Southeast Missouri State University

A Turn on Social Surveillance: Faulkner's Use of Thresholds in Light in August

W. Jason Miller, North Carolina State University

No less than forty-six direct references are made to thresholds in Light in August.  Open and closed windows appear with ropes dangling out of them.  Faulkner gives us doors, gates, fences, portals, stairs, a doorway with a curtain across it, doorsteps, and a broken gate as his characters continually move out windows, past fences, over steps, through doors, and up stairs.  What role do these boundaries play in relation to the moral constraints facing Faulkner’s characters?  Not only do Faulkner’s characters cross thresholds in attempts to gain liberation, readers also observe and pity those who can’t cross.  These physical boundaries serve as a reminder of the invisible constraints placed on these characters by Jefferson society.  Using Michel Foucault’s theory of the panopticon to frame an attentive reading of Faulkner’s use of thresholds in Light in August is one way to effectively bring theory into a classroom discussion of literature.  In this analysis, Faulkner’s use of thresholds will be viewed through the lens of the panopticon to suggest the elaborate powers of surveillance that each of these characters is rebelling against.  Placing these movements within the framework of the theoretical lens of the panopticon reveals an unsuspected turn on social surveillance in regard to the power teachers of American literature possess in observing the society of Jefferson.    

Before teaching Light In August, I introduce Foucault’s concept of the panopticon by first assigning an excerpt from Discipline and Punish.  Foucault uses the image of the panopticon (a circular prison that allows for the constant surveillance of prisoners) to suggest that the lessons of such control have now been applied to society at large, which “make it possible to see constantly and to recognize immediately” to the point where such “[v]isibility is a trap” (554).  He suggests that, where the concept of the spectacle allows for many to see one, a panoptic scheme enables “a small number of people, or even a single individual, the instantaneous view of a great multitude” (561). 

After assigning this excerpt, I begin the following class meeting by asking students this question: When and where do you feel like you’re being watched?  After considering such items as the surveillance cameras at grocery stores, convenient stores, and gas stations, we move on to the legal constraints of always carrying a driver’s license and remaining alert for police cars while driving.  Finally, I turn their attention to the body of knowledge that accumulates in a classroom where teachers oversee students, being sure to remind them that the teachers are being overseen as well via administrative observations and student evaluations.

Once I feel the students have understood the basic ideas, I turn their attention to two diagrams, which I make on the board.  First, I draw a small circle and write the name of a student in the center.  Then I draw a larger circle that completely encompasses the first and write my name in it.  Next, a larger circle surrounds the first two which I label “English Department.”  This diagram seeks to introduce the basic ideas of how I am both observing others and at the same time being overseen.  In an effort to capture the multiplicity of such varying power relationships, my second diagram resembles a wheel with several spokes.  I quickly suggest that each of these spokes represents segments within the three larger areas.  For instance, an older graduate student might occupy one segment in between the groups earlier marked only “student” and “teacher.”  Furthermore, my department would have varying levels of power checks between an assistant dean, dean, instructor, associate professor, and a department head. 

While the diagram of several circles encompassing and containing lesser circles works well with students to introduce this critical apparatus, the image of a wheel with spokes also allows students to understand how such power relations turn within varying contexts.  Using this simple diagram tends to lend itself to speaking of “turns” in power relations.  In other words, my reading of Foucault finds that society creates a multiplicity of segmented categories of power so that individuals experience differing degrees of control based upon where they are.  For example, a high school junior may find themselves in a comfortable position of social power only to have the power usurped when faced with directives from a senior to run faster during football practice.  With any random spin (which can take place continuously throughout even one individual's dialogue), one finds their status continuously elevated “higher” or dropped “lower.”

Crossing Thresholds

Reading Light in August, in terms of how characters cross thresholds, allows students opportunities to “question the way in which we organize symbolic meaning” (Jowise 376).  Often this search for meaning is “not apparent immediately.  It is withheld . . . in the narrative process” (Nielson 801).  For the purposes of this discussion, I follow Herberden Ryan who comments on Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! by suggesting that “the most crucial moments of the story involve the crossing of some thresholds . . .” (295).  That the most important moments in Light in August as well are framed by Faulkner’s well placed thresholds should come as no surprise as “[r]acial division, racial segregation, and the mythologies surrounding it, collectively try to outlaw all interracial . . . cohabitation. . . . Faulkner’s black and white characters . . . live under a body of racial barriers and prohibitions that structure the self-understanding of Yoknapatawpha County” (Snead 152). 

When student readers occupy the role of reader without hesitation, such surveillance unavoidably places them in the role of social observer.  As such, readers, teachers, and classrooms can either join the ranks of Jefferson in observing Faulkner’s characters or step back one circle further to analyze the society of Jefferson itself.  The first perspective places emphasis on the characters and their transgressions while the second perspective interrogates Jefferson’s values.  This duel posture does more than reveal a reader’s attitude: it allows Faulkner the range of power to allow readers to co-create two very different readings.  One is free to either condemn the characters themselves or the society that persecutes them.

Lena Grove, Byron Bunch, and Joe Christmas    

The physical boundaries present in the story symbolize the moral and societal constraints facing Lena, Byron, and Joe.  In Light in August, it appears that “windows, chimneys and back and side doorsᾰlack the prestige of the main entrance and seem better suited for thieves, slaves, abandoned children and other dishonored and anomalous persons” and that “windows are the points of exit and entry for persons of low esteem” (Watkins 17).  Lena Grove attempts to cross the boundaries of her community's morality when she begins to slip out the window with regularity.  Lena’s room has “a window which she learned to open and close again in the dark without making a sound. . . . [s]he had not opened it a dozen times hardly before she discovered that she should not have opened it at all” (5).  Lena Grove’s social destiny appears predetermined.  Her future is before her: “Once she marries Byron she will fulfill her role as wife and mother, and stay put for the rest of her life.  So Lena’s triumph appears to be at best qualified and at worst nonexistentᾰshe is merely postponing the inevitable” (Clarke 407).  Lena runs away from the social stigma attached to being unmarried and pregnant as much as she runs from her destiny.  Lena’s brother “called her a whore,” so “[t]wo weeks later she climbed again through the window” (6).  This time Lena is leaving for good.  Although she may be sincerely deluded into thinking that Lucas is waiting for her, her first priority is to escape the social constraints that will define her as a “whore.”  Lena’s departure is significant because of how it is described.  We read that “[s]he could have departed by the door, by daylight.  Nobody would have stopped her.  Perhaps she knew that.  But she choose to go by night, and through the window” (6).  This nocturnal departure suggests her own understanding of her place in the community.

High school seniors can be asked to track Faulkner’s use of thresholds because they often serve as moments of foreshadowing.  Byron Bunch’s eventual flight from the socially conscious world of Jefferson serves as a typical example.  When Byron comes to visit Hightower at his home, Hightower observes: “Tonight Byron is completely changed.  It shows in his walk, his carriage; leaning forward Hightower says to himself As though he had learned pride, or defiance . . . ‘he has done something.  He has taken a step’” (311).  How is Byron rebelling?  He is prepared to get involved with a woman who is pregnant with a child that is not his own.  In fact he will eventually accompany her and the new born child and leave town for good.  Hightower’s suggestion that Byron “has taken a step” is not coincidental as he later tells Byron: “‘you didn't stumble on the bottom step this time. You have entered this house on a Sunday night, but until now you have never entered it without stumbling on the bottom step, Byron’” (312).  Students reading with an eye towards Byron’s future will wisely ascertain that Byron will eventually flee as a result of the values he’ll soon overstep.

This shift in Byron is one way to apply Foucault’s notion of the panopticon.  In order to collectively consider this principle, we can ask students: How do we as readers become yet another layer in this relationship of power?  The first diagram with ever-widening circles works well to suggest these effects visually.  Here, in Light in August, we could say that Byron is trapped in a first circle, and he is being overseen by a larger second circle that comprises the members of Jefferson, which include Hightower.  However, readers occupy a third and yet larger circle that encompass both these previous circles thereby shifting the power relations so that readers end up judging the community as much as Byron.  As such, this model disarms the power of society usurping its ability to judge.  Hence, teaching Faulkner’s novel within the framework of this theory suggests that this literature displays both a society that judges and the possibility for readers to evaluate that society’s judgments.

Of the approximately forty-six references to thresholds, no less than twenty-seven directly involve Joe Christmas.  We’re told that “Charley found him on the doorstep . . .” (127) as if he came to the world bent on breaking through doors and mounting staircases.  He is carried through the door when Hines steals him from the orphanage: “As they crossed the empty playground his dangling feet swung rhythmically to the man's striding, the unlaced shoes flapping about his ankles.  They reached the iron gates and passed through” (139).  Running from society and its values pushes Joe to cross other thresholds.  Faulkner writes that “he had left by climbing from a window and . . . and he had not yet planned any way of reentering” (189).  As Joe demonstrates that he has no desire to live as an active member of society, he reveals that “living within the human community is terrible” (Fowler 321).    One key passage that demonstrates the power of such a readership builds upon the metaphor of circling.  At one point Joe laments that “‘I have never got outside that circle.  I have never broken out of the ring of what I have already done and cannot ever undo’” (339).  Other readers have found that in Joe’s life “the image of the circle . . . makes its most explicit appearance” (Irwin 62).  Only classroom teachers have the power to free Joe of the burden of surveillance by turning their student’s eyes away from him towards the society that has bound him.  Joe’s burden to flee society can be understood as he “attempts to flee not from racial identityᾰfor that is what he longs forᾰbut from the abstractions of a racist mania which he cannot fully understand” (Jowise 374-375). 

Is there a better way for a character to rebel against a society than to break as many of its moral codes as possible?  Isn’t Faulkner signaling the reader to the fact that his characters are defying such societal standards when he has them cross physical boundaries?  Is there a better way for an author to undermine society's powers of surveillance than to put that society itself under the close observation of others?  One conclusion of this approach to teaching the novel suggests that a careful reading of Faulkner’s use of thresholds within the theoretical framework of the panopticon demonstrates how readers achieve a reversal of power relations that the characters themselves long for and never experience.  With Lena, Byron, and Joe transgressing such boundaries, empowered readers wonder to what extent anyone is adhering to this society's moral standards.  As such, the rules begin to read like mythical norms.  Classroom teachers can ask their students to consider the idea of Jefferson’s standards as mythical norms, which none of the characters ever fully achieve.  Wider applications can then be made to more immediate and contemporary communities that the students find themselves in as well.

Gail Hightower         

The boundary of Gail Hightower’s window is especially significant to extend this discussion even further in a classroom by addressing changes in his life.  At first, Hightower not only accepts the moral punishment the community assigns him, he embraces it.  Near Hightower’s house stands a “sign, which he calls his monument.  It is planted in the corner of the yard, low, facing the street . . . he made the sign with hammer and saw, neatly, and he painted the legend which it bears . . .” (57).  Part of this inscription reads: “Gail Hightower D.D.” (60). The “D.D.” stands for Hightower’s own assessment of himself that he is “Done Damned” (60-61). 

Hightower’s choice to reside within a town that openly condemns him extends the panoptic model’s goals for implementing social power.  As Foucault states, power is extended to its furthest dimensions when those who are under its gaze begin to regulate and subject themselves: “He who is subjected to a field of visibility, and who knows it, assumes responsibility for the constraints of power; he makes them play spontaneously upon himself; he inscribes in himself the power relation in which he simultaneously plays both roles; he becomes the principle of his own subjection” (556).  Hence, subjects of social discipline begin to subject themselves.  As such, Hightower’s true adversary becomes himself.  He is the person from which he must be freed as the powers of panoptic surveillance have turned him into his own oppressor.

Hightower eventually moves away from his self-imposed atonement.  This miraculous change can be understood in regards to two important events.  First, Harvey Gable has suggested the significance of his symbolic horse ride:

Horses (elevation upon the animal) are one of Faulkner’s shorthand symbols . . . . Hightower experiences the heroic elevation of horses for the first time in reality (as opposed to his fantasies) when he rides out to deliver Lena’s baby.  That moment is one of rising above mundane concerns about public opinion in order to act in passion and heroism . . . . [T]his scene of heroic horsemanship immediately precedes . . . the way for his final run off the beaten track. (432)

Where Hightower rides to his own rescue like a horseman straight out of Revelation, Joe Christmas also acts as the savior his name implies.  In Faulkner’s shorthand, Joe is an appropriate savior having already “mounted” ropes and stairs himself.  The second saving moment comes when Hightower is hit over the head by Christmas:

[I]n Roman tradition . . . slaves were freed by the symbolic gesture of a blow to the head . . . . Christmas really does come to Hightower as a kind of Messiah, not so much of the established Christian church but of the life-worshipping idea; that Hightower preaches and Faulkner seems to endorse. (Gable 436)

This double salvation is appropriate for freeing oneself from the gaze of surveillance that contains duel levels of observation.  On the one hand, Hightower must free himself from the subjection he has willingly placed on himself.  On the other hand, he must still respond to the very legitimate and real gaze of his community.  Each of these moments is necessary for him to turn the tide of power relations on these duel fronts.

After riding the horse on his way to delivering Lena’s child, Hightower slowly begins to revel in the world of nature.  He sets out to revisit Lena’s cabin the very next day:  “The walk out to the cabin does not take him as long as the walk home did, even though he goes through the woods where the walking is harder . . . feeling the intermittent sun, the heat, smelling the savage and fecund odor of the earth, the woods, the loud silence” (406).  Such enjoyment beyond the confines of his window suggests his desire to break free from the hegemonic oppression he has imposed upon himself.

When Hightower later contemplates his fate, he is placed before a threshold: “As he sits in the window, leaning forward above his motionless hands, sweat begins to pour from him, springing out like blood, and pouring” (490).  Readers are reminded of the Christian principle that suggests the forgiveness of sins comes with the shedding of blood.  The guilt he has felt has been lifted, and he speaks about it in the past tense: “‘And after all, I have paid.  I have bought my ghost, even though I did pay for it with my life’” (490).  His soul is at peace as he pictures a halo “full of faces . . . not shaped with suffering . . . . They are peaceful as if they have escaped into an apotheosis; his is among them” (491).  It is highly significant that he sees the faces of his wife, “townspeople, members of the congregation which denied him” (491).  One can hardly resist noting that Hightower has shifted the power of gazing as he sits by this window.  Rather than being seen, he is the one doing the seeing.  Moreover, his name becomes highly significant here in suggesting he has truly changed when we note that the key model of panoptic surveillance comes from organizing the cells of prison inmates around the periphery of a central tower.  In fact, Foucault refers to this as “[t]he celebrated, transparent, circular cage, with its high tower powerful and knowing” (557).

More importantly, Hightower’s vision erases the power relations between seen and seeing as this key vision replaces the image of a prison yard with a halo where all the segmented members of society are equally contained within one (and only one) circle.  In this reading, students can find that the key word “apotheosis,” quoted earlier, does not necessarily suggest the idea of Hightower being elevated to a divine rank because secondary definitions of the word can be used instead, which suggest the notion of a “new perfected model.”  Here the focus falls on the image of the halo rather than Hightower himself, and this halo is then a strong revision of the “old imperfect model” of the panopticon and its mode of social surveillance.  Hence, Hightower’s vision of heaven includes even more than forgiveness for himself: it extinguishes the reach of panopticism as it erases the divisions of surveillance.  There are no more boundaries to cross and no more terror of being seen as the forces of Jefferson’s moral constraints have been imaginatively erased.  Hightower believes he can go from being “Done Damned” to seeing the panoptic controls of surveillance “Done Destroyed.”

It is little wonder that at the end of this personal revelation Hightower is closer to the other side of his study’s window than he’s ever been throughout the entirety of the novel.  We see him “Yet, leaning forward in the window, his bandaged head huge and without depth above the twin blobs of his hand upon the ledge” (493).  Although he has only imagined a future moment when he will turn the panoptic wheel in his favor and obliterate its various spokes, we’re reminded that Jefferson’s standards still await him in his immediate future.  Yoknapatawpha County can’t create a new category for their Reverend unless it gives up its old categories.  Regardless of how impossible this could be, Hightower is on his way to effectively breaking the constraints of his self-ordained surveillance lessening the burden that comes with constantly overseeing oneself.  Hightower’s final vision again imagines this world of panoptic surveillance disappearing.  His inner desire to escape its burdens couldn't be any more clear than when he sees a wheel, which “turns on. . . . spins now, fading without progress” (492).  This is the wheel of the panopticon that he has known too well in the world.  He dreams of seeing it fade into oblivion in the next world.

Students can use this theory of panopticism as a lens to opening up their reading of literature.  We might ask ourselves: How many other texts might be read with a critical eye towards turns in social surveillance?  But even more than that, applying this model can become a means for our students to understand their world.  They can begin to see their academic and vocational careers anew.  They can more fully understand the social pressures they feel in trying to meet their own community’s mythic standards and acknowledge their desire to flee to a place where they don’t feel they’re being observed.  The power to reword the forces at work well beyond the realm of literature is another compensation that can be felt by teachers of American literature.


Works Cited

Clarke, Deborah.  “Gender, Race, and Language in Light in August.”  American Literature 61 (October 1989): 398-413.

Faulkner, William.  Light in August.  New York: Vintage Books, 1985. 

Foucault, Michel.  “Discipline and Punish.”  Literary Theory: An Anthology.  Ed. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan.  2nd ed.  Oxford: Blackwell, 2004.  549-566.

Fowler, Doreen.  “Faulkner’s Light in August: A Novel in Black and White.”  Arizona Quarterly 40 (Winter 1984): 305-324.

Gable, Harvey L. Jr.  “Hightower’s Apotheosis in Light in August.”  Mississippi Quarterly 49 (Summer 1996): 425-441.

Irwin, John T.  Doubling and Incest / Repetition and Revenge.  Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1980.

Jowise, Christopher.  “Living Fiction: Redefining the Symbol in Faulkner’s Light in August.”  Mississippi Quarterly 43 (Summer 1990): 367-377.

Nielsen, Paul S.  “Secrets: Ritual and Inheritance in Light in August.”  The Southern Review 26 (Autumn 1990): 801-814.

Ryan, Heberden W.  “Behind Closed Doors: The Unknowable and the Unknowing in Absalom, Absalom!”  Mississippi Quarterly 45 (Summer 1992): 295-313.

Snead, James A.  Light in August and the Rhetoric of Racial Division.”  Faulkner and Race.  Ed. Doreen Fowler and Ann J. Abadie.  UP of Mississippi, 1986.  152-169.

Watkins, Ralph.  “ ‘It was like I was the woman and she was the man:’ Boundaries, Portals, and Pollution in Light in August.”  The Southern Literary Journal 26 (Spring 1994): 11-24.