In Light in August, the past is not truly past, but instead a very present, powerful, and sinister aspect of life in Jefferson. This is an important trope of Southern Gothic literature, which uses haunting and repetition to depict a region still gripped by the brutal trauma of genocide, slavery, and the Civil War. By depicting the past as something that returns through haunting and repetition, Light in August highlights the futility of attempting to escape the past—whether one’s individual background or broader historical events.
One of the main ways in which the novel explores the return and ongoing presence of the past is through its unusual narrative structure. Rather than being told in chronological order, the narrative continually circles back to flashbacks and backstories. These returns to the past are not always clearly marked, which at times leaves the reader uncertain whether a section of the narrative is taking place in the past or present. This has the effect of making the past seem present, such that past events are as real and significant as the actions that take place in the main period of the novel.
The novel’s use of flashbacks also highlights the impossibility of escaping one’s past. When Joe Christmas flees his adoptive family, he hopes to reinvent himself and escape the trauma of his childhood. However, the novel’s lengthy section describing his childhood shows that this attempt to escape the past has proven entirely impossible. Joe’s past will always be part of him in the present, something he can never truly escape.
The idea that the past cannot be shaken off is further confirmed by the repeated actions and events that occur throughout the novel. One of the most dramatic examples of these is the double murders Christmas commits. (While it is never confirmed that Christmas was the person who killed Joanna, the similarity between Joanna’s death and Christmas’s presumed murder of his adoptive father, Mr. McEachern, strongly indicates that Christmas is Joanna’s murderer.) Indeed, Joanna’s murder is a repetition in a double sense: it echoes both the murder of McEachern and the murder of Joanna’s father and grandfather. These links make Joanna’s murder seem almost inevitable, as if she was fated to be killed by the events of the past.
Both Joanna and Gail Hightower express the belief that their lives are predetermined by the actions of their ancestors. Gail is gripped by an obsession with his grandfather, a Confederate soldier, whose actions appear to have cursed Gail in the present. Indeed, at a different point in the novel Joanna’s father explicitly articulates the idea that white people are cursed by the crimes of their ancestors: “A race doomed and cursed to be forever and ever a part of the white race’s doom and curse for its sins. Remember that. His doom and his curse. Forever and ever. Mine. Your mother’s. Yours, even though you are a child. The curse of every white child that ever was born and that ever will be born.”
This quotation again highlights the idea that the past is inescapable, and that it predetermines (and dooms) the lives of those living in the present. Joanna’s father’s words indicate that white people in particular will only be free of this “curse” if they somehow atone for the sins of their ancestors. However, the novel shows that those who attempt to do so—including Joanna’s father himself—usually just end up punished by other white people, often through murder.
This confirms even more strongly that the past is truly inescapable. Although it is arguably still important to attempt to atone for the sins of one’s ancestors, in Light in August there is no chance of absolving oneself from the curse of the past.
Haunting and the Past ThemeTracker
Haunting and the Past 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.
A man will talk about how he’d like to escape from living folks. But it’s the dead folks that do him the damage. It’s the dead ones that lay quiet in one place and don’t try to hold him, that he can’t escape from.
They hated us here. We were Yankees. Foreigners. Worse than foreigners: enemies. Carpet baggers. And it— the War— still too close for even the ones that got whipped to be very sensible. Stirring up the negroes to murder and rape, they called it. Threatening white supremacy.
Remember this. Your grandfather and brother are lying there, murdered not by one white man but by the curse which God put on a whole race before your grandfather or your brother or me or you were even thought of. A race doomed and cursed to be forever and ever a part of the white race’s doom and curse for its sins. Remember that. His doom and his curse. Forever and ever. Mine. Your mother’s. Yours, even though you are a child. The curse of every white child that ever was born and that ever will be born.
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.
The black blood drove him first to the negro cabin. And then the white blood drove him out of there, as it was the black blood which snatched up the pistol and the white blood which would not let him fire it. And it was the white blood which sent him to the minister, which rising in him for the last and final time, sent him against all reason and all reality, into the embrace of a chimaera, a blind faith in something read in a printed Book. Then I believe that the white blood deserted him for the moment. Just a second, a flicker, allowing the black to rise in its final moment and make him turn upon that on which he had postulated his hope of salvation. It was the black blood which swept him by his own desire beyond the aid of any man, swept him up into that ecstasy out of a black jungle where life has already ceased before the heart stops and death is desire and fulfillment. And then the black blood failed him again, as it must have in crises all his life.