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MELANIE MASTERTON SHERAZI University of California, Los Angeles “Playing It Out Like a Play”: Joe Christmas and Joanna Burden’s Erotic Masquerade in William Faulkner’s Light in August AT THE FIGURATIVE CENTER OF WILLIAM FAULKNER’S LIGHT IN AUGUST IS the mysterious murder of the “spinster” (232) Joanna Burden, who is found with her throat slit inside of her burning home on the outskirts of Jefferson.1 Though the townspeople had long ostracized and derided Joanna as a “Yankee, a lover of negroes,” they assemble within minutes, chorus-like, eager for the perpetrator of this “negro crime” (46, 287, 288) against a white woman to be punished.2 Joe Christmas, an itinerant laborer who passes as a white man but is bitterly convinced that he is “part nigger” (254), is named as Joanna Burden’s murderer and a manhunt ensues that culminates in his being shot to death and castrated. These dramatic and gruesome details, narrated though they are in non-linear fashion, mark the denouement and epilogue of a three-act play that occurs within the novel, starring Joanna Burden and Joe Christmas as its principal actors. The narrator recounts three “phases” (260, 256, 268), or acts, in which Joe and Joanna assume multiple gendered and racialized roles, “playing it out like a play” (259). A marked attention to the performative and to social scripts and their oppressive demands pervades Light in August, warranting a sustained critical reading. Through a complex web of flashbacks, the reader learns that Joe and Joanna had a three-year sexual liaison on her property. Their affair is a 1 For an extended reading of the novel as a mystery, see Wilhelm’s analysis of the relationship between visual spectacle and knowledge. 2 As critics like Wittenberg and Snead have observed, the narrator, who speaks on behalf of the collective, espouses a heteronormative tone that is coded as male, which works to further emphasize the patriarchal imperatives undergirding this lethal drama. Snead also notes the narrator’s complicity in “turn[ing] arbitrary codes of dominance into ‘fact’” (85). 484 Melanie Masterton Sherazi mobile site of pleasure and pain, attraction and revulsion, that (re)enacts and makes visible what Sharon Patricia Holland terms the “erotic life of racism,” which she defines as “the bridge between theories of race and theories of sexuality in all of their diverse complexity” (32). Joe and Joanna’smeetingsarealmostexclusivelyillicitnighttimetrystsinvolving theatrical stagingand choreographedmovementsinandaroundJoanna’s house, performances of the prohibition against miscegenation and its violation. The ambiguity of Joe’s and Joanna’s respective investments in the relationship raises a series of critical questions regarding the libidinal forces driving this couple’s fatal relationship. Joe’s revelation to Joanna of his belief that he has black blood fuels the erotic energy of their meetings. Their affair, however, is neither a simple violation of the law, nor the product of a set of biological facts, but rather the manifestation of a collective social fantasy, conjured within racialized and gendered structures of domination. Though Joe and Joanna engage in a private performance of gender play and policing that is predicated upon the prohibition against miscegenation and its violation, their erotic play is always already public insofar as its climax and outcome are predetermined and will be played out upon the public stage. A provocative, perplexing character, Joe Christmas has endlessly fascinated critics. Though Joanna Burden regularly receives mention in discussions of the novel, she has received far less developed critical treatment. Moreover, readings of Light in August rarely set these two characters in an extended analysis, as the novel itself does with its staging of their three-act play. Situating the racialized aspects of Joe and Joanna’s affair as inextricable from the gender play and policing that unfolds between them during their extended performance of the taboo of miscegenation and its violation allows for examination of the novel’s engagement with the erotic life of racisim. The first act of their play relates the exposition of their meeting in Joanna’s home on the periphery of town and introduces a conflict best described as what Judith Butler has termed “gender trouble”—a concept that Jay Watson develops in his compelling reading of the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2689-517X
Print ISSN
0026-637X
Pages
pp. 483-506
Launched on MUSE
2020-02-27
Open Access
No
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