John L. , Jr. Longley has emphasised: “Above all, how can a human so conditioned, so utterly predestined to violence and death ever be called free: free to choose and free to act or not act? Actually this was the dilemma faced throughout his life by Joe Christmas, one of the lead characters in the Novel ‘Light in August’ written by William Faulkner (1932). Throughout the novel, Joe Christmas travels in pursuit of his biracial identity and that lands him in an insurmountable turmoil in which finally he loses himself.
This paper attempts to examine the factors that were responsible for making Joe to arrive at various choices and actions in the course of his life. While detailing the characterization of Joe Christmas, the paper also makes an attempt to show that the behaviour and outcome of Joe’s life was not initiated by his actions but he was predestined to meet with his tragic end through the traverse of his life journey. Light in August’s main protagonist, Joe Christmas is the most mysterious characters in the novel.
Throughout the novel, his thoughts about his belonging to both the black and white worlds make him unsettled and represent him as a confused person about his self. His characterization is done in such a way that it represents a shadowy figure of an angry man, never satisfied about his racial origin. Though Faulkner provides many details of Joe’s life and character over the course of his tale, Christmas still remains a distant, inscrutable figure, closed and elusive (Sparknotes)
The character Joe Christmas remains in the whole story as a man who has lost his identity and is always in the search of am imaginary place to which he thinks he belongs to. He is presented as a person who even has forgotten his name and racial heritage because of his birth to a mixed race parents. Joe Christmas is left to be grown up in orphanage by his grandfather Doc Hines. He has the most of the looks of a white gentleman. As per the critical analysis of Faulkner’s work by Kazin (pp150-152) Joe Christmas has always been a man in pursuit of his identity and tries to find out the kind of the man in him self.
The sole reason for Joe to be in the midst of his identity crisis throughout his life was his grandfather. Being a former preacher, he is a racist mania, whose life was spent in hitting at Negroes and branding them as guilty in the eyes of God and their bound by birth to white men. He killed the ‘Mexican’ circus hand with whom his daughter eloped. After his daughter’s death while giving birth to Joe on a Christmas Eve, he leaves the baby on the steps of an orphanage. He later on takes the job of a janitor in the orphanage just to ensure that his “nigger” grandson should never be allowed to contaminate anyone.
Throughout the story, one can find the obsession about the racial feelings and the presence of the Calvinist obsession of the elect and of the hopeless sinfulness of others. Similar ideologies are found be in existence with both in Joe Christmas’s rigidly doctrinaire foster-father, Calvin McEachern, and also in the mind of Joanna Burden, who turns out to be Joe’s mistress in future. Joanna Burden is a descendant of New Hampshire Puritans. She lives in the South even though she is not in agreement with its ways of living. Brief Description on the Mindset of Joe Christmas:
“Memory believes before knowing remembers. Believes longer than recollects, longer than knowing even wonders” – Faulkner. Most of the Faulkner’s characters represent a bundle of emotions and feelings that is comprised of an inheritance of struggle, pain, humiliation and shame. This pain and humiliation is carried by them as their inseparable legacy and they spend their lives in trying to associate themselves with what they like but fail to do so because of their own feelings. Joe’s early life during the formatting years is filled with abuses and neglect that forms a formidable record of memory.
The power of such memory is more stronger than any literal objective recounting of the events that make up his life. Joe’s life is one which is distinguishably marked with more potent and inescapable history of psychic and physical scars. Such a history of scars had clustered his mind and thinking beyond any rational consideration of other events in his life. He was unable to recollect or wonder about any of the present happenings because of the legacy of the powerful memories of the formative years that are permanently settled in his mind and remained as such without any change.
They were made mainly responsible for his choices and actions, since they had a direct and powerful bearing on his character. Joe is always driven by the influence of these memories filled with the sights and abuses and finally he is made to succumb to those memories. In Faulkner’s world, individuals’ continue to fight against the community society and even their own past. They find their own unstable and fluid senses of identity and their search towards finding the place of their belonging responsible for all their miseries.
. Faulkner characterizes Joe Christmas as a person who has “frenzied, incoherent, and contradictory thoughts of a man who lashes out by choice, driven by an irrational and compulsive need to destroy his own happiness and that of others. Joe’s all-consuming desire for revenge and violence is a bestial, primal, almost nonverbal drive. It resists articulation, easy explication, or the neat and orderly explanations that language is usually able to provide. ” (Sparknotes)