Welcome to another Classic Couple: post! Today I’ll be comparing and contrasting Light in August by William Faulkner (1932) and The Human Stain by Philip Roth (2000). Light in August is one of my favorite Faulkner novels (which is saying a lot because I have many favorite Faulkner novels). Recently I was thinking about this novel and what I could possibly pair it with, and suddenly The Human Stain popped into my head. They are the perfect pair. How had I not recognized all of their similarities before?
Although their settings and circumstances are vastly different, they deal with many of the same themes and questions. Light in August tells the stories of many characters, all dealing with distinct questions regarding their identities: Lena Grove is a pregnant woman hoping to find the father of her child, Joe Christmas passes as white but believes he has black ancestry, Lucas Burch is the father of Lena’s child but ran away and changed his name to escape fatherhood… the list goes on and on. The Human Stain, on the other hand, focuses primarily on the life of a college professor named Coleman Silk who is African American but passes as white. In this way, these two novels play out against different backdrops but involve very similar ideas and questions.
Questions of racial identity.
Both novels have main characters who are African American but pass as white due to their lighter skin tones. In Light in August, Joe Christmas believes he has black ancestors even though everyone thinks he is white when they meet him. In The Human Stain, Coleman Silk tells people he is Jewish in order to “pass” as something other than African American. Not even his wife–who is white–knows he is African American. These questions of race–how it is defined, how one identifies with it, if it is possible to decide your race–permeate both of these novels.
Duality is a core element of these novels. Joe Christmas and Coleman Silk both attempt to embody whiteness and blackness simultaneously, despite their inner turmoil about their identities. When Joanna Burden is murdered in Light in August, Faulkner leaves it open-ended as to whether the murderer is Joe Christmas or the father of Lena’s child. Even Faunia Farley, Coleman Silk’s love interest in The Human Stain, seems to have a secret double life: although she tells Coleman that she is illiterate, she nevertheless leaves behind a diary when she dies. Nothing is as it seems, to any character or to the reader.
It may seem obvious to say that death plays a role in both novels, but it also acts as an important catalyst for revealing new information. The deaths in these novels–notably that of Joanna Burden in Light in August and Coleman Silk and Faunia Farley in The Human Stain–both happen in mysterious, random, unexplained circumstances. Any semblance of reliable answers or concrete facts is obscured, leaving the reader with more questions than they had at the beginning.
The relationship between language and identity.
This is my favorite connection between these two novels: the way Faulkner and Roth play around with the relationship between language and our construction of identity. Faulkner loves to play with names in particular. You have Lena Grove, who is pregnant; Joanna Burden, who is weighed down by menopause; Joe Christmas, who is a sort of Christ figure, etc. In The Human Stain, Roth poses the question of whether or not language can control race. Does Coleman Silk saying he is a Jew mean he is not African American? Does the fact that he never told his family about his race mean that his kids are not African American either? Roth fosters this tension between language and “truth” throughout the novel.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this Classic Couple! As always, you can check out my other Classic Couple posts here.
What are your thoughts on either/both of these novels? What other books share these similarities? What classics would you like me to feature in the future? Let me know in the comments section below!