A Very American Power Struggle: The Color of Rape in Light in August

By Bush, Laura L. | The Mississippi Quarterly, Summer 1998 | Go to article overview

A Very American Power Struggle: The Color of Rape in Light in August


Bush, Laura L., The Mississippi Quarterly


ONE OF THE MOST HORRIFIC SEXUAL SCENES OF VIOLENCE against women from William Faulkner's Light in August (1932) occurs when Joe Christmas, after having "despoiled" the "spinster" Joanna Burden for over a year, comes again to her bedroom and brutally rapes her. Recounted through Joe's perspective, the narrative frankly depicts this episode using the discourse of rape. Joe "boldly" enters the house, "mount[s] the stairs," walks through Joanna's bedroom door without knocking, and extinguishes the light. He intends to terrify his victim: "`Now she'll run,'" Joe thinks, "so he sprang forward, toward the door to intercept her."(1) Joanna responds to Joe's aggression not by running, as he expects, but by standing still: "IS]he did not flee," the narrative reads. In fact, "She did not resist at all. It was almost as though she were helping him, with small changes of position of limbs when the ultimate need for help arose" (p. 236). Joanna's seeming assistance momentarily throws this rapist off guard, yet it does not prevent him from continuing the violence. In fact, his victim's passivity appears to fuel Joe's rage because he needs to terrify Joanna, a white woman, to feel power. Joe has been coming through the back door of Joanna's house over a year for food and for sex. This imbalance of power, added to Joe's troubled past with women, compels him to exert masculinist force: "He began to tear at her clothes. He was talking to her, in a tense, hard, low voice: `I'll show you! I'll show the bitch!'" (p. 236).

Limited to Joe's viewpoint, this rape narrative set in the Jim Crow South (circa 1920) prevents readers from knowing much of Joanna's feelings during the episode. Instead, Faulkner's novel requires readers to view, like voyeurs, Joe's brutality from a one-sided, abuser's perspective that disregards Joanna's probable fear, manifested in her prostrate position: "[B]eneath his hands the body might have been the body of a dead woman not yet stiffened. But he did not desist; though his hands were hard and urgent it was with rage alone" (p. 236). Joe's violence ends abruptly when he insists to himself that by forcing Joanna to submit, he has "`made a woman of her at last'" (p. 236).

Unfortunately, this rape scene, which occurs midway in the novel, also comes as no surprise to readers who have followed Joe's escalating equation of sex with violence: as a boy, Joe beats the defenseless "womanshenegro" in the barn where he and four boys gang raped her (p. 156). Then "without warning," as a teenager, he hits his waitress girlfriend Bobbie and begins "calling her his whore" (p. 199). And finally, as a young man, Joe beats an actual prostitute so badly that a policeman thinks she is dead (p. 225). Such repeated incidences of brutality show that Joe's past, added to his ferocity upon Joanna, is an accumulated desire to rape any woman who confuses, frustrates, or insults him (p. 236).

The ferocity directed at Joanna is significant, however, because Joe's rage originates from a power struggle that is both sexual and racial, and that takes place in the already-embattled Jim Crow South. Joe is dark-skinned and could pass as Mexican but identifies himself to Joanna as "black." She is identified as a white woman who feeds Joe at the kitchen table but does not invite him inside the main house. In addition, Joe senses that, as a man, he comes "like a thief" to Joanna's bedroom at night, but during the day, she only talks to him "like a stranger" on the back porch (p. 233). The clandestine nature of their culturally taboo relationship exacerbates this couple's potential for gender/race struggle in the South. Furthermore, since the two have been having a sexual relationship before Joe's attack, Faulkner's text invites readers to view Joanna's passive response to Joe's assault as willing complicity in her own victimization rather than as real paralysis at the hands of a rapist.

What Light in August ultimately illustrates, however, is that Joe Christmas and Joanna Burden are socialized to act out dysfunctional gender and race conflicts. …

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