- Ends and Loose Ends:The Triptych Conclusion of Light in August
In the second chapter of Light in August (1932), a chapter told primarily from the point of view of Byron Bunch, a narrative presence more distanced and objective than Byron offers the following caution about the difficulty of interpreting human motivation: "Man knows so little about his fellows. In his eyes all men or women act upon what he believes would motivate him if he were mad enough to do what that other man or woman is doing" (43). Antecedent to the often-debated question of whether free will or determinism governs the characters in William Faulkner's seventh novel is the issue of understanding itself. To the extent that this book implies a cohesive philosophy of life, it is that life at least resists and probably defies explanation.1 Therefore, the ambiguity and paradox of the three-part conclusion—substantively and structurally the novel's loose ends—cement the epistemological integrity of Light in August and set the capstone to one of its major themes, the poverty of comprehension against [End Page 675] the rich complexity of action.
Among commentators, widespread agreement exists on several matters relating to point of view that are also central to this discussion of the three-stage ending.2 First, the voices that tell the story of Light in August represent the spoken words, the conscious thoughts, and the unconscious thoughts of both major and minor characters alike. Second, there is also a moire comprehensive voice that at times is virtually identified with the community (reminiscent of the narrator in "A Rose for Emily") and at other times approaches but probably never reaches the utter objectivity of an omniscient narrator. Finally, besides narrating the events of the plot, all these voices speculate with varying degrees of inaccuracy about the motivations that precipitate those events. François Pitavy describes the characters in this novel as "self-exiled in the realm of the imaginary and thus cut off from . . . a recognition of the Other, or of reality" (Casebook xv). The result of this exile in the imaginary is speculative narration, about which Arthur Kinney says: "There are many apparent facts which, when pressed, are mere illusion. Storytelling and rumor replace observation; judgment and memory displace witnessed knowledge" (7-8). And underlying this pervading narrative uncertainty, Hugh Ruppersburg finds "the idea that human behavior often remains permanently inexplicable" (33-34), an idea that, as will be shown, both logically informs and artistically justifies the multiple endings.
Individually, the endings to the separate-but-linked stories of Joe Christmas and Joanna Burden, the Reverend Gail Hightower, and Byron Bunch and Lena Grove are even more perplexing than critics have shown, with each ending suggesting not just alternative but contradictory resolutions to the story line it concludes. Striking similarities and marked differences among both characters and situations encourage consideration of each story in light of the other two. Specifically, the ambiguity of the independent endings clues the reader to regard the entire book as concluding on more than the single note of its Byron-Lena finale. The three discrete endings form a cumulative triptych ending whose parts counterpoint and qualify each other and, in doing so, broaden the implications of the whole. To understand Light in August is, finally, to comprehend its range of possibilities, not to reduce it to a point.
Phase one of the triptych, Chapter Nineteen, finishes the major plot thread about Joe Christmas and Joanna Burden. Joe's death here and the death of Joanna in Chapter Twelve are as intertwined as the lives of these two characters and must be considered together. Demonstrably willed and intended, their deaths are a three-dimensional response to and judgment on their predicament. On the broadest scale, their virtual self-sacrifices [End Page 676] constitute a nihilistic denial of blighted lives. More intimately, though, their deaths are a perverse declaration of mutual dependence, affirming their unwillingness to carry on separately, which would mean surrendering the sense of near-completeness afforded by their volatile relationship. In the deaths of Joe and Joanna, there is thus something like the redemptive commitment of the lovers' last...