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-for’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 that 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 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 ‘pink colored appearance of both the dietician and toothpaste as well as Christmas’ own ‘parchment colored finger’ (120) perhaps also hints at the racially charged trauma that will be inflicted upon him.