Light in August (Text Key 221)


Light in August, Faulkner’s seventh novel and the fourth set in Yoknapatawpha, was written in about six months’ time, from 17 August 1931 to 19 February 1932. It was published on 6 October 1932, in a run of 8500 copies with a second printing of 2500 to follow shortly. By 1944, like all of Faulkner’s novels except Sanctuary, it was out of print. Following the issue of Malcolm Cowley’s Portable Faulkner (1946) and the award to Faulkner of the Nobel Prize in Literature (1950), his literary stock began to rise. The first of many subsequent reprintings was the 1950 Modern Library edition. In 1985, Noel Polk’s corrected text of the novel appeared with an introduction and notes by Joseph Blotner (Library of America). The Library of America text was reprinted in paperback by Vintage International in 1990, and we have used that edition in our digitized work on the novel.

Joseph Blotner provides the most credible explanation for the genesis of the novel’s title: in August 1931, Faulkner and his wife, Estelle, were enjoying a drink on the east porch of their home, and she commented that the quality of the evening light in August seemed somehow different than at other times of the year. He apparently went straight to his manuscript and changed the working title of "Dark House" to "Light in August."

Dating the Story: We have dated events in the present tense of the novel in August 1932. This might seem curious, given that the novel was in press by then and that the title was generated in 1931. However, as three of the novel’s most assiduous chroniclers have argued, the specific dates given in the book do point to a date of 1932 (Cleanth Brooks, The Yoknapatawpha Country; Stephen Meats, in Francois Pitavy’s William Faulkner’s Light in August; Hugh Ruppersburg, Reading Faulkner: Light in August). We have followed Meats and Ruppersburg in declining to cite specific dates because, as with so many thematic elements in the novel, ambiguity and uncertainty are Faulkner’s intentions and not his mistakes. In providing a range of dates for the August 1932 events, we have followed the instructions of the text.

Mapping the Story: Like Joe Christmas' "real" racial identity, many of the novel's locations cannot be definitively plotted on a map. Chapters 7-10, for example, take place on the McEachern farm and the nearby town where Joe meets Bobbie; the farm is a day's buggy ride from Memphis (143) and the town is specifically identified as "a railroad division point" (173), while the fact that it has a courthouse implies it is a county seat, but our decision to locate the "McEacherns and Vicinity Inset" in Tennessee is a speculation. Potentially more controversial is our decision to plot the flight of Joe Christmas through the Yoknapatawpha countryside in Chapter 14 in the southwestern part of the county. One of the intriguing aspects of Faulkner's repeated returns to his imaginative world is how little happens in that quadrant, how blank a space it remains on his own two and all but this one of our 68 maps. Light in August deliberately blurs the details of Joe's week-long flight. The space it occurs in is described as "the black abyss . . . into which now and at last he had actually entered" (331), and in that space, "Time, the spaces of light and dark, had long since lost orderliness" (333). We know, however, that his movement begins at the Burden place west of Jefferson and ends up in Mottstown, which Faulkner locates south of Jefferson. And we know that when Joe hitches a ride after killing Joanna Burden in her house, the rode leads away from Jefferson to an unnamed town which the novel earlier says is thirty miles away (227). On the basis of that westward beginning and southern ending, it seemed very likely that the Negro church (322), the farm houses (332, 334), the field (333), the spring (334) and the few other recognizable locations along Joe's journey belonged in that quadrant, though we are careful to identify our "Authority" for doing so as a "Speculation" in each instance. Finally, putting Joe - probably Faulkner's most alienated character - in Yoknapatawpha's most uncharted space seemed appropriate thematically; as the narrative sums up his flight, "For a week now he has lurked and crept among its secret places, yet he remained a foreigner to the very immutable laws which earth must obey" (338).

SOURCES: Blotner, Faulkner: A Biography; Michael Millgate, New Essays on Light in August.

First Publisher: 
Harrison Smith and Robert Haas
First Publisher Location: 
New York
First Publisher Date: 
Page Start: 
Page Stop: 
Edit Copy Publisher: 
Vintage International
Edit Copy Publisher Location: 
New York
Edit Copy Publisher Date: 
Search DIsplay Order: 
Publication Date: 

How to cite this resource:
Towner, Theresa M., James B. Carothers, Elizabeth Cornell, Chad Jewett, Cheryl Lester, and John Padgett. "Faulkner's Light in August." Added to the project: 2013. Additional editing 2021: Theresa M. Towner. Digital Yoknapatawpha, University of Virginia,