Faulkner’s Light in August: The Primal Scene as Trauma

William Faulkner
William Faulkner

An individual’s concept of the self is shaped heavily by society and the experiences through which one goes as a child. Many psychologists and critics agree that any experience with sex for a young child can potentially become traumatic and alter their sense of self, which often negatively affects their relationships with others.

In William Faulkner’s Light in August, gender and sexuality affect Joe Christmas’s self-definition and his definition of others. His gender behavior may seem inherent; however, is also socially produced. Unfortunately, Joe Christmas’s initial experience with sexual awareness is also what Greg Forter calls a traumatic “historical moment” in “Freud, Faulkner, Caruth: Trauma and the Politics of Literary Form”: “A historical moment might be experienced…as a punctual blow to the psyche that overwhelms its functioning, disables its defenses, and absents it from direct contact with the brutalizing event itself” (Forter 259). Forter reclaims Freud’s term, “primal scene,” (put simply, parents copulating in front of infant—who stores this memory as an act of violence on the father’s part against the mother) by claiming that history itself comes “to inhabit the child before she has the equipment for making sense of them [traumatic events], and thus to dwell in her as a traumatic potentiality” (266). Thus, Christmas’s life experience stems from a social/historical production of traumatic history.

Joe Christmas’s initial sexually aware experience is filled with anxiety, punishment, and embarrassment. Christmas suffers both Forter’s idea of the inhabitation of history and the idea of the primal scene. Christmas’s first experience is an accident, as he hides in the bathroom of the dietitian, as she copulates with a male doctor on the other side of a pink curtain, unaware of Christmas’s presence. Freud’s “primal scene” becomes Joe Christmas’s “historical moment” of trauma, (which he tries to repress continuously), and is meticulously created in the text when, as a child, Joe Christmas initially innocently sneaks into the dietitian’s room to eat pink toothpaste: “On that first day when he discovered the toothpaste in her room he had gone directly there, who had never heard of toothpaste either, as if he already knew that she would possess something of that nature and he would find it” (Faulkner 120). He thinks he is “safe now” (121) when he hides behind the curtain, as he hears other sounds enter the room: “rustlings, whisperings, not voices. He was not listening; he was just waiting, thinking without particular interest or attention that it was a strange hour to be going to bed” (121).

While he thinks he is “not listening” the narrator shows the reader that he indeed is listening. As the sexual encounter beyond the curtain continues, and Joe eats more of the toothpaste until he vomits, his “safety” is destroyed when the curtain is ripped away and he is violently dragged out, by the woman [also a sort of mother figure for Christmas], and called a “little rat” and a “little nigger bastard” (122). Her disgust at his presence and the ensuing profusion of insults to his “manhood” affects him throughout his life. Her insults affect his gender, racial and his sexual awareness.

The violence he receives from the dietitian is eventually displaced onto females with which he has intimate encounters, including Mrs. McEachern, his adoptive mother. For those females with whom he should feel “safe,” (like Mrs. McEachern), he shuns them. The mother-safety of the dietitian’s room was ripped away from him, so he avoids any such connection with other women. The refusal to accept safety and love stems from this initial experience of imagined safety and pleasure, which is destroyed. As a child, he was unaware of his intrusion of privacy, and the destruction of innocence and the violence that occurs in that scene are not on the part of the male (Charley) in the sexual encounter; it is, significantly, the woman. Christmas’s illusion of innocence and enjoyment is broken, as the text repeats that the dietitian was “no longer smooth pink-and-white,” (122) a physical association Christmas had made as a child. The pink toothpaste represents his initial concept of the dietitian—sweet, enjoyable, fun, yet it makes him vomit, which exposes him to her white wrath against his childlike (“little”), yet unforgiveable blackness. It is here, in the narrative, that Joe learns that what society deems badness is associated with blackness.

This violent exposure to sexual encounter/the primal scene, shapes not only his concept of manliness, blackness and whiteness, but his sexual identity and his future relational issues with women. He has difficulty experiencing sex without violence, much like the dietitian primal scene—which includes both sex and violence. Forter explains the repetitive revisiting of the traumatic violent scene through dissociation:

Traumas…become accessible only in the mind’s recursive attempts to master what it has in some sense failed to experience in the first instance. A punctual incursion on the mind, having ‘dissociated’ consciousness from itself, installs an unprocessed memory- trace that returns unbidden, as delayed effect, in an effort to force the mind to digest this previously unclaimed kernel of experience (259).

The pressure to experience sex deepens Joe’s dissociation: it becomes more of a sin to be called a virgin as a teenage boy, then to commit fornication, yet even Mr. McEachern, his adoptive, extremely strict, father, considers Joe’s sexual activity a conversion into manhood: “‘What else would you want with a new suit if you were not whoring?’ And then he [McEachern] acknowledged that the child whom he had adopted twelve years ago was a man” (Faulkner 164). When Joe learns of his first “love’s” [Bobbie] sexual history and current promiscuity, his vision of safety with her is also destroyed. He has no idea she is a prostitute, and is hurt, yet a “man” isn’t supposed to be hurt by this revelation. He acts out in violence throughout the text not only because of this hurtful event, but because his “repressed memories are reactivated [time and time again], that is, but the defenses against remembering remain strong enough to produce a kind of compromise formation, a symptomatic acting out in which the body ‘expresses’ the memories in a language that consciousness cannot decipher” (Forter 262).

His bodily expression of the memories is violence and avoidance, which only perpetuate the cycle of traumatic histories ingrained in him during childhood traumas that rot his innocence and ability to experience true pleasure and trust in a sexual relationship. He fails to have intimate relationships because of his own difficulty in defining himself and of what his desires consist. His definition of other women can always be threaded back to the initial primal scene.

Works Cited

Faulkner, William. Light in August. New York: Random House, 1990. Print.

Forter, Greg. “Freud, Faulkner, Caruth: Trauma and the Politics of Literary Form.” Narrative 15. 3 (October 2007): 259-285. Project Muse. 20 September 2013. Print.

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  1. Rasheeda Daugherty

    Honestly, when I started my sophomore year at High School I did not understand the meaning of a “difficult read” until I was introduced to Hawthorne and Faulkner. This one is certainly not for the “faint at heart” because it is a difficult read.

    Anyway, what I liked about it was that it actually made me think and the various complexity of the characters.

  2. Intriguing post. Light in August definitely recounts a thought provoking tale.

  3. Admittedly, I liked The Sound and the Fury a lot more. Light In August pretty much broke my heart.

    • Stacia Ash

      This is the Faulkner for any reader who threw Sound and the Fury across the room in disgust. =) What a genuine creation this novel is.

  4. M.C.Ritter

    Outstanding study. I feel this book teaches us a lot about what the times were like when it was written.

  5. Emilio Diaz

    Well maybe the symbolism escapes me or whatever, didn’t find this book any good at all!

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