In the pursuit of an excellent account of racial and gender discrimination, William Faulkner and Jean Toomer both have significantly incorporated the strength of female characters that persist to have a depth in the soul of every story they created. William Faulkner’s Light in August is a novel of intense reflection on the issues of hatred for racial and gender identity in the South and the restricting beliefs of a Calvinistic religion. Considered as one of his best novels, the story depicts the orphan life of Joe Christmas, who thinks of himself as having a part-black blood because of a confusing historical descent.
This vague past takes him into a rebellious and self-destructive journey towards self-discovery, eventually leading in his defeat caused by a devastating affair with a spinster named Joanna Burden. Joanna Burden portrays an in-depth character in the life of Joe Christmas and in the story as a whole. To begin with, Joanna is a middle-aged civil rights activist and spinster from the North who is known to have lived alone for time immemorial.
A stranger to her fellow town folks, she continues to struggle for a better condition of the Negroes in the town of Jefferson since her father and grandfather were dedicated individuals to liberating the Negroes. People then accuse her as a lover of black men. This idea of social responsibility is passed on to Joanna until her growing up years. Initially described as pro-Negroes, the character of Joanna presents some surprising twists when she finds herself in a two-year relationship with Joe. Already tortured about his past, Joe is disappointed as he realizes that Joanna fails to accept him for his confusing black-white descent.
Joanna’s indifference toward Joe’s ancestry seems to have contradicted her image as an advocate of Negro rights. During her fulfilling experience of sex with Joe, she particularly cries out his black race, obviously making such distinction in Joe’s bloodline: “Negro! Negro! Negro! ” (Faulkner 260). Along the way when Joanna is finally feeling tired of this sexual experience with Joe, her voice depicted as “still, monotonous, sexless” (Faulkner 281), knowing that she is passed the phase of sexuality. Her confusion starts to overcome her whole being.
She begins demanding for him to change his lifestyle. She asks him to get a job, pursue his educated, and most of all, to pray. Suddenly, Joe, too, feels disappointed on the turn-out of the relationship: “It was as though he had fallen into a sewer… the sewer ran only by night” (Faulkner 256). But Joe refuses to pray, and Joanna decides to kill him: Over her nightdress she wore a shawl drawn down across her breast… he saw her arms unfold and her right hand come forth from beneath the shawl. It held an old style… revolver almost as long and heavier than a small rifle.
But the shadow of it and of her arm and hand on the wall did not waver at all, the dow of both monstrous, the cocked hammer monstrous, back-hooked and viciously poised like the arched head of a snake… (Faulkner 282). The climax of her plan only fails when the gun did not fire at him. Joanna is a definite example of two opposing ideas, of an irony that kills a society during that time. She is a living witness to two races that refuse to be linked to one another. She is an advocator and at the same time, a destroyer of the black race that her family has gone to love and stand up for.
Much like the old Doc Hines, Joanna’s attempt to bring down Joe is perhaps more dangerous since hers is an attempt to erase Joe’s individuality and roots. On the other hand, Jean Toomer’s Fern, from the book collection of Cane, is in the beginning a representation of a beautiful and misunderstood black woman named Fernie May Rosen. However, the profound depiction of Fern is not only woman in such case, rather a lost identity of a nation and its people. In Toomer’s story, note how the narrator stresses on Fern’s Jewish descent: “Her nose was aquiline, Semitic.
If you have heard a Jewish cantor sing, (14)…But at first sight of her I felt as if I heard a Jewish cantor sing. As if his singing rose above the unheard chorus of a folk-song…” (15). Fern is the ultimate epitome of the all-American race, and so is the salvation of humankind. She is the racial heritage that Toomer seeks to identify with in his pursuit for artistic expression. Also, some critics say that the story is more than a description of an inner spiritual experience of Fern with the narrator in the context of rural South.
Instead, they both witness an experience in which the unreal border of self and the other subside. In the story, Fern is at first described as an easy woman whom black men find no happiness being with. Fern is described as being ignored by the white men in her society, just like Toomer’s personal experience of artistic and cultural dissatisfaction in a white community. And because of this, Toomer is fascinated by Fern’s character and the idea of it. Yet, a change of fate takes them in a mysterious longing for her beauty, especially the white male narrator of the story.
The case is not with the blacks as victims of racial isolation, but instead the whites who are suffering from not having been a part of Fern. The narrator states that, “She did not deny them, yet the fact was that they were denied. A sort of superstition crept into their consciousness of her being somehow…” (Toomer 14). Fern is the image of a sorrowful soul of the browbeaten minority, yet simply unattainable. She exemplifies the beautiful cultural identity that is difficult to maintain in a contemporary setting, the ancestral lineage that becomes vague with multi-cultural interactions and birthing lost in the passing of time.
The ending of the story describes Fern as all the more mystified with the failing of any kind of understanding and hope for the world around her, her voice that nobody can understand until she faints. The readers are given a view of Fern to display a beauty as hers exists, but that is all. Both Faulkner and Toomer are obviously immersed on the issues of racial and gender discrimination as clearly symbolic in their female characters. In their roles, they pose as grave threats to the unending search of men to find personal identity in a discriminating society.
They also present them as crazy and misunderstood women condemned by male-dominated culture. However, they eventually become icons of beauty for men to behold, which is vividly illustrated in Fern’s story: “Men are apt to idolize… that which they cannot understand, especially if it be a woman” (Toomer 16). Another thing as a common ground for Faulkner and Toomer is how they showcase the theme of mankind’s inability to complement the soul, mind, and body through the eyes of a female character.
Women, in their pursuit to find happiness and be accepting of its society, fail miserably in the arms of their so-called lovers. Despite the disparity of ways in interpreting these critical writings, the readers would delve inside the stories of its characters and come to a point of realization that both Faulkner and Toomer’s female characters are embodiment of the neglected and exhausted beauty of the dying black community, constantly struggling to find its way to achieving peace and harmony in an ever-changing world that is too complex to live in and understand.
Or, simply say that these writings are lucid representations of the inescapable truth that lies in any man’s shared and sad destiny.
Works Cited Faulkner, William. Light in August. Vintage Books: New York, 1959. Toomer, J. “Fern”. Cane. Liveright Publishing: New York, 1993. 14-17
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