american literature · fiction · graduate school

Faulkner’s Ecology: Thoughts on Light in August

I just finished reading William Faulkner’s Light in August. It’s not his most narratively complex novel, and perhaps one of the more readily accessible. Still, Faulkner often causes impatience because he doesn’t see fit to leave anything out. Every thought, every psychological crevice of every character is thoroughly explored. And, he doesn’t stop there. Faulkner also describes details of facial features, clothing, landscape, road quality, how the wagon moved and jolted along the rutted country roads. Faulkner leaves nothing unexplored, no detail unmentioned.

This causes impatience in some readers, I suppose, especially those that are more fond of the minimalist style in literature. Yet, there is something captivating about the over-abundance of details Faulkner provides. While it’s difficult at times to know what details are important, which details need to be heeded and which others can just fade into the background, this style creates a fully developed ecology. We get the ecology of the mind, but we also get the material ecology that produces and influences those minds. Every detail can be explored, or discarded. There are main characters, and events, that are more important than others, but in the end the main characters aren’t even the ones that get to tell their own narrative. In a sense, the stories of each individual just become another portion of the ecological system, something overlapping and intertwined with others.

Of course, in other novels this level of detail isn’t always present. In The Sound and the Fury, for example, there’s a greater focus on internal detail than external detail. This makes it more difficult to sift through and figure out the actual plot of the novel, of course, because time and event are muddled, and it’s extremely difficult to figure out the timeline on a single read through. LIght in August is much more direct in terms of narrative structure, following a mostly chronological order, with the occasional flashback. Certain events and moments come into sharp relief and focus, such as Joe Christmas’s childhood, coming of age, and final residence in Jefferson. Yet, at the end, this, too, fades into the background. The last words come from Lena, a woman who, ultimately, doesn’t really mean much in terms of Christmas’s story. They never even meet, and she has little, if any, influence on his story. Hers is one of many that seems as if it will play a major part, yet, though we begin and end with her, she really is an inconsequential character in terms of the protagonist’s life. This kind of ecology is fascinating, because it moves away from a narrative that is focused entirely on one individual, and plays with the idea of intertwining yet separate lives. Lena and Joe both end up in Jefferson, and both have their lives changed by Burch/Brown, but they have nothing to do with each other. Byron Bunch works with Joe, but he has no impact on Joe’s life. Through much of the novel I was waiting for all the separate threads to come together and some kind of plot twist to explain it all. That never really came. In that sense, this novel feels organic, natural, and true.

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