Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

Faulkner's Theban Saga: Light in August

Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

Faulkner's Theban Saga: Light in August

Article excerpt

In April 1957, during one of the many class conferences in which he participated while writer-in-residence at the University of Virginia, William Faulkner was asked about the Oedipal dimension of Light in August. The student wished to know if, "in working out the situation of Joe Christmas," Faulkner "deliberately [had] in mind a correspondence between his situation and Oedipus ... as [had] recently been brought out in an essay published in the Virginia Quarterly magazine?" Faulkner's reply was, typically, direct and evasive: "No, not deliberately and not consciously," he answered. "That's another matter of the writer reaching back into the lumber room of his memory for whatever he needs to create the character or the situation, and the similarity is there but it was not by deliberate intent. It was by coincidence--not accident but by coincidence." (1)

The difference between "coincidence" and "accident" is subtle and one that myth critics today rarely feel compelled to resolve. In the last twenty years or so, these critics have stopped asking how a particular myth finds its way into a literary work without the author's immediate awareness (leaving to the psychologists theories about the collective unconscious, historical diffusion, or the essential similarity of the human mind everywhere (2)) and have turned to the more pertinent subject of whether the mythic parallel proves coherent, illuminating, and functional. Thus, although Faulkner's reference to "the lumber room" of his memory suggests that he recognized that the Oedipus myth had a special relevance to his vision in Light in August, (3) demonstrating authorial intention remains secondary to the more significant endeavor of revealing that relevance. The primary purpose of this essay is to show that the Oedipus myth provides a basic substructure for his novel and, consequently, enables us to answer many of the questions associated with it, in particular: how are we to view Joe Christmas, how is the novel unified, and what is the meaning of Christmas' death?

That Light in August repeats some of the details of Oedipus' history has, of course, been noted before. (4) John Lewis Longley furnishes the most comprehensive discussion of the parallels in his "Joe Christmas: The Hero in the Modern World," the article referred to by Faulkner interviewer. In establishing the basic Oedipus-Christmas relationship, Longley points out the following. Each man is ominously whisked away as an infant and raised by foster-parents, only to return later to the place where, unknown to him, he was born. Each is directly responsible for his father's death, and each brings "terrible shame, agony, and death" to his real mother (Christmas, in both cases, simply by being born). Christmas is also responsible for the death of an older woman with whom he lives connubially. Like Oedipus, Christmas insists on defining himself and disregards alternative lines of conduct that might be safer but would sidetrack this drive. An old visionary plays a central part in each man's life, convincing the respective communities that the hero is a ritual pollution. Finally, each man meets a horrible ritual end-Oedipus in self-blinding and exile, Christmas in lynching and castration. Longley concludes that, like Oedipus, Christmas has been "saddled with a terrible, inevitable curse. He did not ask for it and does nothing to deserve it; it was all 'decided' before he was born." (5)

Although we might question various points of Longley's account of both Oedipus' and Christmas' stories--especially the idea that neither man does anything to deserve his fate (6)--it delineates the basic parallels between their lives. But Longley indicates only the obvious correspondences and is more interested in using Oedipus as a yardstick for measuring Christmas' tragic heroism than in analyzing how the Oedipus myth directs the action in Light in August. Certainly a great deal remains to be said about the myth's presence in Faulkner's novel. …

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