Subjectivity and Agency in Faulkner's Light in August

Open Access
Redman, Charlee Myranda
Area of Honors:
Bachelor of Arts
Document Type:
Thesis Supervisors:
  • Benjamin Jared Schreier, Thesis Supervisor
  • Lisa Ruth Sternlieb, Honors Advisor
  • Jonathan Paul Eburne, Faculty Reader
  • William Faulkner
  • Light in August
  • Judith Butler
  • agency
  • subjectivity
  • discourse
  • identity
  • south
This thesis studies William Faulkner’s novel Light in August (1932) and the various ways in which it interrogates the formation of gender, racial, political, and national identities in the post-Civil War and Reconstruction South. Light in August presents a set of characters confined within deterministic ideologies that govern their perceptions of themselves and others, establishing strict, seemingly impermeable boundaries between gender, race, and political/national affiliation. My thesis project will study how these boundaries are formed and how they function; I am interested in how Joe Christmas, Joanna Burden, Byron Bunch, the Reverend Hightower, and Lena Grove are situated in and interrogate various discourses (such as those of sexuality, gender, race, and power). My thesis will study these characters as discursive subjects who have or develop agential capacity through the act of recognizing themselves as subjects, or in other words as beings subjected to a pervasive, fluid network of ideologies. I utilize Judith Butler’s conception of the intersection between agency and subjectivity from her book Bodies That Matter (1995) as a basis for these analyses. Joe Christmas is the primary character of interest in this matter, although all of the characters of Light in August are implicated in this analysis. Christmas, Hightower, and Burden are historical subjects, obsessed with the past and, to a great measure, determined by their obsession. The past, along with normalized conceptions of race, gender, and sexuality, becomes a discourse that acts on and envelopes Hightower and the other characters of Light in August. However, we see that these characters are not simply subjected, or dominated, by these discourses; Christmas and the like interrogate them and make them visible by the act of self-recognition. By recognizing themselves as subjects, they acknowledge the subjecting forces and expose their existence as such. They are not only discursive subjects, but disruptive subjects as well.