In Light in August, Wuthering Heights, and the poetry of William Blake, society disrupts the link between childhood and nature. Like the motherless boy in Blake’s “The Chimney Sweeper” who is manipulated through the promises of religion, or the group of children paraded through England’s streets in “Holy Thursday,” a child’s natural link to motherly love and nurture is cut, and instead the child is molded to fit society’s image. Like in Blake’s “London,” society is more masculine, structured, and unforgiving, with citizens degraded to identities as prostitutes or beggars out of necessity, all wearing society’s “mind-forg’d manacles” (8).
These themes are especially prevalent in the two novels: Joe Christmas’ childhood racial and sexual trauma results in a crippling inability to accept any motherly figure or romantic partner, while Catherine, imprisoned and domesticated at Thrushcross Grange, yearns for the freedom and even savagery of her childhood. In both novels, the characters use violence to try to express and achieve dominance over their frustrations. Christmas’ violent outbursts are related to control, to try and find order in a life ridden with a split identity and the unpredictable, fluid female characters he meets.
Catherine’s violent impulses, rather, are almost more feminine, related to freeing herself and reclaiming her childhood self and ferocity that she sees embodied in Heathcliff. Both regress in their violence, seeking to piece together or return to a childhood development which was interrupted by society. There is a sense of the primal link between childhood and nature, like a mother and her child tied as one through the umbilical cord. Perhaps to break this link and superimpose society’s rules, to try and “domesticate” a human being at such an early age, will inevitably lead to such tendencies of reverting to wildness, of an identity constantly in search of its fundamental roots.
In Light in August, society’s interruption of Joe Christmas’ childhood development leads him to a lifelong fixation on finding order, not only in terms of his identity but also with him grappling to understand femininity and sexual relationships. Beginning with his birth, Christmas loses his mother, Milly, when his grandfather purposely refuses her medical assistance. His grandfather despises him, disowning him to an orphanage and working as a janitor to “watch him and hate him” (127) out of his Puritan values.
Doc Hines states that Christmas is “the Lord God’s abomination, and I the instrument of his will” (380), an example of society’s religious doctrines invading and overriding a child’s sacred bond with his mother. As with many of the male characters in Christmas’ life, there is a rigidity and absoluteness to his grandfather’s hate, which is juxtaposed to his grandmother, who immediately “built up the fire in the stove and heated some milk” (379) upon receiving Christmas. Doc Hines’ firm religious hate is contrasted with Mrs. Hines’ motherly instincts, which are arguably more in tune with nature than society. However, because of Christmas’ eventual childhood trauma, he will come to cling to the more masculine, patterned responses toward him and come to distrust the more fluid, unpredictable female characters he meets, especially when it is love and safety they offer.
Christmas’ greatest disruption to childhood occurs at age five, when he witnesses the dietician’s sexual encounter. The moment is an especially vulnerable one for him both sexually and racially. During the scene, he eats and sucks from his finger a tube of toothpaste. Robbed of a mother to nurse him, it is almost a scene of Christmas regressing back to his infantile impulses; it is as if he is trying to emulate breastfeeding, an act that not only embodies a mother-child bond but is also one of a child’s first Freudian steps in sexual development. Because of this, Christmas is in a sensitive, vulnerable state in the scene. In addition, the contrast between the “pinkcolored” appearance of both the dietician and toothpaste as well as Christmas’ own “parchmentcolored finger” (120) perhaps also hints at the racially charged trauma that will be inflicted upon him. Once the dietician discovers Christmas, she calls him a “little nigger bastard” (122), and it is at that moment when Christmas’ entire racial and sexual awareness becomes disfigured.
Unlike at the orphanage, Christmas is now old enough to understand the societal lines he has transgressed. He learns his racial identity is undesirable and is vilified by the closest mother figure he has. At once, the innocence and motherly safety he felt prior are wiped away: The toothpaste is now the cause of sickness and is “no longer smooth pink-and-white” (122). The curtain which symbolizes a childlike illusion of safety is torn away and the dietician, who used to be Christmas’ only sense of a motherly figure, “[drags] him violently out of his vomit” (122). In the scene, Christmas not only becomes aware of society’s rejection of part of his race, but the dietician also tears away his innocent acceptance of refuge and nurture. From age five, Christmas is disillusioned to the motherly net of safety that is so integral to childhood, and he instead confronts the prejudices of society.
Christmas’ trauma is further cultivated by the McEacherns. Mr. McEachern sternly adheres to his religious beliefs, and through him Christmas becomes accustomed to a lifestyle of strict discipline and suppression. Under Mr. McEachern, Christmas continues to subdue his sexual impulses and even the urge to eat, associating them with emotions of shame and withdrawal. Through Mr. McEachern, Christmas almost develops an attachment to the patterned and ordered restrictions of his life, “as if the whole situation were perfectly logical and reasonable and inescapable” (159). When Mrs. McEachern brings him food after a full day of fasting, Christmas violently lashes out, “dumping the dishes and food and all onto the floor” (155).
In a tragic manner, because of his experience with the dietician, Christmas feels threatened by such a mother figure, seeing her very offer of food and safety as something threatening and out of the ordinary. Christmas and “the man could always count upon one another, depend upon one another; that it was the woman alone who was unpredictable” (159). To Christmas, “It was the woman: that soft kindness which he believed himself doomed to be forever victim of and which he hated worse than he did the hard and ruthless justice of men” (169).
In heartbreaking sense, Christmas’ strict religious conditioning and past trauma have reversed the way he views any maternal figure, seeing them as a kind of volatile threat. It is only through the more masculine structure and order of society that he finds any hint of something dependable. There is a sense of how twisted a child’s development can turn when the safety and primal education that only a mother can bestow is replaced by the harder conditioning of society. Perhaps a mother’s love is affirming, possessing its own kind of power in supporting a child’s first steps in forming a sense of self, sheltered from what society will dictate the child to be. In Joe Christmas’ case, however, it is this motherly love and safety that has become poison to him.
Furthermore, throughout his interactions with women, Christmas uses violence as a means to try to control or defend against the more unpredictable female characters he meets. In his first sexual encounter, trapped in a shed with a girl, “there was something in him trying to get out, like when he had used to think of toothpaste” (156). As a result, he strikes out: “He kicked her hard, kicking into and through a choked wail of surprise and fear” (157).
When Christmas is with the waitress Bobbie, he has a similar response when she forgets about her menstruation, hitting her after she remarks that “I’m sick tonightYou haven’t ever had a sweetheart, yet. I’ll bet you haven’t” (188). Christmas’ violence in these scenes is contracting, almost defensive. Whenever the situation becomes intimate and sexual, such as in his first sexual encounter, his distrust of femininity again manifests itself in the fear of abandonment and hurt. There is a sense that his violence is linked to control, so that, in a twisted way, he may land a first blow and try to seize the situation, rejecting his partner first before he is again abandoned or traumatized.
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