The ‘Savage’ in Faulkner’s text and Rousseau’s jungle
NOTE: Please view the paintings referenced in this assignment. I could not copy the images with my submission. urls provided
As I read ‘Light in August’, my first introduction to Faulkner, I am struck hard by his savage text. I am shocked and stunned. I am afraid. I am reminded of my mother’s legacy, my own, hot and sweaty in the cotton fields and dance halls of the Deep South. The murky stories of abuse and insanity that lurk in the shadows and broad daylight of my past, of mixed race, butchery and stolen dreams. I am reminded too of Henri Rousseau’s Jungle paintings. The ‘Negro attacked by a Jaguar’ shown above, the ‘Snake Charmer’ and ‘The Hungry Lion’. The savageness of these paintings in the context of the lush and fertile jungle captures the contrast and cruelty that Faulkner masters in words.
Faulkner’s direct use of the word ‘savage’ occurs some 20 times in ‘Light in August’. The first half dozen times are concentrated in the initial 25 pages with repeated brutality in what at first glance seems the oddest of places, in the home of the couple Mrs. and Mr. Armstid, the man who first picks up Lena Grove off the side of the road on her way to Jefferson. This crucial meeting is the threshold to the events that play out in Light in August and foreboding of what lays ahead.
Mrs Armstid, a haggard, bitter women ‘not plum and not thin, manhard, workhard, in a serviceable gray garment worn savage and brusque…” (16) with a ‘savage screw of gray hair at he base of her skull…’ (18) speaks ‘savagely and harshly’ when she finds out Lena is unwed and pregnant. She ties up the coins from her eggmoney that she gives to Lena to get rid of her with ‘savage finality’ (21-22). Mrs Armstid knows what misfortunes lay ahead for Lena Grove, poor and pregnant white-trash with no spouse, shoes or sense. She knows the cruelty of this community, even felt from the edge of town.
“The Serpent Charmer”, by Henri Rousseau
As the story progresses we meet the strange and frightening duo; the impulsive and reckless Mr. Brown and the mysterious, menacing and racially ambiguous Mr. Christmas. They labor together in the sawmill at the sawdust pile “the one with that brooding and savage steadiness, the other with a high-armed and erratic motion which could not have been fooling even itself” (39). We find out later the tragic beginnings of Joe Christmas. How he survived the orphanage only to fall victim of the sadistic beatings of the evil yet outwardly ultra-religious Mr McEachern. In one tragic scene Joe Christmas at a tender age of eight is left with his food in the corner of his dark room “with his hands ate, like a savage, like a dog.” (155)
But, it is not just people that are portrayed as savage by Faulkner. Savagery lives in the fabric of world around them. He describes the “thousand savage and lonely streets (220) and “the street, lonely, savage, and cool” (260) that Joe