Skip to main content

Joanna's Gender

Sarah Poindexter '06

'My God,' he thought, 'it was like I was the woman and she was the man.' But that was not right, either.[1]

In 'Light in August: The Closed Society and Its Subjects', André Bleikasten posits that Joanna Burden is 'at war with her womanhood'[2].  To some extent, this assertion is true.  Joanna does struggle throughout the novel to create her sexuality, which encompasses both masculine and feminine traits.  We see this burgeoning sexuality through the rigid perception of Joe Christmas, who cannot fathom anything beyond the narrow categories of sexuality that have been ingrained within him; these categories posit the masculine as contained, analytic, and rational while the feminine is wild, hypersexual, and erratically emotional.  The two elements of Joanna's sexuality war within her as she bounces from one extreme to another.  However, at the brink of discovery, when she can finally strike that balance between male and female elements, she goes through menopause.  Joanna's sexual development goes through four distinct periods, which reflect the movement of Joanna and Joe's relationship and Faulkner uses these periods, specifically terming them "phases", to plot out the impossibility of a defined sexuality for Joanna. 

When Joe and Joanna first meet, Joe describes her in completely masculine terms.  His language for Joanna is similar when he first sees her in the kitchen—"'If it is just food, you want, you will find that,' she said in a voice calm, a little deep, quite cold" (Faulkner, 231)—and later while he watches her work at her desk:

And by day, he would see the calm, coldfaced, almost manlike, almost middle-aged woman who had lived for twenty years alone, without any feminine fears at all (258).

She is cold, hard and calm: typical characteristics of masculinity in Joe Christmas' vocabulary.  The strap with which Mr. McEachern beats him is clean and hard (149); the masculine wind which blows between Joe and the other boys in the shed is also hard and clean (157); the air which saves him from the 'lightless wet hot primogenitive Female' is cold and hard (115).  Joanna's calm face as she confronts Joe in the kitchen mimics the calm raptness of McEachern, whose face fails to show any emotion even as he is beating Joe.  She has lived alone for twenty years, eschewing her sexuality; she is nearing middle-age, when women cease to be fertile.  Even her voice sounds deeper than a woman's to Joe's ear; he notes it again when she begins to tell him of her heritage: "her voice...pitched almost like the voice of a man" (241).  When they begin a sexual relationship, she fights him like a man; her sexual surrender is "untearful and unselfpitying and almost manlike" (234).  Even in bed, they meet as two men.  Her sexual submission is no more passionate than Joe's own submission under McEachern's whip.

After Joanna relates to Joe the story of her grandfather, father, and brother, their relationship is no longer solely a masculine one; she surrenders part of her masculinity as she seeks to exorcise her ancestral demons.  In this phase, Joanna manages to incorporate into her identity both masculine and feminine elements; during the day her body is useful and tranquil, but by night it becomes something else entirely. This nighttime body is sexual and out of control; it is also playing out the issues Joanna has inherited from her father and grandfather.  Previously, she has kept everything inside under a masculine facade, but now she struggles with both the release of her sexuality and of her demons.  Joe is disgusted by this abrupt shift in their relationship: "It was as though he had fallen into a sewer...the sewer ran only by night" (256).  This immersion into the sewer only takes place under the jurisdiction of the moon.  Just as women are "doomed to be at stated and inescapable intervals victims of periodical filth" (185), Joe too is trapped in filth by the moon that brings not menstrual cycles but Joanna's feminine irrationality.  He remarked specifically at the beginning of their sexual relationship that Joanna waited for him on the bed: "in the dark exactly where the light had lost her, in the same attitude" (236).  Her body stayed the same through the changing light and Joe could know her completely when he came to her. 

By day, in the rational light, Joanna is the same mannish figure sitting at her desk, but at night, she becomes a Medusa-like figure:

She would be wild then, in the close, breathing halfdark without walls, with her wild hair, each strand of which would seem to come alive like octopus tentacles, and her wild hands and her breathing: "Negro! Negro! Negro!" (260).

Like Medusa she seems to have the power to render men to stone: impotent. Her hair which before had been tucked under a sunbonnet is now unrestrained and wild, like the "wild and disheveled hair" of the dietician when she came upon Joe in the closet (122).  Her hands too are wild, as if she has no control over their movements.  These hands that come at Joe in the night are so different than the calm hands of McEachern in the morning light of the barn holding the strap or Joanna's daytime hands which pen letters tranquilly at the desk.  Joanna is in the "halfdark"; She is periodically consumed by the night—controlled by her menstrual cycles and femininity—and yet she is only in the "halfdark" because part of her is still rational. 

Before, her voice was 'quite cold' as she faced Joe, who was an intruder in her kitchen, but now it too seems uncontrollable, repeating 'Negro' over and over again as Joe intrudes into her body.  She repeats this litany to a man who looks white (and may indeed be white) separating Joe from herself as she accepts him intimately. Joe seems to be the perverted embodiment of Calvin Burden's prophetic creation: "They'll bleach out now.  In a hundred years they will be white folks again.  Then maybe we'll let them come back to America " (248).  However, like Calvin Burden who could not transcend the boundaries of black and white despite all of his rhetoric, Joanna cannot help but call Joe 'Negro'.  The words tumble out of her mouth when she is in her nighttime body although she works strenuously for racial equality during the day.  The cumulative effect of all this is that Joanna is "without walls" (260).  The normal bounds of her behavior have been cast aside for the joyousness of her release.  During the day, she is still the white woman who works for black rights all day—the masculine woman.  But at night she grasps both her feminine and racial identity in opposition to Joe Christmas.  The two identities fight within her, Joe realizes—'the two creatures that struggled in the one body...Now it would be that still, cold, contained figure of the first phase...then it would be the other, the second one...' (260-1).  Joe notes that the two beings inside of Joanna are like sisters (261); her appropriation of femininity has caused a battle that will only end with her death.

At the end of their relationship, in the third 'phase', Joanna begins to gain weight. Joe notes, "She had begun to get fat" (261).  She eats voraciously and weighs "thirty pounds more than she had ever weighed" (264); Joanna has a completely different body than at their first meeting.  Her weight gain inscribes femininity on her body to a certain extent, but even while her body accepts the transformation, it rejects its gender implication.  She continues to have the "face of a spinster: prominently boned, long, a little thin, almost manlike: in contrast to it her plump body was more richly and softly animal than ever" (266).  This sexual duality, which had previously been played out with temporary changes to her body, has now been inscribed directly and permanently onto Joanna's body through her weight. 

Her face once more is cold, calm and manlike.  Long gone are the feline romps in the closets; in their place are the "passive and cold and seemly transports of sheer habit" (264).  Her words are once more contained although they are issued from that 'rich' and 'animal' body.  Her body seems to be flaunting its fertility. She wishes to have a child and she believes that she carries one.  She has never looked so womanly and yet she has become untouchable, transcending from Medusa to Madonna.  For Joanna pregnancy brings her power.  Her pregnancy gives her a feminine sexuality that has nothing to do with sex or the uncontrollable urges that come upon her at night.  Joe believes that Joanna needs him to other her: "She sees now that what she wants, needs, is a man.  She wants a man by night; what he does by daylight does not matter" (272).  Yet, with her pregnancy Joanna can refuse sexual intercourse and remain feminine.  She does not need to set up her identity against Joe's; Joe becomes superfluous.

However, even this fertile body is a clash between competing 'sister' sexualities.  Joanna is not pregnant; she is menopausal.  Her body has gained the appearance of complete womanly fertility precisely when it is no longer of use as a woman's body.  It is unclear when Joanna discovers that there is no baby, but when she calls Joe into the kitchen to talk about going to college, she has already lost much of her feminine body:

He saw a figure that he knew, in a severe garment that he knew—a garment that looked as if it had been made for and worn by a careless man.  Above it he saw a head with hair just beginning to gray drawn gauntly back to a knot as savage and ugly as a wart on a diseased bough.  Then she looked up at him and he saw that she wore steelrimmed spectacles... (275)

Her hair is pulled back tightly in a refutation of her earlier wild locks so that her spinster-like face is even more exposed; she has girded that thin face with steel.  Joe knows this body; this is not the body of the "animal", fertile Joanna.  This is not the "stranger" with whom Joe sat with on the bed discussing their possible offspring, "a third stranger" (263).  They now meet once again as equals and as men in the kitchen.  Through this inscription of both masculinity and femininity on her body, Joanna is attempting but failing to control of the competing forces inside of her.  Her body merely echoes her confusion

For Joe in the final kitchen scene there is no sexual confusion: she does not appear to be masculine or feminine anymore, she appears old (277).  He knows when he looks at her at the table that she has no child but instead has entered menopause; he knows then that her body is just a mockery of fertility.  She is "useless" to the world, unable to produce children as proof of her femininity and with her now round body, unable to return to her pre-Joe mannish existence.  She is just a shell; old age has made her sexless.  Joe berates her as useless over and over as he beats her, while her mouth bleeds in mockery of her former fertility. 

In final scene between Joanna and Joe, her voice finally is "still, monotonous, sexless" (281).  She now knows that she has passed the point of sexuality; her confusion has become overwhelming and death is her answer.  Her final actions as she attempts to shoot Joe are grasping at the power of dual gender, which once she aspired to obtain:

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 shadow of both monstrous, the cocked hammer monstrous, back-hooked and viciously poised like the arched head of a snake... (282). 

Underneath her shawl, instead of her breast she holds a gun.  She holds the gun near to her breast in order to kill Joe with her femininity which she is simultaneously rejecting; the gun takes on the appearance of an arched snake like the tentacles of her unbound Medusa hair ready to strike at Joe.  When she pulls the long revolver out from under her shawl, a place of traditional softness, she is rejecting her femininity and replacing it with the phallic metal.  This image is certainly double; the gun acting as a masculine and feminine tool.  However, as previously, her actions end with impotence.  Joanna fails to kill Joe just as she ultimately fails to grasp an empowering sexuality.


[1] Faulkner, William.  Light in August.  Vintage Books: New York, 1959.  p. 235  Hereafter, all citations of Light in August from this edition.

[2] Bleikasten, André.  'Light in August: The Closed Society and Its Subjects'  in New Essays on Light in August.  Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 1987.  p. 91


This paper was written for Professor Weinstein's English 115: Post-Colonial Literature. Sarah Poindexter is a senior English major and Latin minor. Next year she plans to move to England and work as a librarian.  Her favorite author is Diana Gabaldon.