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Southern Literary Onomastics: The Civil War and Its Post-structural Consequences in Light in August

About the Author: Rebecca Tishler

Rebecca Tishler is a junior at Mount Holyoke College, majoring in English with a minor in French. She is interested in the literature of the American South, poststructuralism, literary onomastics, and magical realism. She plans to expand this paper into a senior thesis and to later pursue a PhD in American Studies.

By Rebecca Tishler | General Essays

William Faulkner’s literature can be seen to operate thematically around a close attention to names and naming, as a way of highlighting issues of memory, lineage, objectification, and identity in the antebellum and post-Civil War South. The war shredded all notions of permanence of objects and places by giving former property legal personhood, turning wealthy plantation-based communities into ghost towns, and renaming counties in honor of Southern nationalists. At the same time, these dramatic changes, in addition to the staggering Confederate death toll, further strengthened the familial bonds that had been the foundation of Southern society in the antebellum period.

Examining the characters in Light in August offers a particularly compelling opportunity to understand Faulkner’s onomastics. Family history and collective memories are passed down through names, which had traditionally bbbeen seen as “wordsymbols” (Faulkner, Light in August 258) for identity and self: ultimately, who you are is a synecdoche for who and what came before you. Those characters that had family involved in the war are haunted by those memories and are rendered paralyzed by the passive connection to their ancestors through their common name. Other characters, because of a lack of family name or fluidity in the names they call themselves, are free to move around but have no home nor place in society. These characters are treated similarly to objects and places after the war, marked by an arbitrary relationship to what they are called and what they are, which is to say, post-structurally. Joe Christmas is the archetypal example, being the living metaphor for a text upon which others scrawl and scribble. The regional rigidity within available identities through names and naming denies these characters a full expression of themselves, in addition to restricting their access to a comfortable station in a Southern society desperately clinging to “the old order.” There is, in fact, more opportunity for alienation than acceptance.

Post-structuralism, the literary theory defined by scholars such as Jacques Derrida and Roland Barthes, rests upon the premise of structural linguistics: there is no inherent relationship between a signifier, or “sound-image,” and the signified, “the concept or meaning” (Eagleton 84) Therefore, there is an arbitrary link between a thing and the word used to identify it. This leaves the idea of “meaning” as something slippery and intangible, context-specific and changing constantly (Eagleton 60). Post-structuralism provides an interesting lens when examining the names of objects and things, but particularly the way in which names and naming practices inform or subvert one’s identity. Names and identities are intrinsically linked: what one is called informs how they see themselves and how they interact with others. A name is what distinguishes one person from another, and seems to provide a stable identity with which to conduct oneself in the world. But if there is no inherent relationship between a person and what they are called, then that opens up the possibility for an innumerable number of applicable names and, therefore, identities: “meaning…is thus never identical with itself” (Eagleton 111).

Faulkner himself has a rather loose interpretation of what things could be called, choosing to eschew the conventions of modern English to create his own, more descriptive words. His neologism “wordsymbols” is apt in describing traditional Southern attitudes towards the names and naming of people. In this sense, people embody the names they are given or call themselves; far from convenient shorthand, names become tangible indicators of who a person is and how he or she will act. In Light in August, Byron Bunch explains that “a man’s name…is supposed to be just the sound for who he is” (Faulkner 33). And because names represent the legacy of family history and meaning that has come before, any notion of self has been predetermined. That is what Faulkner means when he says, “Memory believes before knowing remembers” (Faulkner, Light in August 119). Memories and histories haunt without even trying, because they are intrinsic and essential to everything people do as recipients of family names. Names are seen in this way as the pillars of the person: solid, foundational, and unchanging. Without names, one can have no hope of understanding who anyone else is.


Key in the tradition of naming is the necessary passivity of the named party. Names are conceived of as given, not negotiated or discussed. With a family name, the understanding of one’s self is passively but profoundly influenced by ancestral memories and histories. The importance of family and lineage is inherent in the Southern identity. Before the Civil War, the South’s rural composition caused governing and economic institutions to develop at a much slower rate than in the metropolitan North (Billingsley 103). Kinship networks picked up the slack, becoming “the main organizational institution of [Southern] life” (Billingsley 103). Economic and political power was linked to family ties: those with access to an extensive kinship group used those links to their benefit, creating family dynasties that dominated virtually every facet of county life, the main community form in the South (Billingsley 97; Gulley 232). Families were therefore rooted in places; certain regions of a state and particular counties were teeming with members of the same kinship group (Billingsley 25). In such places, local history and family history were intertwined and, in many instances, inextricable. In his short story “The Bear,” Faulkner explains that the McCaslin family’s commissary ledger “was a whole land in miniature, which multiplied and compounded was the entire South” (Go Down, Moses 280). Individual members of these kinship groups linked themselves to other distant family members through names and naming: naming a son after the maiden name of the father’s maternal grandmother, for instance (Billingsley 57). These naming patterns fixed children within an intricate system of familial relationships, and “constantly reinforced and extended the bonds of kinship” across social institutions and geographic locations (Billingsley 24). Implicit in the naming of children after relatives was the honoring of those family members, by keeping their stories and legacy alive in the youthful body of their new kin. Family names act as links to the past, conveying the family’s paths by the way in which their descendants are called.

Because of the nature of an identity based upon family names and family history, it is assumed that a name acts as a kind of revelatory guide to understanding someone’s identity, when in fact this information is interpreted in different ways from person to person. Everyone approaches Joe Christmas’ name, for example, as a synecdoche for who he is, but what that means differs for everyone based on biases and prejudices. This is to say that the other characters approach his name post-structurally, but as a means to oppress Joe, to stigmatize him in as many ways as possible. For example, Mr. McEachern, his foster father, refers to his last name as “heathenish…sacrilege” and treats Joe in a similar manner, literally beating the catechism and word of God into his foster-son (Faulkner, Light in August 144, 149). For the workers in the mill, his name is as “an augur…as soon as they heard it, it was as though there was something in the sound of it that was trying to tell him what to expect” (Faulkner 33). Notably, Faulkner adds that, “none of them had sense enough to recognize it,” “it” being their expectations for Christmas’ behavior, as if they would be more ready to oppress him as best they could if only they had been more aware of the opportunity. His name itself is easily recognizable and associative: everyone in a predominantly Christian society such as the South will have their own connections with a holiday like Christmas, and therefore would associate Joe with their own ideas and memories of what the day means. Furthermore, by being named after a special day and therefore devoid of any personal connection with a kinship group, Joe is further linked not to personhood but to objectification. Thus, it makes sense that Christmas’ self, his identity, his “flesh itself” is described as being a “parchment color” (Faulkner, Light in August 34). He is literally a text upon which other characters write. Through the post-structural interpretation of his name, Joe becomes an object that can be molded and used for anyone’s devices. Like objects and places in Faulkner’s post-war imagination of the South, he has a freedom of movement and identity that stems from his “unfixed” name. 

In this way, it is impossible to begin or achieve self-definition without having access to some knowledge of geographic and familial origins. In an effort to attain this self-definition, Joe begins by defining himself and other things post-structurally, by what they are not. When Bobbie asks Joe his name, he responds first, “It’s not McEachern”; this clearly establishes what he is not, before illuminating what he is, “It’s Christmas” (Faulkner, Light in August184). Joe Christmas’ identity is centered on this idea of liminality, or existing on the boundaries: he is as much of what he is as what he is not. He is both black and white and neither; he is attracted to masculine women, but really no one at all.

This post-structural self-definition is a threat to Faulkner’s “old order” South, where communities are closed and act as one conscious cohesive unit known as “the town” (Faulkner 62). It is in this organization, the “small town,” where Byron Bunch notes, “people can invent more of…evil…in other people’s names” (Faulkner, Light in August 71). There is no room for challenges to the established order, where governance is based on strict categories of identity rooted in antebellum society. Status in society—free or slave, person or property—was easily delineated along the lines of skin color. Any mixing, either of race or class, was not tolerated. Families and kinship groups imposed their own systems of justice because of their immense strength in number: in Faulkner’s story “Pantaloon in Black,” the character Rider is killed by a lynch mob after murdering another man, an event explained away and ignored by the sheriff because the murdered man’s family represents “forty-two active votes” in the county (Faulkner 150). In Light in August, the imposition of antebellum order takes the form of Percy Grimm. As if his obsession with uniforms reminiscent of the Confederate army were any hint, he believes that “the white race is superior to any and all other races…” and with his vigilante organization, he takes it upon himself to “preserve order” on behalf of the town of Jefferson (451). Grimm and his followers eventually kill Joe; the post-structural nature of his identity, limitless and intangible, must be eradicated for the old ways of the South to endure.

Other characters are seen as the embodiments of their names. Names are their identifications and therefore their identities, and the two cannot be separated. Reverend Hightower is consumed by the stories of his family’s involvement in the Civil War, a memory that he revisits constantly even though he was not alive to experience the events firsthand. The stories of his relatives that were transmitted through his name are woven into the fabric of his being so thickly and imperceptibly that he has no choice but to carry them as his own. Joanna Burden is another example, inheriting her family’s name and therefore their haunting legacy: she is left debilitated by the gravesite near her home and by the memories of past events that she was not even alive to experience. She explained to Joe that the cedar grove where her relatives were buried had a certain haunting quality, “that when I went into it, the grove put on me so that I would never be able to forget it” (Faulkner 252). Perhaps because of the way she was paralyzed in the house by the memories of her grandfather’s and brother’s murders, she could never leave and marry and assume a different last name, a different identity. She noted that after her father “Burdened” her with the family ideology, she wanted to flee, telling her father that she, “‘must escape, get away from under the shadow, or I would die.’ ‘You cannot,’ [her father] said” (Faulkner, Light in August 253). Keeping her last name aligned her forever with the past actions of her family members. She is literally burdened by her name. By asking Joe to carry on her family’s tradition of activism, she is asking him to absorb her history (Faulkner, Light in August 268). When she dies, as a woman who lives in a society where inheritance and family names are passed through male descendants, her family’s history dies with her. Marriage would have required this of him as well, since in taking his name she is relinquishing the burden of her legacy to him (Faulkner, Light in August 265). Their descendants would have had his name, Christmas, but her histories as a Burden. Joe rejects both of these ideas as a character doomed to exist on the fringes of familial connections and at the borders of any established and “proper” Southern identity.

Unlike Joanna Burden, whose name is “fixed” and unchanging and therefore physically ties her to a place, characters like Lena Grove and Gail Hightower’s wife have fluidity in movement that comes from the impermanence of their names. Without “fixed” names steeped in family legacy, these characters are without an established kinship network and therefore have no “home” location. They must travel and move on, because they have no roots. Lena Grove is an interesting example. Her family name is “grove,” which implies a certain connection to a feature of the earth marked by peace and serenity. Not only does she embody those personal characteristics, but also comes to embody the earth itself; she wanders because her home is the earth. She is in no way tied to a fixed place. Her inherited name gives her no connection to kinship (because her own family gave her no history, being either dead or uncommunicative) and instead ties her to the expansive planet itself.

Lena then adopts the name “Burch” as her own, for the father of her child who now goes by Brown. With “Burch” acting as a synecdoche for marriage, a settled household, and Lena herself, she has the social liberty to publically search for him and travel freely. When she takes his name, she is taking the idea of being married. Notably, Mrs. Armstid observes that her name is not Burch “yet” (Faulkner, Light in August 17). She still has the ability to move between names and identities, histories and locations. Burch himself might be “Brown,” although his real name might not be either of the two. Faulkner mentions, “there was no reason why his name should not have been Brown” (Light in August 37). When Lena calls herself Burch, because of his ownfluidity in naming and because she is not Burch “yet,” she makes only a temporary connection to a family. And it is a nuclear family, if anything, and therefore inadequate in regards to Southern standards of kinship.

Reverend Hightower’s wife is only able to have an affair by taking a different name and going so far as to write her last name, his family name, on a piece of paper, “then [tear] it up and [throw] it into the waste basket” (Faulkner, Light in August 67). Because she has left to have an affair, she physically tears up and throws out that identity that aligns her with her husband. Perhaps the reason for her unhappiness in the first place is his obsession with the family history that haunts him, a history that she must associate with by virtue of sharing his family name.

Joe Christmas is similarly mobile; because he was named after a day, his name represents a kind of complete anonymity because it is devoid of any familial history and ties. He is on the road to flee the consequences of his two murders, “the street which was to run for fifteen years,” but more so because he has no place to go (Faulkner, Light in August 223). Those with fluid names do not fit into the Southern standard of society. One cannot truly engage with the idea of kinship and, more generally, relationships, without a family name linking one back to a place or community.


The antebellum period accepted slavery as normative and perpetual: it was the basis of the Southern economy and therefore untouchable. The institution depended on the principle of dehumanizing people to the status of objects. As a way to remember their lineage and places of birth, enslaved peoples emphasized naming practices. Acting as “a reminder of an African past,” some children were named for extended kin who lived as much as four generations back (Handler 687). Notably, slave masters generally did not recognize these names: instead, they referred to them as they saw fit in order to simplify “the allocation of tasks and provisions” (Handler 694). Slave masters saw their slaves as cogs in a machine, simple objects needed to complete a task. The names given to them by their masters, usually something Anglo-European, therefore perpetuated this idea of objectification by denying them their familial links and lineage in the normative American space (Handler 694). Who they were was seen as completely separate from the names recognized by others in their community to be their own. Considered as property more than as people, what the “thing” was and what it was called was considered to be completely separate.

The Civil War altered all of this. It ushered in a post-structural conception of the permanence and durability of places and objects. Local economies collapsed, ruined by a lack of slave labor; towns disappeared and families packed up. These once grand plantations, fixtures of Southern communities, were abandoned and thereby changed the very nature of the place they once dominated. As Byron Bunch notes from the top of a hill, “the once broad domain of what was seventy years ago a plantation house lies beneath him…dead fields erosiongutted and choked…” (Faulkner, Light in August 425). The associations with these places for those who lived there changed forever, and suddenly the identities of places themselves changed. After the war, counties fragmented and new territories were incorporated, further alienating the South from its antebellum identity. These new counties (and old counties, whose names were changed) adopted names to honor Southern nationalists, or those devoted to the idea of a Southern nation (Gulley 231). Previously “neutral” areas were now steeped in an easily identifiable Southern nationalism, and the conceptions of what constituted a place changed. After the Civil War, families lost much of their institutional power, but still the family unit endured. The status of families as foundational, solid, and unchanging would have been even more resonant in a society that lost all sense of what and where it was. Faulkner’s message is that families will endure, for better or for worse; places and things will change.

Because of the impermanence of conceptions of places and objects due to the Civil War, names had to be seen as separate from those things and places they describe to make sense of this constant change and fluidity. Family names are presented as unchanging and static, passed down to generations with the histories of those family members implicit in the passive inheritance of the names. But in Light in August, names of places or things are seen as mutually exclusive entities that only sometimes converge to provide meaning. Faulkner provides this contrast to highlight this post-war nature of the South: steeped in family history and legacy, which acts as the foundation of identity and identification, while at the same time carrying rather adaptable notions of objects, things, and places. A day will come and a town will still exist without knowing their names, whereas a family history could never exist without a name to tie it down.

When Christmas is fleeing after the murder of Joanna Burden, he goes in search of someone to tell him “the name of the day of the week” (Faulkner, Light in August 332). He doesn’t wonder what the day of the week is, but what the name of the day of the week is: the day of the week is presented post-structurally, in opposition to its name. As is the case in most of Faulkner’s work, time is not as we know it. So much of his narrative shifts between past, present, and near-past because, for Faulkner, “the past is never dead; it isn’t even past” (Requiem for a Nun 80). What the day of the week is called is ultimately irrelevant. Similarly, Christmas remarks that “he did not know the name of the town; he didn’t care what word it used for name” (Faulkner, Light in August 226). Here, too, like the day from its name, the town and its name exist apart. The concept of a Southern town, a closed community that exists as a sentient being, which makes decisions on behalf of all members, will not change no matter what it is called. To Christmas, knowing that it’s a “Tuesday” or that he’s approaching “Mottstown” does not matter. They are arbitrary indicators of a day or location whose qualities will never change despite what they are called. This is, of course, a completely different interpretation of names as they relate to people. If you do not know a person’s name, Faulkner argues, you know nothing about them. Because family history and memory in general is central to the development of consciousness and identity, and these histories and memories are passed down through names, then names can illuminate a great deal about the person in question. The names of objects and towns, however, are presented as convenient but ultimately useless signifiers.

Another example of Faulkner’s exploration of the post-structural relationship between signifier and signified is the use of accent. The accents of the South and the regional linguistic divide between South and North also provide a distance between the names given to certain objects and the objects themselves. When Lena is on her way to Mississippi, she stops in a store to buy some crackers, cheese and sardines. She orders “a box of sardines.” The narrator then explains that she and the clerk “call them sour-deens” (Faulkner, Light in August 27). This exchange, with the word in its correct spelling presented as separate from the dialectical interpretation of Lena and the storekeeper, frames the word and its Southern pronunciation as two different things, as if the word as Southerners pronounce it is fundamentally different from the word as pronounced in a normative “Northern” accent. Post-structurally speaking, it is.

This regional dialect and divide in itself becomes a way of framing names and objects. Byron Bunch finds himself in an unfamiliar landscape as he is leaving Jefferson, listless and lovesick, and wonders if he will glimpse the sea. There, he is sure, “trees would look like and be called by something else except trees, and men would look like and be called by something else except folks” (Faulkner, Light in August 424). Because Bunch is no longer in a familiar place, he is no longer talking “in [his] own idiom” (Faulkner, Light in August 444). Operating without of the confines of Southern society, Bunch anticipates a more liberal way of identifying people and things in addition to a variety of different things and people in general. This highlights the tangible ways in which the South defined itself distinctly from the rest of the country, as a place only recognizable by what the rest of the country is not.

A key aspect of any modern Southern consciousness is the Civil War and the way in which collective memories, societal and familial, of the war interact with one’s own sense of self. A major theme of Light in August and Faulkner’s imagination of the South is this distinctly regional sense of memory and history, that of both society and of families. The characters in the novelare constantly looking behind them: Faulkner created thirteen of his characteristic compound words to convey this sense of “backlooking” (141). Family stories shape the identities of those who inherit them, and these stories are inherited through names and naming. In Light in August, names of people are presented as synecdoches for identities, histories, and memories, while names of objects and places are constructed post-structurally, arbitrarily linked to the very things they describe. This dichotomy exists for Faulkner because of changing notions of permanence and impermanence caused by the Civil War. The radically altered landscape, societal configuration, and sense of regional identity similarly changed the discourse surrounding places and objects while strengthening the rigid conception of names as static markers of peoples’ identities. Those characters who do not have access to a family history, and who in fact define themselves post-structurally, exist outside of the strictures of Southern society and are then ostracized by it.

Works Cited

Billingsley, Carolyn Earle. Communities of Kinship: Antebellum Families and the Settlement of the Cotton Frontier. Athens: University of Georgia, 2004. Print.

Eagleton, Terry. Literary Theory: An Introduction. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1983. Print.

Faulkner, William. Go Down, Moses. New York: Vintage, 1990. Print.

Faulkner, William. Light in August. New York: Vintage International, 1990. Print.

Faulkner, William. Requiem for a Nun. New York: Vintage, 2012. Print.

Gulley, Harold E. "Southern Nationalism on the Landscape: County Names in Former Confederate States." Names: A Journal of Onomastics 38.3 (1990): 231-40. Print.

Handler, Jerome S., and JoAnn Jacoby. "Slave Names and Naming in Barbados." The William and Mary Quarterly 3rd ser. 53.4 (1996): 685-97. Print.