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Joe Christmas Meets Victor Frankenstein in the Classroom

Christopher Rieger, Southeast Missouri State University

Joe Christmas Meets Victor Frankenstein in the Classroom
Christopher Rieger, Southeast Missouri State University

One of my favorite classes to teach is Writing About Literature, a sophomore-level course designed to introduce English and English Education majors to a variety of critical approaches to literature. The class covers New Criticism, deconstruction, reader response, feminist and gender approaches, queer theory, historical, biographical, and Marxist criticism, as well as several others. It is not a class in theory, though. Rather, it is intended to introduce our majors to these ideas but with an emphasis on practical criticism, how to use these strategies to produce focused, intelligent, and varied interpretations of texts. After spending the first half of the semester learning these various critical strategies in some detail and applying them to short stories and poems, I use the second half of the course to study a couple of novels and practice applying multiple approaches to each one, with the students producing an 8-12-page critical paper on each of the two novels.

Of course, one trick to making this class and those papers work is to find novels that lend themselves to a wide variety of critical approaches. I know that many would claim that any critical approach can be applied to any novel, but let’s face it: in a class that introduces undergraduates to critical schools for the first time, some novels are going to work better than others. I have tried to select novels thatᾰbetween the two of themᾰcan allow students to utilize all of the different approaches that we cover in the first half of the class.

For several semesters in a row, I settled on using Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and William Faulkner’s Light in August. Each is complex enough to invite a variety of critical strategies, and an approach that may not work as well for one of them fits the other more easily. For instance, a biographical approach to Light in August is not one that works well for undergraduates but is an extremely useful approach for Frankenstein. While undergraduates would be hard-pressed to come up with their own race-based critique of Shelley’s novel, Faulkner’s work obviously lends itself very well to that line of inquiry. In short, these and other differences in the two novels were keys for including them together in the same class.

After three semesters of teaching these two novels in this class (and finding that they worked quite well), it gradually dawned on me that, in fact, the books were strangely similar in a surprising number of ways. I was personally struck by the ways in which the books demonstrated how society creates its own “monsters” in order to identify and label that which transgresses the accepted social order. While Joe Christmas and the Creature are hardly blameless victims, they both are also stigmatized as something profoundly “other” by the cultures that consign them to their margins, turning each into powerful symbols of all sorts of barely repressed forces. Discussing this idea with my students, I was surprised at how many other connections we were able to make. For example, I noted that students had separately applied queer theory to analyses of both Joe and Victor, producing strangely similar portraits of confused sexuality.

Subsequently, I asked some students to put their thoughts into writing with only the vague assignment of analyzing how the novels are similar. The results (see below) were surprising and helped to open up new avenues of discussion for both books. While these two works are certainly a fruitful pairing, a similar assignment could work well with other novels as a paper assignment or final exam question. Putting Faulkner in the context of other authors, genres, and/or eras is valuable from both a scholarly and pedagogical perspective. The results from my students that are reprinted in this issue allowed me to see Faulkner’s work in new ways, and they also helped the students to become more aware of fundamental connections among literary works that are all too easily overlooked.


Man on the Run: A Comparison of Victor Frankenstein and Joe Christmas
By Josh de Vries

“There was something definitely rootless about him, as though no town or city was his, no street, no walls, no square of earth his home.”  --Light in August

“Alas! What freedom? such as the peasant enjoys when his family have been massacred before his eyes, his cottage burnt, his lands laid waste, and he is turned adrift, homeless, penniless, and alone, but free.”  --Frankenstein

These two men, existing in entirely different worlds, are grappling with the same issues.  Both pursue a spectral “creature.”  Victor’s creature is quite literal while Joe’s is a hazy idea.  Both have strange relationships with womenᾰnamely Elizabeth Lavenza and Joanna Burdenᾰwho confuse their sexual identity.  Both die unredeemed at the end of lives marked by brutal murder and isolation from society.

Joe Christmas begins his life running.  From the time he is dropped off at the orphanage, he flees from those he does not understand towards an ethereal something, a something Joe does not quite understand, but which he knows he needs.  It sits just out of his reach his whole life, leading him on.  It drives everything he does throughout the novel.  So what is it?  It is a fragmented part of Joe himself with pieces scattered here and there that he is desperate to assemble.  It is his identity.

Throughout Light in August, Joe Christmas’ identity (or lack thereof) is a foreign, spectral conglomeration of abstractions that haunts and taunts him.  He tries to comprehend it in manageable pieces: his racial identity, his sexuality, his religious convictions, and his place in society.  Each person he meets appears to hold a piece of the puzzle, but they only serve to confuse Joe and blur the edges of his identity further.  In the end, these parts wither, never joining together into a cohesive whole.

Far away from Mississippi, in another time and another novel, we meet another man who has found a way to assemble these abstract pieces into something physical.  Mary Shelley creates a character that discovers the means to bestow life.  Victor Frankenstein’s Creatureᾰcobbled together from corpsesᾰshatters Victor’s once harmonious existence; an identity once whole is crushed.  Victor’s ties to society are cut, one by one, by a being that can be seen as a physical manifestation of the dark parts of Victor’s mind.  The Creature removes responsibility by killing those who offered Victor a solid anchor to society.

Joe’s link to society is severed quite early on in his life by rumors of his possible mixed heritage, rumors which follow him life a vengeful ghost throughout his life.  This specter lurks in the back of Joe’s mind and frequently manifests itself as a “thick black pit” (Faulkner 114) or a “black abyss” (261); a striking physical representation of his lack of racial identity.  Joe also associates it, with feminine sexuality.  Later, after he becomes involved with Joanna Burden, it becomes a malevolent force that threatens to drag him into oblivion.

Victor is haunted by the same kind of feminine phantasm.   She first appears to Victor in dream form, appearing to be his adopted cousin/fiancé, Elizabeth, who suddenly decays before his eyes, becoming like the corpse of his dead mother (Shelley 61).  He encounters this image again when he is pressed to construct a female to serve as a mate for the Creature.  Victor complies, but destroys the near-completed corpse before giving her life (145).

Victor fears feminine sexuality.  His fiancé is a woman whom he saw as a sister in his formative years.  She was a “possession” that he felt he should “protect, love and cherish” (44).  In Victor’s mind, he is a “playmate and friend” (51) to Elizabeth, nothing more.  Her death on their wedding night, at the hands of the Creature, conveniently prevents Victor from having to consummate their marriage.  He is able to remain asexual.

Joe’s affair with Joanna Burden confuses his sexuality in much the same manner. Joe describes her “manlike” attitude towards sex and how, at times, it seemed like the gender roles were reversed and he was fulfilling the female half of the relationship (Faulkner 243-235).  Her death at Joe’s hands is a culmination of his fear of what she is doing to him which keeps his sexual identity out of his reach.  The remaining pieces of his identity are lost forever when Joe is ultimately shot to death in Reverend Hightower’s kitchen.  Like Victor, Joe dies sexless. When he is castrated at the hands of Percy Grimm, his corpse is left without any kind of identity, sexual or otherwise.

Though Victor is able to assemble his Creature, he never fully understands it.  In the same way, the concept of Joe’s identity is never realized.  Both men die alone, though surrounded by others.  Their loneliness is the result of their inability to integrate (or in Victor’s case, reintegrate) into their world.  When Victor is hauled aboard Robert Walton’s ship in the arctic, he is already beyond help.  He relates his story and allows others to learn from his mistakes, but he never reconciles with the Creature and never finds peace.  Similarly, when Joe first arrives in Jefferson, his identity is already fragmented.  His experiences at the orphanage, his time with the McEachern family and the doubt surrounding his racial heritage have already damaged him.  It is fitting that, when the novel opens and we enter Jefferson with Lena Grove, Joanna Burden’s house is already on fire.  Joe’s fate is sealed from the first page.  The most that Victor Frankenstein and Joe Christmas can hope to do once all those around them are gone is run and hope that they stumble onto something meaningful along the way.

How the Home Life Impacted Victor Frankenstein and Joe Christmas
By Emily Vines

While Frankenstein and Light in August appear to be two totally unrelated novels, a common thread ties the two together.  The home-life and parent-child relationships are directly responsible for the emotional problems and the actions of both Victor Frankenstein and Joe Christmas.

As Victor Frankenstein relates his story to Walton, he describes a privileged childhood where his parents seemed to exist only to satisfy and entertain his every whim.  They owned several homes, traveled extensively, and seemed to lack for nothing.  Anything they wanted was acquired, even the female child Elizabeth, who was heralded as a “gift” for Victor.  Therefore, it is not surprising that Victor grew up without limitations on his behavior and believing that he was free to engage in any activity that caught his interest.

After the death of his mother, Victor wanted to recreate life, and he set about trying to achieve that goal.  He never considered the moral or ethical aspects of this undertaking, and he certainly never gave thought to what his Creature would look like or how it would function in society.  Once the Creature was a living, breathing being, Victor was repulsed by its appearance and abandoned it.  Nothing in his emotional constitution made him feel as if he were responsible for the life he had created.  The result of his experiment/entertainment is disappointing, and Victor rejects the Creature as if it were an inanimate toy.  The Creature, much like a newborn baby, needed food, housing, warmth, education, and most of all, love. The responsibility for providing these life-sustaining essentials was Victor’s; however, the thought of being accountable for the care of his creation never once entered his mind.

As a result of Victor’s rejection, the creature set out to destroy those Victor loved; but even after he was aware of what was happening, Victor would not take responsibility for his actions.  He would not speak up when Justine was falsely accused of his brother’s murder, and the deaths of William and Elizabeth were directly related to the fact that Victor childishly refused to carry out the demands of his creature.

In Light in August Joe Christmas also suffers emotional problems stemming from his childhood; however, the root of Joe’s problem was neglect and abuse, which resulted in feelings of inadequacy.  Where Victor Frankenstein thought he had everything coming, the only thing Joe expected was a beating.

As a foundling in a Memphis orphanage, Joe spent the first five years of his life as a loner.  The other children did not associate with him, and Joe never expected them to behave any differently.  It seems almost as if he had already accepted the fact that he would never fit in.  Even though there are no specific references to Joe being disciplined at the orphanage, it obviously occurred because he expected to be punished when he was caught hiding in the dietician’s closet.  He expected punishment and felt he deserved it.  When he was adopted, Joe went to a home ruled by an overbearing, rigid disciplinarian.  Unlike Victor’s home, the McEachern home was not a loving, caring place, and Joe was never treated openly as if he were loved, nor did he ever feel as if he truly was a member of a family unit.  The feelings of being alone and not fitting in were not resolved with adoption.

Both Joe and his adoptive mother suffered at the hands of his adoptive father Mr. McEachern; however, Joe bore the repeated beatings because he felt he had them coming.  He knew what he was expected to do and what would happen when he did not fulfill those obligations.  Joe accepted the punishment he received, regardless of how brutal it was.  Feelings of self-worth and pride were not emotions that Joe Christmas recognized.

As an adult, the feelings of not belonging continued to haunt Joe as he drifted along outside the realms of both the white and black society.  Because his psychological identity had not been established as a child, Joe did not know who he was as a person and neither did anyone else with whom he came in contact.  Even Joanna, with whom he had a long-term intimate relationship, did not understand the person who was Joe Christmas.  If she had, she would not have tried to force him into the role of a black man.  Since Joe had never had a place in society, he rejected Joanna’s idea of what his role should be and this difference in opinion led to her murder.

While Victor Frankenstein never accepted responsibility for his actions, Joe had lived a life-time of accepting consequences and he accepted the fact that he would be punished for Joanna’s death.  He even knew that his last-minute decision to break and run would end with his capture.  The most haunting aspect of this story is the final punishment that Joe Christmas received and accepted.

In comparing the behaviors and motivations of these two characters it is obvious that Victor’s doting parents caused his selfish, irresponsible behavior, and Joe’s lonely, abusive childhood resulted in his inability to fit into society.

Shelley’s Frankenstein vs. Faulkner’s Light in August
By Russell Templemire

There are numerous facets of these books which are similar of which I plan to discuss flow and structure specifically. In Frankenstein the story begins with an outside perspective to the main story and then develops towards the story of the main characters of the Creature and Victor Frankenstein. Light in August is very similar because although Lena Grove may be a more prevalent character than Robert Walton, it can easily be stated that Joe Christmas is the overriding major character in the story and that the peripheral characters bring us eventually into his life story.

Another facet of the stories that I find interesting is the fact that they are both constantly moving. I mean the actual physical moving of the characters from one place to another and the restlessness of their antics.  In Frankenstein, Victor is travelling all around Europe and if looked at closely from a mileage perspective, probably stays within about an 800 mile diameter during the story. A great many of the Frankenstein characters have small jaunts, just like the peripheral characters who have much said about them in Faulkner’s story. Comparably, in Light in August the characters, Joe and Lena, travel within about a 600 to 800 mile diameter.

In both books, the main characters settle in for a while and attend to their various activities or maladies. Then in both books, one of the main characters dies (Victor Frankenstein and Joe Christmas), while the other main characters (the Creature and Lena) continue travelling off to destinations a bit farther away.

Yet, another thing to look at is that both Victor and Joe Christmas have serious mental problems. They are both somewhat poor in their social relations with women. Victor could be portrayed as mentally abusive/neglecting of his future wife. One could even say that Victor has a less than healthy attitude towards the treatment of human bodies, albeit dead ones, so he might be classified as physically abusive as well. Joe Christmas is both mentally and physically abusive in his intimate relationships.

Both Victor and Joe Christmas seem to be constantly on massive power trips. They both seem to have connections at least indirectly to religion. Furthermore, they both seem to have problems that extend from religious beliefs, such as the creation of life and/or the creation of mixed race humans.

The problems of creating life that is not normally acceptable in society is also similar in the books. Joe is born into a society that does not readily accept life unless it fits into predetermined racial guidelines. Similarly, when the Creature is created it does not fit into what society has determined as acceptable. 

Finally, I would need to point out that I see one major difference in the main characters of the stories. In Frankenstein the Creature really didn’t ever have any choices which included being accepted and belonging. One is even lead to the idea that if the Creature had been able to find some acceptance in the world then that latter part of the story would have been quite different. One the other hand, Joe Christmas had many opportunities to become a part of both the white community (the McEacherns), black community (he was married to a black woman), and, in the case of Joanna, the mixed community (outcasts). Joe had some instances where he could have become part of the world/community. The creature did not!

Joe Christmas and the Creature
By Cory Troske

In both Frankenstein and Light in August there are great differences and yet also great similarities in particular themes or characters and how they are presented. The most obvious similarity in characters, I believe, is Joe Christmas and the Creature from Frankenstein. Throughout each novel, almost from birth, each of these two characters are shunned from society and isolated for reasons that not even they can properly comprehend at first. They are both treated with violence and disrespect everywhere they go, even if in somewhat different forms. In truth though, the two characters are shunned for one great main reason: their image/race. Because of this, the theme of outsider vs. community runs strongly through each particular novel.

In Frankenstein, for obvious reasons regarding the Creature’s appearance, people are terrified of him whenever he attempts to engage in human communication. Rather than hear what he has to say, they instantly flee and pay no thought at trying to listen to the creature even if he seems well intentioned or tries to help someone (such as with the drowning little girl). Because the Creature is treated with nothing but negative attention, he begins to grow angry and becomes disconnected from society. The same is true for Joe Christmas, who even at a young age receives taunts from other children at the orphanage who somehow pick up on his Negro heritage just from his slightly different appearance.

Just as there seems to be no one who is willing to listen to the creature speak, upon realizing Joe’s true race, the same can be said about him in regard to the townspeople and their thoughts about Joe’s crimes. Faulkner states several times throughout Light in August that it is as if the townspeople automatically want to believe that Joe committed the crimes and murder just so it could reaffirm their beliefs surrounding Negros, how they are actually a violent and deadly race of people that do not deserve any greater or proper respect than they already receive. They have no interest in any reasoning or psychological evaluations of Joe or why he would even commit such acts. The same can be said for Victor Frankenstein in how he reacts to the Creature beginning to murder those close to him. Because of the Creature’s hideous appearance, Victor more or less automatically assumes him to be a disgusting, violent and misguided creation. He does not take into account that the Creature may be far more intelligent than he realizes  and that the Creature may even have valid reason for the deaths of those he had killed (even though he really does not). In this way, Victor is actually not much unlike the townspeople in Light in August. Victor wants to instantly assume the worst of his own creation, which is very ironic, seeing as he himself is the creator.

Joe and the Creature are also similar in that they spend the majority of their lives trying to find out exactly who or what they are and ultimately fail. Each character has a “tragic” ending of sorts and at the end of both novels, even if they are slightly inverted from one another. Joe is brutally killed without a proper or un-biased trial, and the Creature watches his own creator die due to the failure to communicate and ever properly understand one another. The townspeople are too blind to believe Joe Christmas to possibly be innocent or a good man at heart, just as Victor was too blind to actually listen and accept his own creation as an equal. Even when Victor finally agrees to listen to his creation, it is a half-hearted effort.

It is also very tragic that both Joe and the Creature fell into the line of trouble that each did as they probably would have grown to be much better “men” free of any committed crimes, had someone actually taken the time to reach out and listen to them. Joe receives some help from Ms. Burden and perhaps a select few others, but it never seems to be the right help. While Ms. Burden is probably the only character in Light in August who truly tries to reach out and help Joe, he is so paranoid of others and has become so brainwashed at that point that he does not believe her calls of help to be beneficial or kind. In fact, he comments several times that women (primarily his old foster mother) simply complicate things by trying to make certain situations seem more emotional than they actually may be. The Creature has a somewhat similar case, although it does not specifically revolve around a woman as much. The Creature eventually reaches a point where he has become fed up with his failed attempts at reaching out to others and begins a violent chain of murders in order to take vengeance upon Victor. If Victor had taken more time to speak with the Creature and understand him, then many lives could have been saved. In this way their tragedies are “inverted”. Joe receives help too late, while the Creature never receives any real help at all. When the time comes that someone may actually listen to the Creature or Joe, it is already too late.

Both the Creature and Joe Christmas as characters outline perfectly how we shun certain people from society for foolish reasons without taking the time to listen to them or understand them. Though both the Creature and Joe are very different in terms of appearance and where they come from, their tales are not too far removed from one another. In our current society, we often shun others and cast them aside as “outsiders” simply for their beliefs or appearance even if it is not quite to the degree it used to be. It is an issue that has carried on for centuries and is one of the greatest tragedies of all.

Faulkner and Shelley’s Psychologically Wounded Characters
By Sara Flieg

Mary Shelley and William Faulkner are two very interesting and unique authors.  I thoroughly enjoyed reading both Light in August and Frankenstein.  While reading Frankenstein, I could not imagine any other novel being similar.  Then, I had the opportunity to read Light in August and began to notice some striking similarities between two characters in the novels.  In the remainder of this paper, I will explain how Mary Shelley’s character the Creature and William Faulkner’s character Joe Christmas were both psychologically doomed from the very beginning of their lives.

There is no doubt in my mind that a child must have a healthy relationship with his or her parents to be strong psychologically.  However, there are some exceptions to the previous statement.  In few cases, those who grow up without parents do not seem to be affected psychologically and lead an ordinary, happy life.  Thankfully, Shelley and Faulkner do not make their psychologically harmed characters live happily ever after.  Having Christmas and the Creature living happily ever after would be boring and very unlikely given their situations.  I enjoy the fact that Joe Christmas and the Creature act the way they do.  Why would Christmas and the Creature be expected to act in any other way than the way they did?  They had no guidance.

Since Joe Christmas and the Creature did not have guidance, they tended to do horrible things.  I blame the horrible things that Joe Christmas and the Creature did on the fact that they did not have a family or others who loved them.  Before Joe was born, his grandfather killed Joe’s father because he was an African American man.  During Joe’s birth, his grandfather did not call a doctor to aid Joe’s dying mother.  Instead of calling a doctor, Joe’s grandfather let Milly die.  Although Joe Christmas was too young to remember the incident, he was surely affected psychologically.  Shortly after Joe’s birth he was taken to an orphanage and left there by his grandfather.  Joe grew up in the orphanage and never knew his family.  He was taken home by a foster family, but was treated poorly there and seemed to grow a thick skin.

Joe was neither black nor white, was frequently abused, and was not exactly accepted by the people in his community.  Since Joe was not accepted, he seemed to react wildly and question anyone who seemed to care for him.  Perhaps Joe was curious and almost paranoid when someone showed him compassion because he was not used to the feeling of someone caring for him.  Joe seemed to react irrationally, especially in the moment he killed Joanna Burden.  After murdering Joanna, Joe showed no remorse. Joe was never shown love or emotion; therefore, he lacked the ability to portray those traits.  I do not agree that Joe should have killed and hurt others just because his family did not love him; I think he was damaged psychologically because of the betrayal of his family and had the potential to act badly.

The Creature in Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein faced adversity similar to that of Joe Christmas in Light in August.  The Creature was not born of biological descent; the Creature was formed from decaying body parts of dead people.  Almost initially after bringing the Creature to life, Victor seemed to regret his decision.  Victor acts as a young parent might.  After the Creature is alive, Victor does not want to take any responsibility and flees from the Creature.  The Creature would have reason to feel rejected and betrayed.  After all, Victor is the first person the Creature saw after coming to life and has a connection with him.  Throughout the novel, Victor ignores and flees from the Creature.  Much like Joe Christmas, the Creature does not have a family or anyone who seems to care for him.  As a result of not being accepted the Creature commits murder.

Mary Shelley and William Faulkner both created interesting characters in Light in August and Frankenstein.  There are many other examples of how Joe Christmas and the Creature of Frankenstein are similar.  The most striking similarity between Joe Christmas and the Creature is the fact that they were both betrayed by their families.  As a result of the betrayal at the hands of their family, Joe Christmas and the Creature reacted by murdering and hurting others.  Joe and the Creature did not allow themselves to be in love or loved by others because they were afraid to feel things that they were not accustomed to.  In the end of both novels, Joe and the Creature just want to die.  Perhaps Joe and the Creature want to die so they no longer have to live their miserable lives filled with hate and betrayal.

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