www.eprace.edu.pl » race-and-racism » JOE CHRISTMAS – METAPHOR FOR “EVERYMAN” IN THE DIVIDED SOCIETY


The Model of Hierarchy of Needs developed by Abraham Maslow precisely defines the conditions which are necessary for the proper functioning of an individual in a particular social structure. Maslow specifies the following needs: physiological, safety, love and belonging, esteem, self-realization.55According to a representative of social constructivism, Henry Murray, needs cause "inner tension" which an individual tries to release by fulfilling them.56 On the other hand, the lack of possibility to meet the needs does not forbid an individual to be a part of society, because, as was stated by the Canadian psychologist, Donald Hebb in his book The organization of behaviour: "animals and humans seek a level of ‘optimal arousal’ at which they function the best without having to meet any other basic needs.”57

Joe Christmas is an example of a person who, with the exception of basic physiological needs, has no other answered. From the moment of his birth, until his death his needs are ignored by the community in which he lives, and this means that his full adaptation to social norms of that community is not possible.

Black children learned what it meant to be black in the South of the United States at that time through the buffer of their families. They were subjects to segregation, but they had the support of the community to which they belonged. Joe Christmas is devoid of that base. When the old man in an orphanage answers ruthlessly to Chritmas' remark : “‘I ain’t a nigger’- that he is "’worse than that,’" because he does not know what he is and will never know58, apart from the obvious desire to hurt the child and show him his superiority, he simply states a fact.

As Hammond clames, "Primary socialization typically begins at birth and moves forward until the beginning of the school years. Primary Socialization includes all the ways the newborn is molded into a social being capable of interacting in and meeting the expectations of society. Most primary socialization is facilitated by the family, friends, day care, and to a certain degree various forms of media (...) Children learn how to talk, interact with others, share, manage frustrations, follow the “rules”, and grow up to be like older family and friends they know."59 In the case of the main character this stage of socialization failed. Joe Christmas went through the process of negative socialization, and it has a huge impact on his attitude towards himself and the community.

Joe Christmas rebels against the social norms which are in force in the American South. This attitude, which eventually leads to his death, indicating that the main character of Light in August is looking not so much for his identity, but rather for acceptance of his strangeness by others, and that the search is a fundamental part of his existence. His struggle is doomed to failure, and the conformist attitude (acceptance of white community's values) would be in his case a much better choice, as it would give him full civil rights. However, since his adoption by McEchern, Joe Christmas is fighting for the right to be himself. He does not even do it consciously. It is just a part of his nature, as it is shown in the scene below: ”The child was not listening. He was not bothered. He did not especially care, anymore than if the man had said the day was hot when it was not hot. He didn’t even bother to say to himself, my name ain’t McEachern. My name is Christmas. There was no need to bother about that yet. There was plenty of time.”60

Almost thirty years after the described episode, the main character is still fighting. The moment when Christmas is considering a possible marriage with Joanna, which would give him "peace and security to the end of life"61 , in the best way shows what is the most important for him. He rejects this possibility because by accepting it,he "would deny all the thirty years that he has lived to make him what he chose to be." 62

The main character in Light in August is often regarded as somebody who: “poses a unique twist to passing: the character passes as white and passes as black.”63
It implies a person with mixed-race origin aspiring to be a part of the white or black community. In my opinion, Christmas can not be described as “passing (aspiring) to black” because as a man socialized among white people, he scorns black Americans. On the other hand, despite the traumatic experiences of his early childhood, Joe Christmas has all the makings of a white person. McEcharn, in spite of all his cruelty and callousness, does not care about Christmas' background. He just wants him to adopt his values. Christmas’ appearance and the way he speaks, does not indicate the fact that he can belong to a different race either. He does not have to aspire to be white because, from the white community's point of view, he is white already. Otherwise, he would not be allowed to be part of it. From the white Southerners' viewpoint, personality traits are closely associated with racial affiliation (Gavin talks about blood) and no one is able to change them. Under such circumstances, the only chance for Christmas to build a positive image of himself, is an acceptance of his strangeness by the other members of the white community. He wants to be accepted, regardless of his racial background. Therefore, he always mentions his origin, although this behaviour leads eventually to his death.

One of the key moments in the novel is a scene showing a group of white people playing cards on the porch and Christmas' words: "'That's all I wanted,' [...]. 'That do not seem like a whole lot to ask."64 The circle of light falling on a group of friends on the one hand, and Joe Christmas standing alone in the dark on the other,- is actually a picture of social life in the American South. Being white means here full citizenship, sense of security and belonging together with social status. The protagonist behaves as if he could not understand why he can not belong to the circle with "one drop of the foreign blood." His attitude is in the best way illustrated by his words: "Just when do men that have different blood in them stop hating one another?” 65 From this perspective, his lonely and doomed struggle can be interpreted as a revolt against the existing social order, and he himself appears to be a romantic hero. His hatred towards women and blacks is directed against the slavish system which is mindlessly accepted by its victims.

One of the characteristics of totalitarian regimes is their total control of every aspect of social life. Joanna and Christmas' relationship may be an illustration of that fact. Christmas hates women because they are weak. Joanna is quite different. At first sight, she seems to epitomise all the features that Christmas has learned to respect. She is strong. She runs a plantation, works with full devotion for the sake of the black community. Like the main character, she is lonely and independent. Because she does not fit into the society in which she lives, she is excluded. Her business affairs are run by a black lawyer and she works for the emancipation of black people. She feels safe because she is guarded by the black population of the town. From the point of view of an outside observer, she is an idealist, sacrificing her live for others.

A key issue in assessing Joanna's attitude are the motives which guide her. Her work for the sake of the black community does not originate from her beliefs. It is a mission - "a burden" imposed on her by her father. In carrying out his will, she has to "improve" black men, and it takes every moment of her life. For this reason, she is able to function only among the black community in her superior role, and that what seems to be sacrifice is only a specific form of adaptation to the conditions of social life in the American South during the times of racial segregation. Joanna does not believe that black Americans are equal. They are a shadow in which she has to live. Her work is a continual self-improvement, which is a result of both her father's message ("But in order to rise, you must raise the shadow with you. But you can never lift it to your level") and Puritan's ethic. Despite her apparent strength, she is not able to resist these words, and she lives realizing her father's will, and not admitting to her own needs. The appearance of Christmas is a change. He is an opportunity for her to make up for lost years. Because of his uncertain origin and low socio-economic status, he fits perfectly into Joanna's preference. In line with her image of the world, she treats Christmas as an inferior and worse. After he raped her, she shows him his place, leaving the kitchen door (in the homes of white Southerners used by black servants) open. Joanna is not able to overcome the social pattern, which puts her higher in the hierarchy. She is not able to create a relationship based on partnership, but at the same time she does not want to allow Christmas to leave. (Therefore, she comes to his hut and tells him her life which is wrongly treated by Christmas as an act of surrender).

For Christmas, Joanna is initially a hope for full acceptance. The life she leads indicates that she is devoid of racial prejudice. Her high social status, full independence, emotionless and almost male attitude attract Christmas, who is trying to get from her any affection, even if it would be hate. Therefore, he raped her, but the only thing he achieves is another demonstration of dominance. If Christmas had any chance to withdraw from the relationship (which he is trying to do), it is at that moment. But Joanna does not allow it. She comes over to his cabin and tells him about herself in the context of her family's history. Christmas is disillusioned by the conversation in which Joanna says that "a man would have to act as the land where he was born had trained him to act,"66 and he starts considering their relationship "as though he had fallen into a sewer."67

Joanna acts in the ruthless and consistent way. She uses Christmas as a tool to fullfil her needs while not letting him go. She tries to get pregnant and when it fails, she wants to impose a race on him, sending him into a "black" college, after finishing which, he were going to be her attorney. If Christmas agreed, she would gain complete control over him, because as a black person, he would be excluded from the white community. It would turn him, in fact, into her slave. The need for dominance is a major force in Joanna Burden's life. She is cold and calculating. Confident about her pregnancy, she does not show any warmer feelings, calling her child "a bastard negro child."68 Joanna's problem lies in the fact that she does not believe in love or can not feel it. Like all individuals possessed by the need for dominance, she believes that she can control people using money. On the other hand, Christmas can not get away from her because he loves her. It is shown in a scene where he gets a note from Joanna: "He should have realised then the reason why he had not gone away. He should have seen that he was bound just as tightly by that small square of still undivulging paper as though it were a lock and chain."69

Joanna plays in Christmas' life just as destructive role as McEcharn - her male counterpart in the novel. Like him, she is for Christmas the never realized promise of acceptance and family warmth. The pattern of their behaviour is similar. Each of them has their "mission" to fulfil, and each of them uses other people to realize it. They both need Christmas as the epitome of their efforts and at the same time a tool to achieve them. None of them accepts his personal choices, and they do not allow him to become fully independent. The main character kills both. By killing McEcharn, the protagonist begins his adult's life while by killing Joanna, he finishes it.

The death of the main character is often interpreted as liberation from his hopeless existence. Killing people who are in any way inconvenient for the system is typical of totalitarian regimes.The South of the United States was not exception. In my opinion, the scene of Christmas' castration and death is a metaphor for the enslavement of individual by system. The black blood flowing out of Christmas’ body illustrates the fact that in that particular reality, a human being can be himself only in the moment of death. In the Christian tradition, death is a liberation only if it finishes a life full of love and goodness. If not, it is a punishment which sentences a man for an eternal torment. Percy Gawin's words after Christmas' castration: " Now you’ll let white women alone, even in hell," indicate that the white, Puritan community of Jamestown assume a role of punishing God. However, in the novel the main character is presented as an average sinner: “His own life, for all its anonymous promiscuity, had been conventional enough, as a life of healthy and normal sin usually is.”70

The only "sin" which is committed by Christmas towards white people of Jamestown is his lack of instinct for self-preservation. Owing to his "lack of racial heritage," Christmas himself can be considered as the Everyman. Each person is unique and everyone, in a sense, is alone like Christmas. The labels of belonging which are accepted by most of people are in fact protective colouring which allows surviving in the society dominated by the "stronger - weaker" relationship. In this context, people do not differ from animals and what makes them human beings is their "uniqueness". Faulkner shows it using "’race’ as a metaphor for human difference and as a trope of great power in the word".71


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