Updated: Nov 27, 2019
A Critique of "Faulkner's Mendicant Madonna: The Light of Light in August"
As we make our way through the incredibly rich genre that is Southern Gothic, the more we see the profound influence that Faulkner has had, not only on the literary scene, but on other art forms too. His work is dense and can often be challenging to follow, so one of the ways I was taught to better understand his work was by looking to critics and their literary reviews.
Although you may not always agree with them, reading other interpretations can often help you catch little nuances that you may have previously missed, and when you return to your reading, it can bring an enriched perspective that adds to the enjoyment of the novel.
Light in August centers around two characters, Lena Grove and Joe Christmas. Lena Grove is my favorite female Faulkner character. Upon meeting her, readers immediately learn that she is pregnant and is searching for the father of her child. I am always drawn in her by her kindness and her positivity even in her terrible circumstances, a jarring juxtaposition to Joe Christmas, a character who I detest almost as much as I love Lena.
Irene Visser, a critic who wrote the feminist review "Faulkner's Mendicant Madonna: The Light of Light in August," is one who I particularly enjoy because she paints Lena Grove in a more positive light than in previous reviews by other critics. While many critics, including well known Faulkner critic, Olga Vickery, perceive Lena as incoherent and a-moral, Visser makes a unique claim, exploring who she believes is “one of the most mysterious and most underestimated of William Faulkner’s creations” (38).
She sets the framework for her thesis, opening with an abstract where she introduces the violent South in Light in August, and how Lena’s natural serenity and spirituality are in direct opposition to the violent backdrop of the novel. She labels Lena the “mendicant Madonna”, the shining light of purity and freedom through the darkness that was the South.
The strength in Visser’s review lies in her selection and interpretation of the evidence she provides. Although she briefly touches on Faulkner’s approach to “fallen women” in the South, such as Dewey Dell and Caddy Compson, Visser focuses primarily on Lena’s ability to remain tranquil, optimistic, and unbroken even in the face of judgment by the fanatical Christians in the town, and even in the face of grave disappointment and loneliness. She supports Lena’s lighthearted and confident nature by quoting the scene where Lena discusses the window she used to sneak out of, located in the back of her house:
“She had lived there eight years
before she opened the window for the first time.
She had not opened it a dozen times
before she discovered that she should not have opened it at all.
She said to herself, ‘That’s just my luck’” (39).
Not only does Visser show Lena’s uncanny ability to make light of a less than desirable situation, but she shows Lena doing so in a clever and witty manner, giving a metaphor for her sexuality. Visser also provides quotes about Lena’s childhood and how she raised children throughout her life, which almost makes Lena conceiving out of wedlock less “sinful” and more justified, in the eyes of the reader.
Lena’s character constantly serves as the light which balances out the dark and cumbersome Joe Christmas, who Visser explains is “entrapped in the cycle of history and heritage…”, while Lena “is fully autonomous, and fully sensitive to her own and others’ deepest needs” (40).
Lena takes control of her future, rather than blaming her history or heritage for any misery she may suffer. Throughout the entire novel, her goal is to find the father of her baby in an attempt to create a family for her child. However, when she meets Lucas Burch, he is a scoundrel, and she releases him from his responsibilities without any ill will, anger, or resentment. With this section, Visser not only shows Lena’s personal freedom, as she allows herself to not be tied to anything or anyone, but she also shows Lena’s faithful and pure heart. A faith that is constantly reiterated with the saying “the Lord will see to it”, which Lena says several times through the novel. This faith stands as the light that shines throughout the entire novel, and Visser credits it as the reason Lena remains unharmed and untainted by the unforgiving social structures and oppression that existed in Faulkner’s South. Rather, Lena depends on the kindness of strangers to help her along the way, and the pureness in her heart is what forces many to put aside their social perceptions of her in order to help her.
Visser keeps the idea of Lena’s light in readers’ minds as she brings it full circle with the image of the mendicant Madonna. While this portrayal seems like a bit of a stretch at first, she supports her argument by citing several scenes where Lena is depicted in a way resembling the pose of a Madonna figure, such as when she inclines her head, or when she expectantly looks forward in a determined search for freedom.
Readers are not only given a picture of Lena that resembles a Madonna, but even the manner in which she receives help is “holy”, according to Visser, as she never begs for help, rather she simply presents herself to the community and allows people to extend their generosity. In return, she offers a non-judgmental tranquility that heals people and brings them peace.
Going even further with the comparison to Virgin Mary, Visser draws a parallel between Byron Bunch and Joseph (husband of Mary), who both serve as the male traveling companion to the destitute female traveler and expectant mother. Even though Mary is known today as a holy character, at the time when she was expecting Jesus, her community believed she conceived the child out of wedlock, and she suffered criticisms and judgments, much the same way as Lena did. Both Mary and Lena; however, maintain an unyielding faith that carries them through. Visser constantly points out that Lena’s spiritual dimensions are obvious and apparent to anyone reading the novel, but somehow critics have failed to analyze her as anything more than an ignorant, immoral country girl.
It seems as if Visser finds traditional perspectives on Lena as nothing more than a chance to write off a strong, yet complex female character, but she remains steadfast in her claim throughout her review, and she delivers a convincing and well-constructed argument.
Perhaps her strongest argument comes in her conclusion, where she cites an interview in which Faulkner recalls Lena Grove as the most important element of Light in August. She then provides an important tidbit about the novel; that the original title was Dark House, and that it wasn’t until Faulkner wrote Lena’s character in that he changed the title to something involving light, as Lena was the light in the dark house that was this Southern story, unaffected by the intolerance that exists in human society.