Faulkner's Distorted Crucifix: Wood Imagery in Light in August
Allen Frye, College of Charleston
It is difficult, nearly impossible, to interpret Light in August without noting the Christian parallels.1 Beekman Cottrell explains:
As if for proof that such a [Christian] symbolic interpretation is valid, Faulkner gives us, on the outer or upper level of symbolism, certain facts which many readers have noted and which are, indeed, inescapable. There is the name of Joe Christmas, with its initials of JC. There is the fact of his uncertain paternity and his appearance at the orphanage on Christmas day. Joe is approximately thirty-three years of age at his lynching, and this event is prepared for throughout the novel by Faulkner's constant use of the word crucifixion. These are firm guideposts, and there are perhaps others as convincing. (207)
In fact, there are many more convincing Christian symbolisms, which, in sum, have led to Virginia Hlavsa's suggestion that in Light in August "Faulkner arranged his events and directed his themes to parallel the 21 chapters of the St.John Gospel" ("St.John and Frazer" 11).2
These symbolisms, however, stray from the text of Light in August and seek to unify the novel through biblical or mythic allusions alone. They attempt to answer the questions of how Light in August functions as a work of literature by avoiding the novel itself. Because of this, they each fall short of being a definitive interpretation of the novel. In Francois Pitavy's view, these critics do not base their interpretations on "methodical analysis." They do not "study each chapter or group of chapters to see how and why the spatial and temporal breaks occur" (2). Faulkner's use of Christian myths in Light in August has produced jagged paths for critics to stroll, their backs to the text, inviting what Brooks has called "symbol mongering" (6).
Still, if only because of their sheer number, the Christian parallels cannot be ignored and must function for some firm purpose if we believe Faulkner to be a worthwhile artist. Upon perusal of the Christian parallels, they do, in fact, lead to a discrepancy worthy of exploring that, as yet, has been seldom noted. If Light in August has enough surface parallels to warrant the claim of a direct parallel in both theme and action to the Gospel of John, then where, in Light in August, is the crucifix, the most important symbol of Christianity?3 Faulkner himself would not have been one to leave out such a significant "tool" in his writing. The "mythical method" which he employed assumes not leaving out important symbols or giving them only small mention, but using them, distorting them even.
And it is distortion which dominates most of Faulkner's techniques: differing narrations in Absalom, Absalom!, narrative structure in The Sound and the Fury, especially Benjy's awkward section. Furthermore, distortion of literary allusions and myths was a significant part of the Modernist period out of which Faulkner wrote. One thinks of Eliot's "The Waste Land" with its complicated use of allusion and Joyce's Ulysses distorting the mythic figure's adventures. Faulkner even liked to play within other literary ballparks as well: "both he and Joyce thought of themselves first as poets, for they both loved to write under the constraints of form and with the freedom of word play" (Hlavsa, "The Mirror"" 26). The question, then, could be better phrased: how is the symbol of the cross distorted in Light in August ?
Faulkner may have been giving us a clue to the way in which he distorted the crucifix in Light in August when he responded to a student at the University of Virginia who directly asked if Faulkner designed any Christ symbolism for the Joe Christmas character. Faulkner altered his typical "carpenter searching for a tool"4 metaphor and commented:
No, that's a matter of reaching into the lumber room to get out something which seems to the writer the most effective way to tell what he is trying to tell. And that comes back to the notion that there are so few plots to use that sooner or later any writer is going to use something that has been used. And that Christ story is one of the best stories that man has invented, assuming that he did invent that story, and of course it will recur. Everyone that has had the story of Christ and the Passion as a part of his Christian background will in time draw from that. There was no deliberate intent to repeat it. That the people to me come first. The symbolism comes second. (Gwynn and Blotner 117)
Faulkner's comment about "the lumber room" appears conspicuous regarding a novel which contains several wood mills. There is Doane's Mill, and at the planing mill in Jefferson, Lena asks Byron Bunch, "Is there another planing mill?" Byron replies, "No, ma'am. There's some sawmills, a right smart of them, though" (44). Ironically, Faulkner answered the question negatively; he did not intend any Christ symbolism, yet may have been alerting his audience to the way in which he used crucifix imagery from the Gospel. Faulkner identifies Christmas in the above explanation with wood, the sawmill, and the parallel is respective throughout the novel. Christ, of course, is also identified with the wooden manger and cross. Faulkner would not have needed to stray very far from the truth to give the appearance of distorting the imagery presented in the Gospel. Hlavsa has noted, "Biblical scholars say that unlike contemporary representations of the road to Calvary, Jesus probably carried only the crosspiece, a post, which was then affixed to a stationary post" ("The Crucifixion" 129). To distort the myth, Faulkner had only, really, to present the cross as most agree it would have appeared, as a post or post-like object. Other writers, like Cottrell (208), have suggested this, but have not examined it.
Repeatedly, images and comparisons foreshadow Christmas' crucifixion by alluding to Christ's "post." Christmas sleeps by a spring, his back to a tree, and he rises, "stretching his cramped and stiffened back, waking his tingling muscles" (96). Later, Christmas walks through the streets of Jefferson, looking "more lonely than a lone telephone pole in the middle of a desert" (99). When chapter 5 closes, Christmas is again sitting with his back to a tree. "When he heard eleven strike tonight he was sitting with his back against a tree inside the broken gate" (103). These post images identify Christmas with the post which Christ carried to Calvary.
Even when the narration takes us into Christmas' past, chapter 6, there is the suggestion of posts with the "yearly adjacent chimneys streaked like black tears" (104). Christmas' relationship with McEachem further emphasizes the importance of the imagery. When McEachem checks to see if Joe has learned his catechism, McEachem "found that the boy was clinging to [the catechism book] as if it were a rope or post. When McEachem took the book forcibly from his hands, the boy fell at full length to the floor and did not move again" (132-133). Post imagery is scattered throughout the remainder of Christmas' section with explicit comparisons in places. Christmas' "body might have been wood or stone; a post or tower. . ." (I 40). Joanna Burden leaves notes for Christmas in a "hollow fence post below the rotting stable" (226). Christmas escapes from the congregation who calls him "Satan himself!" (282) by wielding a bench leg, a post-like object.
It is fairly easy to see that the post imagery surrounding Christmas distorts Christ's cross in some way and foreshadows Christmas' death, but it seems as if Faulkner's distortion of the cross did not stop there. Other characters are also defined by their relation to wooden imagery: Lena Grove with trees, Gail Hightower with his wooden sign, and Byron Bunch with the planing mill. Subsequently, these characters' relationships to wood also suggest their relationship to the New Testament, to the cross.
Lena's last name, Grove, identifies her both with trees and life. The wood from the trees in the grove connects her to the crucifixion imagery, yet a grove of trees has positive connotations: life, peace, quaint order. The fact that she is pregnant further identifies her with life. The peace and life which are suggested by her wooden name clearly relate her to the New Testament where life is emphasized through the story of the rise of man.
Gail Hightower, unlike Lena, cannot be as clearly related to either the Old or New Testament. The meticulous description of Hightower's sign draws attention to itself and is a symbol for his position between the Old and New Testament. He refers to the sign as his "monument":
It is planted in the corner of the yard, low, facing the street. It is three feet long and eighteen inches high - a neat oblong presenting its face to who passes and its back to him. But he does not need to read it because he made the sign with hammer and saw, neatly, and he painted the legend which it bears, neatly too, tediously .... (49)
Although Hightower himself forgets the sign until he sits by his study window, the narration points out that the sign is still "a sign, a message" (51). Hightower's sign is made of wood, signifying his crucifixion of sorts, his spiritual death. He built the sign when he lost his church. Hightower is nearer to Christmas in this sense than perhaps any of the other characters. Ironically, however, Hightower is not even a Christ figure. Rather, he resembles an Old Testament figure more than a New Testament figure. The description of the sign continues:
At night, when the street lamp shone upon it, the letters glittered with an effect as of Christmas:
Rev. Gail Hightower, D.D.
Handpainted Xmas & Anniversary Cards
Photographs Developed. (50)
Hightower is clearly not a part of the New Testament holiday. The metaphor Faulkner uses to suggest Hightower's relation to the New Testament is a loose one at best. The wordiness of "with an effect as of'" presents a strained comparison, one which calls the metaphor into question more than a simple glittered like Christmas would. When we see that Hightower does not even spell Christmas on his own sign, his relation to the New Testament holiday is further questionable. Hightower's wooden sign epitomizes his relation between the Old and New Testaments. He appears to be a New Testament figure, but in reality he is not.
He realizes this himself in chapter 20 where the narrator explains Hightower's past. Hightower sees himself as "a charlatan preaching worse than heresy, in utter disregard of that whose very stage he preempted, offering instead of the crucified shape of pity and love, a swaggering and unchastened bravo killed with a shotgun in a peaceful henhouse... " (428). Hightower preaches the world of his grandfather to his church, the Old Testament world of war, death, honor, "bravo." His wooden sign is the symbol of his separation from the New Testament, the world of the Christmas story which he cannot even spell on his sign. He is even seen as the figure of Satan when his picture is taken behind the hymn book (59).
The wood of the sawmill where Byron is introduced in chapter 2 defines Byron's place between the New and Old Testament. The planing mill and its workers belong to the world which will crucify Christmas, an Old Testament world. Having a planing mill in a story where a crucifixion is emphasized through post imagery is perhaps enough to foreshadow a crucifixion, but Faulkner makes the suggestion explicit when "a truck loaded with logs" (43) drives into the planing mill, subtly emphasizing the post imagery which threads Christmas' narrative. Clearly, the mill reflects the world which will crucify Joe Christmas. It is fitting, then, that the mill workers cannot see the importance of Joe Christmas' name, as those who crucified Christ also failed to see his significance. The narration points out, "none of [the workers] had sense enough to recognize" Christmas' name as significant (29). Byron, however, sees that "there was something in the sound of [the name] that was trying to tell them what to expect; that he carried with him his own inescapable warning, like a flower its scent or a rattlesnake its rattle" (29). Thus Byron is set apart from the Old Testament world of the mill and the workers in the setting of the planing mill, a locale scattered with wooden suggestions of a crucifixion.
While Byron is clearly not a part of the Old Testament, he is also not a part of the New. When Lena and Byron meet, Byron's place between the Old and New Testament worlds is emphasized through wood imagery. Byron notices that Lena is "moving toward a low stack of planks" while she talks (45). "Wait," Byron exclaims as if the planks would fall on Lena, drawing our attention to the scene. Instead of preventing the planks from falling, however, Byron, "almost springs forward, slipping the sack pad from his shoulder. [Lena] arrests herself in the act of sitting and Byron spreads the sack on the planks. 'You'll set easier'" (45). Through his pad, Byron is metaphorically between Lena's New Testament world and the Old Testament world of the planing mill, and it is wood imagery which illuminates this.
The last chapter of the novel concludes its use of wood imagery. Lena, who has not been a part of Christmas' wooden world, now rides with a furniture repairman, a wooden repairman. The shift to the repairman's point of view, a conspicuous shift at the end of a novel, perhaps suggests that the narration will "repair" or conclude Christmas' crucifixion. And indeed, Lena's and Christmas' stories come together through the wood imagery. Lena looks out from the truck, "watching the telephone poles and the fences passing like it was a circus parade" (444). Christmas has already been referred to as looking "more lonely than a lone telephone pole in the middle of the desert" (99). Typically, Lena's narration does not call attention to poles, planks, or posts of any kind. It is only after Christmas is dead that Lena notices the cross-like images. This would seem to suggest not only that she is perhaps a Virgin Mary figure carrying a Christ figure inside her, but also that she herself is the resurrected "life" after Christ's (Christmas') crucifixion. It seems highly possible in a novel which so skillfully distorts the Crucifix that the process of Christ's death and resurrection could also be distorted. Ironically, however, Lena (life) exists simultaneously with Christmas (death), but never meets him because within the context of the New Testament resurrection comes only after death. In turn, Lena and Christmas never meet because it would be illogical for the Virgin Mary figure to meet her baby while she is carrying her baby. The emphasis at the end of the novel (and the beginning) is undoubtedly on life, suggesting through Lena's attention paid to passing telephone poles that life exists and continues while Christ figures are crucified.
The narratives of Lena Grove and Joe Christmas appear to be separate because of what the characters represent. Their symbolic selves keep them apart. Likewise, the connection which Gail Hightower and Byron Bunch have with other characters also appears to be controlled by what they represent. The wood imagery shows how Hightower and Byron are caught (each in a different degree) between the Old and New Testament. Thus it is fitting that these two are friends and interact with Joe Christmas, Lena Grove, and others. All of these characters' narrations, which can appear disjointed, are, in fact, connected through the distorted image of the wooden cross. Light in August functions as a fluid novel through structured distortion of the Gospels.
- For a more detailed account of the ideas presented in this essay, see William Frye, "Mythic Imagery in Absalom, Absalom!, The Sound and the Fury, and Light in August: Faulkner's Structural Motifs."
- Hlavsa has rewritten this thesis in three different essays with varying slants in each. See "St. John and Frazer in Light in August: Biblical and Mythic Function...... The Mirror, the Lamp, and the Bed: Faulkner and the Modernists," and "The Crucifixion in Light in August: Suspending the Rules at the Post."
- The closest Faulkner comes to mentioning a literal crucifix is when Joanna Burden explains to Christmas, "I thought of all the children coming forever and ever into the world, white, with the black shadow already falling upon them before they drew breath. And I seemed to see the black shadow in the shape of a cross" (221). Even here, the "cross" is still only the figurative aspect of a metaphor. Faulkner repeatedly used this metaphor. He has said, "The horse [in A Fable] was simply a tool" (Gwynn and Blotner 63). Of the dates in The Sound and the Fury, he said, "Now there's a matter of hunting around in the carpenter's shop to find a tool that will make a better chicken-house" (Gwynn and Blower 68). Faulkner said that the Christian allegory in A Fable provides the "same advantage the carpenter finds in building square corners to build a square house" (Meriwether and Millgate 246).
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