Critical Essays The Circular Structure of Light in August


The structure of the novel is best seen in terms of a wheel or of a circular image. Actually, the central metaphor of the novel is also that of a circle.

Joe Christmas is the central character of the novel. His story is the hub or center of the novel, and the circular image is first applied to Joe as a cage which keeps him isolated from mankind. The earliest instance of his isolation is seen in his life in the orphanage. Later in life, he thinks of women, marriage, and children as additional ways to keep men caged in. He even cuts off all buttons — again the circular image — that women have sewed on his clothes. But the strongest symbol of his imprisonment in a cage is expressed through the conflicting white and black blood in his veins. Basically, the circular image is the principal image with Joe, as his life is presented in cyclic repetitions seen in the manner in which he constantly travels around the country until he finally arrives in Jefferson, Mississippi.

Although Joe has spent his entire life trying to break out of his circle, he finally realizes that he has lived only when he has remained within the circle. Thus, he attains peace through self-realization only when he reaches an acceptance of his life and no longer tries to flee from the responsibility of his actions. Joe, in other words comes finally to realize that his lifetime struggle was futile, since man can never escape from himself. The acceptance of this fact gives him the first peace of mind that he has ever had.

The circular image is used, therefore, to correlate the action with the structure. The central scene of the novel is Joanna Burden's house, and the cabin behind her house where Joe lives is described as the axle of a wheel where the numerous paths are like "wheel-spokes" caused by the Negro women "following paths which . . . radiated from the house." It is here at this place (the axle) where Joe murders Joanna Burden and it is also where Lena Grove later gives birth to her child.

The circular image, however, is first presented through Lena Grove. Her curving shape caused by her pregnancy suggests that she is "like something moving . . . , without progress across an urn." The urn, then, is used symbolically in connection with Lena to suggest her enduring qualities. It is also one of the many symbols that connect life with death, since the urn is also used in burial rites.

Other images suggest the completeness with which Lena views life, and how she is fully immersed in a timeless world of natural surroundings. The final image of the first section is the circular column of smoke rising from Joanna Burden's house which again connects Lena to Joe Christmas' actions. Lena, therefore, with her earthy nature, seems to represent those qualities which will endure forever; and the circular images connected with her (and with the action in general) suggests Ecclesiastes 1:4-6: "A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever. The sun rises and the sun goes down, and hastens to the place where it rises. The wind blows to the south, and goes round to the north; round and round goes the wind, and on its circuits the wind returns." Likewise, Light in August opens and closes with sections about Lena Grove.

Structurally, therefore, the circular image is used to suggest connections between Joe and Lena, to bring out certain qualities for which Lena stands and to act as an encompassing frame for the whole novel. She is the outside frame for the whole novel and the outside frame of the wheel (circle) transversing all experience and centering on no particular or specific experience.

Thus Joe's actions form the central part of the novel and are seen as the hub of the actions, but Lena's actions are used to introduce the novel and close the novel. In between these two stands the figure of the Reverend Gail Hightower. Whereas we meet Lena before we meet Joe, we also meet Hightower before we meet Joe. He is introduced immediately following the Lena (and Byron Bunch) section, and his section immediately precedes the closing scene of the novel. If then, the center or hub of the novel is the Joe Christmas section, Hightower stands between the center and the outside rim and connects the two. Thus, Hightower may be roughly compared to the spokes of the wheel, for through him the two strands of the novel are brought into a unity.

But then how does Hightower act as the spokes or connecting links between Lena and Joe? First the central metaphor connected with Hightower is that of the wheel. We see this image in the last part of the novel when Hightower begins to examine his life of isolation. As he reviews his life, his thinking "begins to slow" as though it were a "wheel beginning to run in sand." Hightower is then forced to re-examine all of his past life, which, for the first time, he is able to see objectively. As the wheel slowly frees itself from the sand, Hightower gradually realizes that life cannot be lived in isolation.

Hightower's involvement, however, was forced upon him. Byron Bunch involves him with Lena until finally it becomes his task to deliver Lena's child. Hightower then may be seen as the spokes, since he was forced to travel the same paths that Joe has traveled in order to help Lena with the birth of her child. Hightower returns from this place, which is Joe Christmas' house and the place where he had murdered Joanna Burden. And suddenly Joe Christmas escapes from the posse and flees for sanctuary into Hightower's house. Thus, Hightower comes from the birth of Lena's child only to be involved in the death of Joe Christmas.

Therefore, in terms of the total structure of the novel, High-tower is the spokes of the wheel connecting the actions of Lena and Joe, who never actually meet each other. Lena remains as the person transcending all experiences, and Joe is the character whose life is examined in depth in the center of the novel. The final structure then, may be summarized as follows: first, Lena (the rim or frame for the action); second, Hightower (the spokes of the wheel) and then Joe Christmas (the hub of the wheel). And the novel closes in exactly the same order — after we have completed the actions connected with Joe Christmas, the novel focuses again on Hightower and then closes with Lena. Thus briefly, the novel runs: Lena — Hightower — JOE CHRISTMAS — Hightower — Lena.

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