts in his early childhood. At the orphanage dark people call him white. On the other hand, white human beings look down on him as a nigger. This period will be dealt with in the following chapter. It introduces most of the topics belonging to Christmas’ fate.

After working on Joe’s tragedy I will concentrate on his Holy Week and his death.

Finally, narrative and thematic aspects such as symbolism, religion, and Joe’s relationship to Lena Grove and Gail Hightower will be examined.

This paper ends with a conclusion about William Faulkner and his protagonist Joe Christmas. Additional information is mainly taken from François Pitavy and James A. Snead.

2. Growing into Isolation

Joseph Christmas is an orphan. His mother dies when he is born. The question about his father’s blood is never answered. Joe’s grandfather, Doc Hines, puts him onto the doorstep of an orphanage. At this point starts the character’s journey through life and turns into an endless series of wandering. Joe receives his surname from the staff because they find him one Christmas eve. On that occasion the staff obviously follows up an old African tradition. Joe is named after the day when he is found like the Negro Friday in Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. I attach high value to this fact. In a certain way, Faulkner already indicates Joe’s alleged black blood and provokes prejudice at this point.

Until the age of five Joe lives at the orphanage growing up among careless people. He is always being watched by his grandfather’s eyes. The old man believes he is watching the devil’s walking seed (LIA 288). At this period Joe already encounters the race issue. He recognizes and accepts that he is different from others. In connection with his difference Christmas quickly commits the term nigger to memory. He also starts to form a negative impression of femininity which will shape all his further relations to women. At the age of five he is adopted by the domineering farmer Simon McEachern and his wife. McEachern is a narrow, harsh and strict Calvinist. He orders his stepson to study the Catechism and frequently punishs Joe with blows each time the boy refuses to comply. At the age of sixteen Christmas runs away. After several experiences that contribute to his alienation he ends up in Jefferson as somebody who does not know who he is. Jefferson is the county seat of Faulkner’s imaginary Yoknapatawpha county. Its society is clearly structured. Everyone knows where he stands, except Joe Christmas. After working at a sawmill he starts bootlegging. Christmas lives in an old nigger cabin (LIA 61) behind the house of the middle-aged Joanna Burden. He lives there together with Joe Brown and sells whisky. Joanna Burden becomes his mistress, and Christmas kills her after a difficult relationship. He escapes for a week and experiences his so-called Holy Week. After these seven days and his refuge from jail he is killed and castrated by the racial fanatic Percy Grimm. Grimm is the one who frees Joe of his hopeless search for identity. The following chapter deals with this search in connection with the race issue.

2.1.Search for Identity and Race

“Christmas’ struggle is a confuse attempt to create a personal identity” (Jenkins 67) One reason for his constant search for identity is probably that Christmas has no family backround. Joe is not mainly shaped by heredity but by his environment. He never had someone who gave him a feeling of belonging. He believes that his mind is black because others believe it. He rejects everything that means a threat to his identity. It seems to be important to find out whether Christmas’ father is Mexican or part Negro; important to Christmas, to Jefferson society and to the reader of Light in August. William Faulkner clarifies what it means to be black. He points out all negative connotations of the term Negro in the world of white people. He shows us that people need a scapegoat to strengthen their feeling of being superior. To a black custodian at the orphanage Joe says, ”I aint a nigger.” He gets the answer, “You are worse than that. You dont know what you are. And more than that, you wont never know. You’ll live and you’ll die and you wont never know” (LIA 288). The custodian’s words appear unmerciful. Nevertheless, they are not worse than the harsh reality.

At the age of five Joe is supposed to be adopted. His later foster parents talk to the matron of the orphanage, because they want to change his name. Joe says to himself, ”My name aint McEachern. My name is Christmas” (LIA 111). Such

words indicate the beginning of a desperate struggle for identity.

However, it is not solely Joe Christmas who wants to know who he is. It is the society. At the beginning of his life in Jefferson Joe is only known through rumour. No one knows where Christmas is living and what he is actually doing.

Joe is not sure about his race and confronted with a society that strictly divides people into black and white. They construct their own image of him. Jefferson society, whose member treat people in accordance with their racial background, turns Christmas into a scapegoat. He is neither black nor white. Therefore Joe does not fit in Jefferson’s clear structure and poses a threat to his social environment.

Once they even call him a “white nigger” (LIA 259). In the end people are hunting Joe like an animal. The young intellectual young Gavin Stevens tries to explain Joes pattern of behaviour, “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” (LIA 337). Stevens’ analysis appears incredibly narrow-minded. With the help of this analysis Faulkner makes it easy to form an impression of the Jefferson society. He provokes compassion although Joe’s race is not revealed. Neither Joe himself nor the reader ever gets an answer to it.


Excerpt out of 15 pages


Joe Christmas: A Critical Analysis of William Faulkner’s Protagonist in Light in August
Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz  (FASK Germersheim)
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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416 KB
Christmas, Critical, Analysis, William, Faulkner’s, Protagonist, Light, August, Seminar
Quote paper
Dipl.-Übersetzerin Nancy Hadlich (Author), 2003, Joe Christmas: A Critical Analysis of William Faulkner’s Protagonist in Light in August , Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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