In the central scene of William Faulkner’s Light in August (1932), Joe Christmas, wandering through the woods one week after the death of Joanna Burden, feels a strange sense of serenity. Though temporary, this is a release from the racial and sexual oppression that he has suffered throughout his life:
I would like to emphasize that Faulkner describes Joe’s serene state of mind using the seeming tautology of “the neutral grayness.” The phrase acquires thematic significance due to the contrast between “the black shoes smelling of negro” and “white men.” This racial dichotomy enables us to associate neutrality with the problems of Joe’s ambiguous identity. This color of twilight, neither white nor black, foreshadows the indeterminacy of his racial identity in the eyes of the townsmen in Mottstown; it is just after this episode that it is said that “[Joe] never acted like either a nigger or a white man” (350).
But this neutrality does not simply represent the problems of race in Joe’s life. The following passage in the manuscript of Light in August reveals that Faulkner had earlier described Joe’s newfound serenity in terms of gender as well:
Except for Faulkner’s deletion of this passage, the manuscript version of Joe’s walk in the woods differs little from that in the published text. In both texts, Faulkner begins this episode by writing “neutral grayness” in the present tense, then returns to the past tense to describe the process by which Joe achieves this serenity, repeating the passage, “It is just dawn, daylight” (331-35; HM 128-30); after the omitted passage, there are no revisions of note (335-39; HM 130-31). 2 Regina Fadiman points to this omission in her comprehensive study of the manuscripts of Light in August (50), but does not explain how or why Faulkner revised this passage, replacing it with the description of Joe’s failure to shave his face. The revised scene will be examined in more detail below; for now I simply wish to point out the fact that Faulkner finally deleted the phrase “the mind of neither man nor woman” from the description of Joe’s serenity in the twilight of “neutral grayness.” Yet, this did not necessarily result in the erasure of gender as an element in Joe’s “neutral” state of mind. On the contrary, I would argue, the revision of the passage can be interpreted as an attempt by Faulkner to elaborate upon Joe’s manhood.
Recent developments in gender studies have led many critics to consider the problems of masculinity in Faulkner’s works, including Light in August.3 With this in mind, I would like to clarify the relationship between gender and revision in Light in August by developing Fadiman’s study of Faulkner’s revisions of the manuscript. In comparison with her oft-quoted statement that Faulkner changed the status of Joe’s racial origins from fact to conjecture during the writing of the manuscript, critical attention has not been paid to her observation about revisions to Joe and his manhood. According to Fadiman, as Faulkner rewrote Joe’s past over and over again, “his desire seems to have been to show how Joe Christmas became a man. … From Chapter 7 through 9, the narrator of the manuscript announces on five separate occasions that Joe achieves manhood” (78). Some of these descriptions were deleted from the accomplished work, but Joe clearly feels the need to prove his manhood, as is exemplified in his belief that “on this day I became a man” (146). This enables us to think that Faulkner must have been conscious, not only of Joe’s racial identity, but also of issues of manhood when he worked on the manuscript. I would like to posit that Faulkner was also concerned about Joe’s manhood in the final version of the scene in which his “neutral” state of mind is described, and so explain its significance in terms of race and gender.
Let us examine Joe’s serenity in the “neutral grayness” by first viewing the thematic problems of his racial identity in the novel as a whole. Wearing “the black shoes smelling of negro,” Joe imagines being hunted by “white men” into “the black abyss” before he reaches his tranquil state of mind. This vision epitomizes the relationship between Joe and the community; he had been perceived as a mysterious foreigner by the townspeople since his arrival at Jefferson, but is finally hunted and killed as a black rapist murderer without any definite evidence of his racial blackness. This is characterized by the townsman’s comment that he acts neither like neither “a nigger” nor “a white man.” We shall later discuss in detail how Joe has come to embody this racial neutrality, but for now I would like to emphasize his apparent change in the eyes of the townspeople: the reaction to this ambiguity is violent, resulting in a blow to Joe’s face and the comment that he acted “like the nigger for the first time” (350). This description implies that the white man’s strike contains the disturbance caused by Joe’s subversion of racial categories. In a sense this violence foreshadows Joe’s death, for it is as a Negro that he is finally forced to die by Percy Grimm, an atrocious executioner who is representative of the white townsmen. In this sense, Light in August can be considered as a story about the reinforcement of racial categorization in the Southern white male community.
To put it another way, this plot enables us to think that Joe provokes the violent reaction of the community by subverting racial frames of reference. In a sense Joe can be read as a questioning of the possibility of categorization, for his racial identity cannot be determined in this novel due to his ambiguous origins. This indeterminacy, however, offers no satisfactory explanation for the psychological aspects of Joe’s racial neutrality. It is just after wandering through the wood that he appears as neither a white nor a Negro, but he has been tormented by his indeterminate identity for about thirty years. Born and raised in the South, Joe has so intensely internalized the cultural imperative of biracial identification that his unknowable origins become a crucial source of his self-alienation. When as a little child Joe calls the black servant in the orphanage “nigger,” the servant makes a riposte to the derogatory remark as follows: “You’re worse than that. You dont know what you are. And more than that, you wont never know” (384). In fact, Joe is prevented from identifying himself as a white because of his alleged black blood, but because his body and mind are so strongly disciplined as a white that he is also denied black identity:
This internal conflict allows us to think that “Christmas is a walking oxymoron and its negation: both white and black, and neither” (Bleikasten 316 his italic). The self-negation that results from strict racial dichotomy contrasts negatively with Joe’s serenity in the gray twilight. We may attribute this tranquility to his release from the internal conflict of incompatible racial categories. But we should note the Southerner’s deep-rooted belief that Negro refers to all non-whites: black people and people of mixed blood. The “grayness” may be a metaphor for Joe’s supposed racial hybridity in any place other than the South; to put it another way, it is only the adjective “neutral” that allows gray to signify anything other than Negro in the cultural context, allowing us to think that Joe transcends the limits of Southern racial binarism. The serene twilight of “neutral grayness,” in short, represents Joe’s reconciliation with his own racial ambiguity after a long period of suffering from social alienation and self-negation.
Thus the sudden appearance of Joe’s “neutral” serenity during the description of his flight from white pursuers leads the reader to wonder what has happened to him. After suddenly beginning this scene in the present tense, Faulkner uses the past tense to tell the reader how Joe has reached the serene state of mind: first, Joe loses the ability to distinguish day from night; second, he ceases to feel hungry; third, he feels no need for sleeping; and finally he falls into a coma. These gradual changes of Joe’s body, which are a portent of the mortal danger ahead, transfer the meaning of a metaphoric death to his serenity. This process of acquiring serenity is worth careful consideration because it has been interpreted as a fatalistic acceptance of racial blackness. Certainly, the fate awaiting Joe can be regarded as capital punishment for killing a white woman as a “Negro.” Yet we should note the distinction between the townsmen’s desire and the inner workings of Joe’s mind; it is the white men who want and try to make Joe “Negro,” but what does Joe think about his own fate? The answer cannot be found in the description of Joe’s mysterious flight and death in Chapter 19. We cannot penetrate into the interior of Joe’s mind since the third person narrator of this chapter only shows Joe’s actions through the viewpoint of Grimm. The narrator’s withholding of Joe’s secret motive for his escape thus prevents us from deciding whether or not his death signifies a willing acceptance of racial identity as “Negro.” There is no space to discuss this climatic scene further, but a problem remains even if we narrow our critical focus to the episode in the wood in Chapter 14, in which the narrator describes Joe as the center of consciousness. Some critics deduce Joe’s acceptance of both death and blackness only from the fact that, during his flight, Joe refers to himself as the black people’s “brother” (Fadiman 132-33; Ruppersburg 193). But, in my opinion, their argument is unsatisfactory, not only because the way Joe assumes this brotherhood is disregarded, but also because his seeming identification with racial blackness turns into a subversion, rather than mere acceptance, of the imposed category of “Negro.” 4
Joe’s thoughts about black brotherhood appear in the final sentence of the paragraph describing his ravenous hunger and its disappearance. At first, he not only eats rotten fruits and steals corn from the field but also searches within his memory for food. It is noteworthy that Joe remembers the food in the kitchen of Joanna’s house, for this episode brings into relief the relationship between Joe’s racial consciousness and femininity. At that time, Joe thinks that the dishes Joanna has prepared are “set out for the nigger” (238) due to her denial of access to her house except through the backdoor; the only entrance allowed to Joe is that for “Negro.” Joe feels that “it was like insult” (237) not simply because he also internalizes social codes of racial discrimination, but also because – it should be noted – he expresses the utmost revulsion for Joanna’s food by hurling it against the wall and referring to it as “[w]oman’s muck” (238). Through food an association is made between racism and Joe’s deep-rooted misogyny. “To eat, for Christmas, is to submit to the needs of the body and to acknowledge dependency upon woman” (Bleikasten 292). In fact, Joe’s subjection to the need for food is described as inevitable humiliation when he cannot help eating the dishes served by his adoptive mother Mrs. McEachern; once, after stubbornly rejecting it, Joe kneels down to eat it “like a savage, like a dog” (155). 5
More important is the fact that this episode follows Joe’s defiance of his adoptive father’s teaching of the catechism, for it illustrates the close link between Joe’s rejection of femininity and the achievement of manhood (in fact, we may assume that Joe himself remembers this episode as the day on which he “became a man”). According to Jay Watson (154-56), the exclusion of what Joe consider feminine concurs with his stylization of masculinity through the repetitive imitation of other men. This process is exemplified in the striking similarity between Joe’s recalcitrance and McEachern’s bigotry in the eyes of their rejected adoptive mother and wife: “There was a very kinship of stubbornness like a transmitted resemblance in their backs” (LIA 148). This manner of establishing manhood confirms the extent of his revulsion to the proffered food in Joanna’s kitchen because femininity goes hand in hand with blackness. In this novel, as Thadious M. Davis points out (139), women are closely associated with racial blackness in such conspicuous phrases as “the bodiless fecundmellow voices of negro women,” “the lightless hot wet primogenitive Female” (115), and “the womenshenegro” (156). In this sense, Joanna’s treatment of Joe suggests, not only racial discrimination, but also denial of manhood. Furthermore, this link between race and gender allows us to recognize that Joe’s idea of manhood is rooted in the social norm of whiteness. Thus the meal Joe remembers in his hunger represents the connection between his racial blackness and femininity that is constructed out of white manhood.
Conversely, this reading of the meal enables us to consider Joe’s release from the need for food as a metaphoric sign of the dissociation of his alleged racial blackness from the negative aspects of femininity. It is no coincidence that Joe assumes the establishment of brotherhood between black people and himself just after the disappearance of his hunger. I would like to emphasize the important function of memory to explain the relationship between his hunger and racial consciousness. Joe so vividly relives the past experience of hurling Joanna’s meal that he feels, due to hunger in the present, a great regret at having rejected it. Joe’s confusion of the present with the past is confirmed by his loss of a sense of time: “Time, the spaces of light and dark, had long since orderliness” (333). We can more fully understand the significance of this lack of temporal distinction by comparing it with Joe’s first entrance into Joanna’s house in search of food. In marked contrast to the former scene, eating triggers a memory of the past in the dark kitchen; “the invisible food” brings back to Joe the memories of the days twenty-five years ago when his adoptive mother prepares him “[f]ield peas cooked with molasses” (230). Food here represents the indissoluble connection of the past to the present by evoking the memory of inevitable femininity. On the other hand, however, when Joe wanders in the wood food is not used as a trigger for a return to the past but turns instead into a mere image in his mind. This shift in the function of food helps us to understand how the subsequent disappearance of hunger leads Joe to consider himself as the black people’s “brother”:
The association of Joe’s confused memory with color draws our attention to racial binarism. It should be repeatedly emphasized that food no longer leads Joe into past memories dominated by femininity, for it is the smell of “negro” that reminds him of the last food he ate, as if it were served in the present. In other words, the meal in Joanna’s kitchen is replaced with the “negro food” in the cabin. This shift in Joe’s mind enables him to receive the meal from the black people without distaste because food has lost its symbolic association with femininity; the past and femininity are no longer inescapable to him.
We have considered how the problems of gender underlie Joe’s racialized self-alienation and its dissolution when he achieves a serene state of mind in “the neutral grayness.” This returns us to the fact that, in the manuscript, his serenity was once described as “the mind of neither man nor woman.” We should note the distinction of this state of mind from Joe’s thoughts about his own relations with Joanna: “it was like I was the woman and she was the man” (235). This seeming digression from generalized gender roles implies the fact that Joe is still bound in the conventional idea of womanhood as well as manhood. On the other hand, the manuscript describes his release from gender binarism. If the mind of “not woman” indicated Joe’s disengagement from the burdens of racialized femininity, then his tranquility in the mind of “not man” would signify a deconstruction of the idea of manhood with which he has been obsessed. However, Faulkner must have fully recognized that Joe achieves serenity through the stylization of masculinity as well as the exclusion of femininity. It should not be forgotten that Joe is running away due to the most extreme kind of expulsion of femininity; Joe expels Joanna from his life by killing her, the consummation of which is the oblivion of the past of Joanna. But, even if Joe temporarily frees himself from feminized blackness by falling into amnesic euphoria, it is impossible for the author to entirely erase the burden of his character’s past even from this episode. In other words, Faulkner was unable to relieve Joe from the cost of the achievement of manhood, which is incompatible with the neutrality of gender.
Thus Faulkner turns the screw further by instead describing Joe’s serenity as a sign of his newly acquired manhood. As I have mentioned above, Faulkner shows Joe’s failed attempt to shave his face in place of the neutrality of gender. This revised scene may be misinterpreted as an example of his repeated stylization of masculinity. Certainly, Joe habitually tidies himself up in the same way as he does on the morning of the day when he is going to kill Joanna: “Kneeling beside the spring he shaved, using the water’s surface for glass, stopping the long bright razor on his shoe” (111). Though similar, there is, however, a crucial difference between these two scenes:
Joe’s failure to shave his face prevents him from improving his appearance in line with the idealized style of manhood in his mind. If this internalized model, as we have seen above, derives from the normalized discipline of white manhood, I would emphasize its racial aspect in order to elucidate the meaning of the razor in this scene. It is significant that the razor, with which Joe kills Joanna, is generally considered as a typical weapon of black men. If Joe uses the same razor in shaving his face, then the blood of Joanna has probably made it “dull.” This blood represents the ironic fate of Joe; he is pursed as “Negro” due to his attempt at relieving himself from the woman who forces him to be “Negro.” This enables us to think that Joe’s failure to shave his face results from the fact that he is forced to play the role of a black man. In this sense, the revised scene suggests that Joe’s deviation from normalized manhood can be read in racial terms.
However, I would suggest, this failed manhood should not be attributed to racial blackness, for this scene is followed by the description of a new manhood which takes the shape of “the true answer” and subverts racial categories:
Since the disappearance of the need for food represents Joe’s release from femininity, it is no coincidence that “the true answer comes to him” after the concise yet careful description of his manhood; Faulkner deliberately changes tense to distinguish the present state of Joe’s manhood from his former growth into manhood. As I have mentioned above, Joe had achieved manhood through the repetitive imitation of other white men. The passage written in the pluperfect tense also curtly describes how Joe has been forced to exhibit manhood as normalized in the white South. After failing to shave his face in the twilight of the neutral grayness, on the other hand, Joe is depicted in the present tense as a man who is approaching his fixed destination and acquires serenity by “seeing” and “looking” at “his native earth.”
We can get a deeper understanding of this manhood and its ties to racial neutrality by unpacking Faulkner’s use of the multi-layered meanings of “earth.” Firstly, it recalls the symbolism of nature in the description of Lena and her maternity. But we should note that the earth has been associated with the negative aspects of maternity in Joe’s life, which we have already seen in relation to the symbolic function of food. If the dark house of Joanna that he enters in search of food represents “the darkness of the maternal womb” (Bleikasten 293), it is significant that, just previous to this, Joe lay on his stomach feeling “the neversunned earth strike”(228) and smelling “the damp rich odor of the dark and fecund earth” (229). The juxtaposition of food with “earth” also takes place just after Joe’s adoptive mother serves food: “From beyond the window he could smell, fell, darkness, spring, the earth” (155). In marked contrast to his alienation from the dark earth, the relationship between Joe and “earth” in the present allows us to assume his reconciliation with the nature Lena represents. Invisibility of darkness allows us to connect “seeing” with light. Moreover, Faulkner’s description of Joe’s “effort to rediscover the earth, Lena’s element” “in Lena’s tense, the present” (Pitavy 25) associates his serenity with her peaceful journey. In fact, as Davis points out (157), the seeming timelessness of the wagon Lena rides in the opening chapter of this novel recurs in the description of Joe’s ride to Mottstown: “He is not sleepy or hungry or even tired. He is somewhere between and among them, suspended, swaying to the motion of the wagon without thought, without feeling. He has lost account of time and distance” (339). Faulkner’s description of Joe’s “native earth” thus allows a connection to be made between his serene state of mind and Lena as the embodiment of nature.
The phrase “his native earth,” however, bears another connotation beyond the more obvious symbolism of nature. As Hugh Ruppersburg points out (194), it also means “the land” as is suggested by the phrase “in the country.” In fact, Faulkner utilizes the multiple meanings of “earth” in order to indicate location. It is noteworthy that Faulkner uses the phrase “across an earth” (333) when Joe is running away from the white hunters in the wood, for the manuscript reveals that Faulkner clearly intended to localize a phrase which he once wrote as “across the earth” (HM 129, my emphasis). More important is the fact that Faulkner crossed out this definite article and rewrote it as the indefinite one, thereby setting in relief its denotation as a burrow (HM 129). Though small, this change derives great significance from Faulkner’s description of Joe’s mysterious refuge in Hightower’s house, “where he must have known he would be certainly run to earth” (443). If the townsmen’s pursuit of Joe embodies the ideology of the white South that forces Joe into the category of “Negro,” then the phrase “across an earth” metaphorically signifies Joe’s flight from the yoke of the culture imperative. In short, the earth in the description of Joe’s new manhood represents both nature and the South.
This localized nature brings into view the problem of race in Joe’s death and his reconciliation with the earth. The reference to “earth” in this episode also indicates Joe’s former social alienation: “he remained a foreigner to the very immutable laws which earth must obey.” This description in the past tense implies that Joe had been alienated from the internalized mores of the Southern racial code before reaching his serene state of mind, which is described in the present tense. The expression “foreigner,” on the other hand, recalls us to “a strange thing” (335) that comes into his mind on the brink of death:
On the verge of exhaustion, in need of neither food nor sleep, Joe is no longer “strange,” or “foreign,” to death. This familiarity with death takes the shape of “the need” to anticipate his fate with mathematical precision. Since this fatality coincides with the fact that Joe will be killed as “Negro,” his reconciliation with the earth seems to encourage a reading in which he accepts his fate determined by “the very immutable laws which earth must obey” that is the naturalized code of racial categorization.
However, it is in Joe’s reconciliation with the earth that his masculinity, written as it is in the present tense, suggests a defiance of the racial code. This relationship between race and gender can be understood better by considering the idea that Joe can keep distance from “the earth” enough to “look” at it. As Burgess points out (103-4), Joe is watched throughout the novel, thus occupying the feminine position in terms of a naturalized dichotomy between man as spectacular and woman as spectacle. This schematization of gender allows us to suggest that Joe achieves his new manhood by occupying the masculine position of a watcher. This is not entirely satisfactory, though, because of the usefulness of the phrase “to be watched” in revealing how this manhood subverts racial categories, as can be seen in the similarity between Joe’s feminized passivity and his identification as “Negro” by the community. Representative of the construction of Joe’s racial identity is his grandfather’s gaze that originally leads children in the orphanage to call him “nigger” and imposes blackness upon him. The release of Joe from racial anxiety in “the neutral grayness” marks a shift away from this. Joe obviously assumes the role of the “Negro” murderer in flight as he enjoys surprising the black driver on the road; worthy of note is the following description: “They all want me to be captured, and then when I come up ready to say Here I am … they all run away. Like there is a rule to catch me by, and to capture me that way would not be like the rule says” (337). In a sense, Joe’s voluntary identification with the image of a black criminal is incompatible with the imposed category of “Negro” and so is paradoxically transformed into a transgression of the racial code; whether considered in the biological sense or as a social construct, “Negro” was not a category that could be positively accepted as a self-image in the white South. This failure to perform the role of “Negro” anticipates his racial neutrality in front of the townsmen in Mottstown: “He never acted like either a nigger or a white man.” We can more fully appreciate the meaning of this discrepancy between the townsmen’s perception and Joe’s identity by turning our attention to the fact that the man who had been always “watched” as “Negro” now turns into the man who “shows” his blackness. This shift from passivity to activity signifies so radical a change from alienation from the local code to transcendence of its limits that he can deviate from the social category of “Negro” in playing with his own blackness. This confirms the subversive performance of a man who keeps enough distance to watch “his native earth,” enabling Joe to achieve a racially neutral manhood.
We have considered how Joe’s release from the internalized idea of racial blackness and femininity turns into a deviation from both the social category of “Negro” and a manhood normalized by whiteness. Joe’s changing consciousness allows us to interpret the revision of the episode of “the neutral grayness” in terms of manhood. The shift from the neutrality of gender in the manuscript to the failure to shave Joe’s face in the finished work is consistent with the repetitive stylization of masculinity and exclusion of femininity which leads to the death of Joanna. If her blood left on Joe’s razor results in his failure to shave, it represents the inescapable burdens of race and gender in his lifelong struggle with the codes of a normalized white manhood. The revised scene of “the neutral grayness” illustrates the author’s efforts to develop the problems of Joe’s manhood in connection with localized issues of race and gender, rather than attributing Joe’s serenity to “the mind of nothing living in life.” Thus his newly acquired manhood in the “neutral grayness” allows him to challenge the community and its racial frames of reference by failing to perform either as Negro or a white man. In this sense, the image of Joe’s gaunt face from the revised text, stubbly and flecked with dried blood, can be considered as a symbol of his racially neutral manhood and described in much the same way Faulkner spoke admiringly of The Sound and The Fury as “splendid failure.”
1 Though Faulkner himself wrote “129” on the manuscript in question, I refer to the page number of Light in August: Holograph Manuscript. Vol. 1 of William Faulkner Manuscripts 10. 2 vols. (Introduced and Arranged by Joseph Blotner. New York: Garland, 1987). The subsequent citations will also refer to this edition with the page number in parenthesis. Since there is little crucial difference between the typescript and the edition of the published text referred to in my argument, I will use this edition to collate the manuscript with the accomplished work.
2 In the manuscript, Faulkner at first began to describe the scene of the neutral grayness using the past tense, but he crossed out the verbs and rewrote it in the present one (HM 128). Probably, Faulkner changed his mind during the writing of this episode in the manuscript because he used the present tense to repeat the same scene cited above without any correction. (HM 130-31)
3 Donaldson gives a general survey of this subject in the introduction of the special issue on “Faulkner and Masculinity” in The Faulkner Journal (3-8). In the case of Light in August, the following three arguments gives us illuminating insight into the problems of masculinity: drawing on the Judith Butler’s theory of gender performance, Jay Watson argues that Joe ‘s overdoing of masculinity is so subversive that the extension of his masculine sexual desire threatens the gender codes and social order of the community (149-77); Debora Clarke examines how humor functions to cover white male anxiety in the homosocial network of the community (19-36); Lisa K. Nelson examines the subversive characteristics of Joe’s masculinity by placing Light in August within the cultural context of the two master narratives in the early twentieth century, the Freudian psychoanalytic discourse of Oedipal complex and the cultural fantasy of black beast rapist (49-68).
4 Other critics dispute the interpretation of Joe’s acceptance of racial blackness, though their argument also seems unsatisfactory because due consideration is not given to the shift in his inner thoughts. I partly agree with Cleanth Brooks on the question of Joe’s racial identification: “[Joe] continues his defiance of both the black and the white community, … he is the outlaw, the stranger, who represents only himself, neither the Negro community nor the white” (хх). But, as Fadiman criticizes (133), Brooks mistakes the impression of Joe’s racial neutrality on the townsmen for his mental condition, which should be corrected. Donald Kartiganer points to the oscillation between biracial images Joe evokes in the week following the death of Joanna, thus stating that “[what] we have here is not so much Joe’s acceptance of a black identity, … nor a demonstration of paralyzing racial conflict, … but rather his climactic seizure and abandonment of that linguistic code that ties together the culture of his time and place” (308). By paying attention to the alternation of whiteness and blackness in his behavior, Kartiganer also claims Joe defies social codes, but misses the point of his changing racial consciousness, which leads him to transcend these racial categories.
5 Fadiman points out the possibility that Faulkner added this episode of Mrs. McEachern after he wrote the scene in which Joe hurls the proffered food against the wall of Joanna’s kitchen so as to highlight their similarities (80).
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Copyright (c) 2007 Ryo Yamauchi