Critics of William Faulkner have often identified elements of well-known philosophical notions in his acclaimed novel Light in August. These ideas include Jeffersonian agrarianism and pragmatism, but no views are more clearly represented and more often overlooked in Faulkner’s piece than those of transcendentalist philosophers, particularly Ralph Waldo Emerson. The beliefs Emerson presented in his essay “Self-Reliance” on the importance of identity and self-actualization as well as his rejection of societally accepted definitions of virtue can be found in Faulkner’s characters particularly as he moves them toward social and personal awakening. Faulkner, like Emerson, stresses the importance of individuals owning their own thoughts and sharing their beliefs yet still maintains that people must gain truth through experience. The parallels between the work of Emerson and Faulkner in terms of their views on self-definition and belief in a man’s duty to share his views with the world have lead literary scholars to begin investigating the influence of the philosopher on the author.
Faulkner weaves his critical view of societal notions of virtue throughout the piece and incorporates Emerson’s belief that religious and social institutions serve only to preserve their false reputation as essential parts of society when in reality they distort the notion of sanctity and coerce men into forfeiting independent conceptions of themselves. In “Self-Reliance” Emerson points to society’s ability to lead its followers to adopt beliefs despite their own conscious as its most dangerous power. He implores his audience to seek out their own identities, for “immortal palms must not be hindered by the name of goodness but must explore if it be goodness,”(21). Faulkner shares a very similar sentiment in the novel through the beliefs of the character Byron Bunch who proclaims that, “… because a fellow is more afraid of the trouble he might have than he ever is of the trouble he’s already got. He’ll cling to trouble he’s used to before he’ll risk a change,” (83). Through these words Faulkner conveys that men, despite their fear of being ostracized for operating outside of the norms of society, should have their own moral code. Consequentially, Faulkner connects his piece to transcendentalism. Literary scholar, Cleanth Brooks asserts that the fictional, rural county of Yoknapatawpha, Mississippi, which serves as the setting for Light in August as well as several of Faulkner’s other pieces, works to highlight the suffocating nature of history. Brooks identifies Yoknapatawpha and its citizens as “exemplary models of societal rigidity 19th century thinkers rallied against,” though Faulkner’s writing came nearly a century after transcendentalist movement.
Faulkner, however, does not fully reject society; he merely asserts that people do not need it to have meaningful commitments to the supposed needs of his community, a notion that draws from the individualistic ideas of Emerson. In “Self Reliance” Emerson comments that men who live with an unabashed belief in their own worth will discover the intended purpose of their lives and even achieve a higher level of spiritual awareness within themselves: “The infallible index of true progress is found in the tone the man takes. …If he have found his center, the Deity will shine through him…”(60). Emerson claims men who open themselves up to discovery of higher truths will enjoy deeper connections with God and one another. Faulkner illustrates this point by repeatedly referring to Reverend Hightower by his religious title even though the character obviously lacks meaningful understanding or true reverence teachings of the Church. In fact, Faulkner mockingly refers to him as “the Reverend Hightower” in moments when he is at his most spiritually corrupt and when his character is most out of touch with his so-called beliefs. Ironically, Joe Christmas, an introverted murderer, serves as a Christ-like character that exposes the superficiality of the other characters. His name reinforces this notion, alluding to the birth of Jesus to suggest that Joe himself represents a rebirth of Christ (Backman, 1966). Faulkner draws even more parallels between Joe Christmas and Jesus; they’re both outcasts on the fringes of society, they both are killed in their thirties, and they share the same initials. However, critics of Faulkner have interpreted these parallels and have concluded that the Christ-like quality of Joe Christmas serves mainly to add moral complexity to the character. “…attempts to see Joe Christmas as a martyr,” Irving Howe comments, “is complicated by his life of violence and his general contempt for humanity.” Howe asserts that Christmas serves rather as a fallen hero or an anti-hero who represents the frustration and contempt a modern Christ would feel towards the corruption and moral perversion of society.
This separation of true spiritual awareness and religion plays a key role in Emersonian philosophy, but Emerson goes even further in his criticisms of religion and explores the Church’s affects on men’s relationship with God. In “Self-Reliance” Emerson makes the point that organized religions, namely Christianity, paint God as a distant mysterious entity available only through prayer, ritual, and the summons of privileged members of the religious hierarchy. According to Emerson, such a view only serves to cut off “the relations of the soul to the divine spirit” (28) and cause men to fear direct communication with God. He further develops this idea in his later essay in which he explains that when a man accepts his own ideas and finds “the union of man and God in every act of the soul” (62) he becomes a part of the grander spiritual entity that ties his soul to that of all men, but because of the influence of society and religion men fail to recognize the presence of God within them and, as a result, cannot acknowledge the interconnectedness of men. Faulkner fails to suggest any sort of fundamental unity amongst men, but he does assign much importance to human interaction. Many of Faulkner’s characters in the novel distance themselves from society either consciously or unconsciously, and they begin the piece emotionally stunted under the crushing weight of their isolation. Only those characters like Joe Brown and Byron Bunch who are able to become re-socialized and form connections with others reach any emotional or spiritual contentment. For the characters isolation is confinement, and interaction is freedom. Through the evolution of his characters, Faulkner conveys this notion effectively in the novel. However, such fulfillment cannot be achieved until the characters also attain levels of self-definition aligned with Emersonian philosophy. In this respect the novel serves as a documentation of their spiritual journey to achieve self-reliance and recognize their place in humanity.
Although Faulkner recognizes the potential evils of organized religion, Emerson takes an even stronger stance and makes it clear to his audience that the transition from a mindless follower to a self reliant individual requires the complete rejection of social conventions that, he believes, strip one of his ability to think for himself. In “Self Reliance”, Emerson recognizes the dependence of organized religion on the “sacredness of tradition” (21) to illicit conformity in its congregation. In an attempt to be accepted in society, men adopt the Church’s views on morality and insist on going through the motions of rituals that have long since lost their meaning. Faulkner reflects Emerson’s ideas through his description of the mechanical prayers his characters performed with characters that “believed with calm paradox that they were the irreproachable servants of a fatality that they believed in because they had to,” (209) Their prayers hold no meaning and, therefore, are not actual communications with God but empty gestures that they believe would save their souls. Reverence Hightower’s fall from grace demonstrates the detrimental effects of attempting to question religion. His loss of religious titles, in the end, only helps him and represents a new beginning for his character because only after this moment is he able to cope with the dark history that plagues him (Malin, 1957). The ripple effect of his spiritual rebirth manages to illicit significant internal changes take place amongst the other members of his family. In his 1986 essay, James Snead astutely makes the point that, ironically, Hightower’s commitment to his newly formed identity when he is no longer a reverend is more effective in moving others than his sermons ever were. Through these characters, Faulkner highlights the ineffectiveness of religious devotion in producing wiser individuals.
Emerson does not only charge men with the duty to realize the message that God has instilled in them but also to spread their message to others openly without insecurity or fear of judgment. He proclaims that men, real men, cannot allow the potential scorn of society to force him into silence: “We but half express ourselves, and are ashamed of that divine idea, which each of us represents,” (20). He asserts that it is a man’s moral obligation to share his ideas to the world because “God will not have his work made manifest by cowards,” (20). However, Emerson seemingly contradicts himself by asserting that men must teach others the truths they have discovered and proceeding to insist on the futility of teaching. Faulkner shares even Emerson’s contradiction. In the novel Hightower repeatedly expresses an inability to lead others in their devotion or help them achieve pride in their identities. He expresses this weakness even after he himself has gain a genuine sense of self-esteem (Minter, 1970). Through the repetition of this confession Faulkner reinforces the message that truths cannot be taught but only learned through experience. He instead insists that individuals can teach others not through words but through example. Faulkner recognizes that a man cannot teach an individual to connect their souls to the universal spirit, but that does not mean he should not try to spread his truth by simply living by it. He and Emerson agree that knowledge can only go so far, for intelligence cannot replace wisdom.
Of all the obstacles preventing Faulkner’s characters from progressing, history serves as the greatest of hindrances. Many characters are unable to gain an identity separate from that pushed onto them because of those who came before them. Faulkner attributes this weakness to an overestimation of the past’s significance that people are instilled with throughout their lives. Consequently, the children in Faulkner’s novel emerge as the most enlightened and spiritually whole (Pitavy, 1973). The juxtaposition of Lena Grove and her child demonstrate this notion. While Lena distances herself from others and recoils in shame because of her history, her child navigates her surroundings completely unencumbered and with the doe-eyed innocence of youth. In order for adults to progress they must shed the notions that their experiences have ingrained in them and regain the mindset of their youth, for the old will parish if they cannot adapt. His views on childhood connect to the ideas displayed in Emerson’s pieces. In his essays, Emerson admires children and their ability to express themselves openly without fear of the consequences: “Their mind being whole, their eye is yet unconquered, and when we look in their faces, we are disconcerted. Infancy conforms to nobody,” (20). He asserts that adults have fallen victim to the restrictions of society and are forced to overanalyze or even reject their own thoughts out of fear of how others will react. Children hold no such anxiety. Their minds have not yet been divorced from their souls, and they are able to speak plainly and “from within” (60). As a result they can connect with everyone with ease, but an adult must tear away at the boundaries that they place around themselves in order to connect to their inner selves and pull out the piece of the universal soul that God has instilled in them.
The Emersonian notions of individual thought, freedom from society, the importance of genuine human connection, and the discovery of great truths by abandoning the past are present throughout Light in August. The characters of Lena Grove, Joe Christmas, and Byron Bunch and their progression throughout the novel towards and away from connecting to the universal spirit of humanity capture the arguments Emerson creates in his two essays and serve as clear proof of Emerson’s presence in Faulkner’s work.