The major symbol in Light in August is the house where Joanna Burden lives alone in Jefferson. Joanna is descended from multiple generations of Northern abolitionists who have lived in Jefferson for a long time, and yet who were treated as “strangers” and “enemies” due to their sympathy for black people. This remains true for Joanna even though she was born in Jefferson and has never lived anywhere else. The house where Joanna was born and continues to live thus represents her status as an outsider in her own hometown. Moreover, it also significant due to the scandal of Joanna living there alone. As an unmarried “spinster,” Joanna is automatically outcast from mainstream Jefferson society, yet is also treated with suspicion due to the fact that she lives by herself. As a young, unnamed black boy explains, she is safe in the house because the local black people look after her—a further source of scandal.
The social transgression denoted by the house is intensified when Joe Christmas (and later Joe Brown) moves into the cabin on Joanna’s property. Christmas and Joanna’s unconventional and scandalous romantic relationship is symbolized by the fact that Christmas lives on the property but not in the house. The ways he enters the house become significant and highly charged—first only through the kitchen (which places Christmas in the symbolic role of a black servant or slave), and then according to particular instructions Joanna sets out for him. In a way, Christmas’s crossing the threshold of entering the house is a kind of sexual metaphor, and Joanna’s specification of how he does this highlights the level of control she has over their relationship, which according to the strict gender codes of the time is deemed unnatural.
The novel indicates that this transgression is doomed to result in a chaotic climax. This takes place when Christmas brutally murders Joanna inside the house and then sets the house on fire. The fire burns for a long time, attracting crowds, and the glow from the flames is one of the meanings of the “light in August” mentioned in the book’s title. The destruction of the house via fire represents the desire to purge the evidence of transgressions. However, as the book makes clear, such purging is never really possible because the past is never really gone, but rather lingers with a haunting presence.
Joanna’s House Quotes in Light in August
She has lived in the house since she was born, yet she is still a stranger, a foreigner whose people moved in from the North during Reconstruction.
He was not yet thinking of himself as having been frustrated by a human agent. It was the fire. It seemed to him that the fire had been selfborn for that end and purpose. It seemed to him that that by and because of which he had had ancestors long enough to come himself to be, had allied itself with crime.