Light in August explores the relationship of individual human beings to society and the isolation that humans feel in the modern world.
The major characters are gathered in one small town (Jefferson), but this seems coincidental, since their lives have been separate in the past and remain so, to some extent, in the present. Lena, with whom the novel begins and ends, does not even meet Joanna and Joe, the figures at the novel’s center.
Byron and Hightower are acquaintances but not close friends. The first impression, therefore, is of people among whom no meaningful relationships exist. This separation is partly symbolic: Lena is strongly associated with birth and life, but Joanna and Joe with destruction and death.
Since these are diametric opposites that cannot coexist in the same place at the same time, these characters never meet.
They are linked, however, in other ways: Lucas Burch is the father of Lena’s child but is also Joe’s business partner; Lena gives birth in the cabin owned by Joanna and earlier inhabited by Joe; Byron has previously worked alongside Joe and Lucas at the mill; Hightower is present both when Lena gives birth and when Joe dies. The people and places thus interact with one another, even though they seem to be separate.
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Table of Contents
Residents of a small Southern town, believing that a black man has murdered a white woman, shoot and kill him.
Lena Grove, a pregnant and unmarried white woman, has no family on whom to rely except an unsympathetic brother. (The race of each character is identified in this summary since racial tension between black and white people is a major theme of the novel.) Lucas Burch, her child’s white father, has left Lena in Alabama to look for a steady job in Mississippi and has promised to send for her, but Lena now realizes that she must set out to find him if she wants her child to be born legitimately.
She has been on the road for four weeks and is now approaching the town of Jefferson, in northern Mississippi. On the outskirts of town, she sees columns of smoke rising from a burning house, but does not know that the house belongs to Joanna Burden and that Joanna, a middle-aged white woman, lies dead inside it.
Lena has heard that a man who might be Burch works at the local sawmill. But when she arrives at the mill, she discovers that the man supposedly named “Burch” is actually Byron Bunch. Though Byron, a white man, has lived in Jefferson for seven years, he has had a little to do with the townspeople. But he is immediately attracted to Lena and takes her to his rooming house, where his landlady makes room for her.
The Rev. Gail Hightower, a late-middle-aged white man, is the only person in town whom Byron considers a friend, even though they are acquaintances rather than close friends. Years earlier, Hightower had been minister at the Presbyterian Church, but his congregation locked him out after he drove his wife insane with his obsession over his grandfather’s death in the Civil War.
Except for a casual friendship with Byron, Hightower has cut himself off from the town. Byron, knowing that he must do something to help Lena, seeks Hightower’s help; but by the time the two can meet, the rest of Jefferson is in an uproar because of rumors that Joe Christmas, the relatively new arrival in town who is “part nigger,” has murdered Joanna Burden and set her house on fire.
When Lena gives Byron a description of her husband, Byron suspects that Joe Christmas’s white business partner, “Joe Brown,” is actually Lucas Burch and that he is using the name “Burch” as an alias.
In a flashback to Joe Christmas’s past, the reader enters Joe’s own mind as he recalls that his father was a dark-skinned circus performer thought to have “Negro” blood in him. (Throughout this plot summary, the name “Joe” refers to Joe Christmas, while “Brown” refers to Joe Brown.)
Joe’s white mother, Milly Hines, died while giving birth to him, and Milly’s father, old Doc (Eupheus) Hines—incensed by his daughter’s relationship with a “Negro”— killed the circus performer, then placed Joe in an orphanage at Christmastime (hence his name).
While growing up, Joe is aware of a janitor who always seems to be watching him; the man never talks to Joe, but insinuates to others that the light-skinned Joe is a “nigger.” The janitor turns out to be Old Doc Hines, also known as Uncle Doc, who later arranges for Joe, in his early teens, to be adopted by a puritanical farmer, the white Simon McEachern.
Hardships inflicted on him by the stern McEachern cause Joe to resent the farmer, but Mrs. McEachern tries to compensate by secretly giving Joe money and bringing him food.
At 17, Joe has his first sexual experience; it is with Bobbie Allen, a white waitress he meets in a dingy restaurant where he and McEachern have lunch one day.
Though she is twice Joe’s age and is actually a prostitute, Bobbie soon becomes Joe’s lover, with Joe sneaking out to visit her every night and giving her money. One night, McEachern follows Joe to a local dance, and catches him with Bobbie. McEachern calls her a “harlot”; Joe knocks him down, leaves him for dead, rushes home to steal as much money as he can find, and returns to pick up Bobbie so they can elope.
When he arrives at her house, he encounters Max Confrey, Bobbie’s white employer from the restaurant, and three others—a blonde woman named Marne, Bobbie, and a stranger (a white man).
The stranger knocks Joe out and robs him; then the four—all involved in a prostitution ring—depart quickly for Memphis. When his mind clears, Joe realizes that he has been betrayed by Bobbie, and from this moment on he will never trust another woman.
For 15 years Joe travels aimlessly, working at odd jobs, sleeping with prostitutes and enjoying a certain revenge when he tells them that he is a “nigger.” Finally, at the age of 33, Joe arrives in Jefferson, penniless and hungry.
He breaks into Joanna Burden’s house for food, and when she responds to him sexually, Joe decides to stay, since it is a good chance to “get even” with white women. He moves into the cabin behind her house and works at the mill for a while, then gets involved in bootlegging whiskey from Memphis.
He takes on “Joe Brown” as his business partner and invites Brown to live with him in the cabin. Brown soon learns about Joe’s past and is the only one in town to know about Joe’s sexual involvement with Joanna.
Joanna is kind to Joe because she feels an obligation to help “Negroes.” Her father, Calvin Burden, believed that slavery had put a curse on all whites, and he instilled in Joanna a desire to help remove that curse.
The truth is, however, that Joanna—having been a virgin for more than 40 years—is sexually excited by Joe and responds to him in a violent, almost animalistic way, screaming “Negro! Negro!” when he makes love to her.
After a while, however, Joanna’s conscience troubles her as she becomes increasingly alarmed by her sexual “corruption” and by Joe’s bootlegging activities. She decides to “redeem” herself and Joe by turning to prayer and by training Joe to be a partner in her efforts to educate the black people of the area.
When Joe rejects Joanna’s proposals as being futile, Joanna tells him it might “be better if they both were dead.” She loads two bullets into an old cap-and-ball pistol and aims it at Joe, but the gun fails to fire. In automatic self-defense, Joe attacks Joanna with a straight razor, cutting her throat and nearly decapitating her. He runs from the house, which is later discovered to be on fire.
Joanna’s relatives in New Hampshire are notified of her death, and offer a $1,000 reward for the arrest of the killer. Brown, eager to collect the reward money, blames Joe. The sheriff then sends out a posse with bloodhounds to track Joe down, but the capture is not made until an exhausted Joe wanders into Mottstown.
Two of the residents there are Old Doc Hines and his wife. Old Doc screams for a lynching, raving more and more like a maniac until he collapses and has to be brought home. Mrs. Hines, trying to explain this mania to herself, suspects that Joe is their late daughter’s illegitimate son.
Joe is transferred to the Jefferson jail, and Mrs. Hines follows, taking along her husband, now eerily docile (some critics suggest he is manic-depressive).
The next morning, Byron wakes Hightower to say that Joe has been caught. Later in the day, Byron brings the Hineses to Hightower’s house and Mrs. Hines tells as much of the family story as she knows, explaining that she has never seen her grandson, and that she has come to Jefferson to prevent her husband from trying to lynch Joe. Old Doc, now enraged, confirms that he had left Joe at an orphanage 33 years earlier, concealed their relationship, and worked there as a janitor.
Mrs. Hines asks Hightower to tell the authorities that Joe was with him the night of the murder, but Hightower, refusing to cooperate in a lie, orders them out of his house.
The next morning, Byron wakes Hightower to say that Lena is in labor at Brown’s cabin with Mrs. Hines. Byron has taken Lena there as part of a plan that he will soon set in motion to trap the elusive Burch/Brown, who is now being held for “safekeeping” at the jail until Joe is indicted for murder.
Byron sends Hightower to the cabin while he himself goes for a doctor. The baby—a boy—is delivered, with only Hightower and Mrs. Hines to help. In the chaos of Lena’s delivery, Mrs. Hines confuses the new child with her late daughter’s son (i.e., Joe Christmas), calling him Joey.
Hightower is reminded of an occasion years earlier when he helped deliver a black child and was suspected of being the father. Afterwards, as Hightower walks home, he is bemused by his reactions to Lena’s childbirth and by the fact that he has participated in life once again.
Brown is of little use to the sheriff, since Joe intends to plead guilty. So the sheriff decides to participate in a kind of justice by agreeing to cooperate with Byron’s plan to have Brown/Burch taken out to Brown’s cabin to be confronted with Lena and their new child.
Though Byron loves Lena, he feels honor bound to reunite her with her child’s father. The sheriff sends a deputy with Brown to Joanna’s cabin, where a stunned Brown sees Lena and his child. As the sheriff had expected, Brown deserts them again, sneaking out a back window and taking to his heels as fast as he can.
Byron chases after Brown, and when he catches up with him, he is knocked down by Brown, who then hops a freight train leaving town.
Meanwhile, Joe manages to escape while being taken to his indictment. He runs off to a “Negro cabin” and takes a gun, but is found soon afterward in Hightower’s kitchen by Percy Grimm, a savage, racist 25-year-old volunteer in the state national guard.
In order to save Joe’s life, Hightower falsely protests that Joe was with him on the night of the murder. But Grimm, not to be deprived of his own brand of justice, shoots Joe, then castrates him, still alive, with a butcher knife. Joe seems to collapse inward, and dies with “his eyes open …peaceful.” Hightower later comes out of “retirement” to preside over Joe’s funeral service.
Everyone speculates about Joe’s reasons for choosing Hightower’s house as a hideout place. Gavin Stevens, the local district, attorney, says that Mrs. Hines was partially responsible for choosing the hideout spot. She had been deeply moved by the birth of Lena’s son, and, after the delivery, went to the jail, apparently to reveal an escape plan to Joe. She told him that Hightower could save him, and this gave Joe sufficient courage to escape.
Hightower glances back one last time into his memory and now finds himself able to see a pattern in which his past and the recent events fit together and make sense to him. Ready for death, he is somewhat like Joe in that he looks and feels peaceful for the first time in his life.
Three weeks later, a furniture repairman (totally new to the story) stops his truck on the road and picks up three hitchhikers—Byron, Lena, and the baby.
The repairman gives the three travelers a ride until sundown, then pulls over to camp out for the night. While they are camping out, Lena rejects Byron’s sexual advances, telling him he may wake the baby.
Byron temporarily deserts her, but is found the next morning waiting beyond the curve of the road to be picked up again. The repairman drops them off near the state line and returns home; the other three travel on toward the Tennessee state line.
When they reach it, Lena says, “My, my. A body does get around. Here we ain’t been coming from Alabama but two months, and now it’s already Tennessee.” These are the novel’s last words, and they closely resemble Lena’s statement at the end of the first chapter: “Here I ain’t been on the road but four weeks, and now I am in Jefferson already. My, my. A body does get around.”
Joe Christmas: Wanderer; age 33 when killed. Born of a white woman and fathered by a man rumored to be black. Joe’s mixed racial heritage prevents him from finding a place for himself in society; he has no true identity, no peace of mind. He becomes a sacrificial victim of racist people like Percy Grimm.
Joanna Burden: White social worker; dedicated to improving the standard of living for Blacks; around 40. Makes continual but largely futile efforts to atone for her race’s sins by befriending Blacks. Ostracized by Whites. Attracted to Joe at first sight, she enters into a love-hate relationship with him, demanding violent sex during which she screams verbal abuse at him. Tortured by religious compulsions and a social conscience, she proposes to “redeem” Joe and herself, first through prayer and social work, then by her deranged plot to kill them both.
Lena Grove: Pregnant by, but not married to, Lucas Burch; arrives in Jefferson hoping to find him. Probably in her early 20s. Always kind to others; people usually treat her kindly in return. Detached from the swirling violence in Jefferson, she has little to do except await her child’s birth. Yet Lena is a stimulus for Hightower’s and Byron’s renewed enthusiasm for life.
Byron Bunch: Worker at the mill who falls in love with Lena; probably in his late 30s, early 40s. Quiet, considerate, loving. Very little is known about his past. Friendly only with Hightower. To his own astonishment, he commits himself to helping Lena in any way he can. Faulkner implies that Byron and Lena will eventually marry.
Rev. Gail Hightower: Former minister who refuses to leave town, even though he was discredited long ago by his wife’s suicide and dismissed by his congregation. Late-middle-aged. Has become a detached observer of his own past and of the lives of others. Friendly only to Byron Bunch, who is also a recluse. Has been symbolically lifeless until, against his own will, Byron draws him back into the mainstream of life through a chain of events that ends with the death of Joe Christmas.
Old Doc Hines: Joe’s maternal grandfather; a hot-headed racist fanatic.
Percy Grimm: A cold-blooded racist who murders Joe Christmas; age 25.
“Joe Brown” (alias Lucas Burch): Father of Lena’s child. Joe’s business partner. Untrustworthy in both capacities.
Themes and Ideas
1. Separation and Interaction
Light in August explores the relationship between individuals and society, and the feeling of isolation in the modern world. The story takes place in a small town (Jefferson), but the characters’ lives have been separate in the past and remain so in the present.
Lena, who begins and ends the novel, does not even meet Joanna and Joe, the central figures. Although there seems to be no meaningful relationships, the characters are linked in various ways. Despite the separation, the people and places interact with one another.
2. Individuals and Society
Since people become involved with one another, complete self-reliance is impossible. Lena is independent, but she receives all the support she needs because of her unselfish kindness to others. Percy Grimm is independent, but only because he turned himself into an inhuman machine. Faulkner shows that dependence on others is necessary for self-fulfillment to occur.
The dark side of this interaction is that some individuals are fulfilled by death, not life. Gavin Stevens, the district attorney of Jefferson, serves as a symbolic spokesman for the town. The theme of the novel is the interrelatedness of all the individuals who inhabit the world.
3. Destiny and Choice
Percy Grimm represents the impersonal force of a bigoted society. Some characters see more than social forces at work in their lives and attribute the causes of human events to Fate or to God. Hightower replaces a personalized God with “the final and supreme Face Itself, cold terrible….” On a symbolic level, Joe and Grimm are inseparable.
There is a chain of events that, as a whole, may have been the work of Fate or God, but the links of it were made by people. Some individuals manage to become masters of their own fate, while others find no escape from themselves. Although Faulkner places the tragic focus of his novel on sacrifice, negation, and death, he also shows the genuine significance of human accomplishment and the happiness derived from the affirmation of life.
1. The novel’s title
Southerners used to speak of women becoming “light” after giving birth. Not only is Lena’s burden lightened in this physical sense, but she brings the baby himself to light (i.e., life); she is also a source of enlightenment for Byron, who begins to “see” the outside world, and for Hightower, who has “insight” into his own life. Lena, Byron, and Hightower are “filled with light” in the month of August (hence the novel’s title).
Years after the novel was published, Faulkner said that the title referred to an unusual quality of light (“fading copper light”) that he associated not only with ancient civilization but also with one or two days in mid-August in northern Mississippi when autumn is briefly anticipated.
2. Geography and time
The main characters have all come to Jefferson from somewhere else; none is native to the town. Lena travels from Alabama in the past to Mississippi in the present, and then on to Tennessee in the future. Joe “entered the street which was to run for fifteen years” before leading him into Jefferson.
Byron, Joanna, and Hightower have taken different routes at different times and have paused here and there before arriving. Jefferson is the symbolic crossroads at which their lives converge, and August is the present month to which individual past histories have led.
3. Christian symbols
Faulkner frequently uses biblical events to establish symbolic religious patterns of action and character in his novel, even if the biblical allusions and the events of the plot are not always exact equivalents. Joe is named Christmas because of the day he was given as a “gift” to the orphanage.
He arrives in Jefferson on a Friday and is 33 when he is castrated and killed (Jesus was 33, and He was crucified on Good Friday); like Christ, Joe dies as a scapegoat, sacrificed by a corrupt society symbolized by his grandfather and Percy Grimm, whose “faith” is “that the white race is superior to any and all other races.” Percy’s last name is symbolic of his role in society (the Grim Reaper of Death).
1. A Complex and Layered Narrative
Faulkner’s Light in August is a literary masterpiece, weaving together a complex and layered narrative that draws readers in and holds their attention. The novel features multiple main characters, each with their own unique storylines and emotional journeys.
This intricate structure, combined with flashbacks and foreshadowing, adds depth and intrigue to the novel. The result is a captivating story that keeps readers on the edge of their seats, eager to unravel the secrets and connections between the characters.
2. Engaging Characters Facing Inner Struggles
One of the most striking aspects of Light in August is the portrayal of its characters, who are often alienated, isolated, and conflicted.
Each character is grappling with their own demons, whether it’s Joe Christmas’s uncertainty about his racial identity, Joanna Burden’s struggle with her puritanical upbringing, or Rev. Gail Hightower’s obsession with his family’s past.
These characters are multi-dimensional and relatable, allowing readers to empathize with their struggles and become invested in their outcomes.
3. Tackling Themes of Alienation, Racial Prejudice, and Redemption
Faulkner’s novel is a powerful exploration of the human condition, addressing themes such as alienation, racial prejudice, and redemption. By delving into the lives of characters like Joe Christmas and Joanna Burden, the novel confronts the destructive effects of racism and prejudice on individuals and society.
At the same time, it offers a glimmer of hope through the characters of Lena Grove and Byron Bunch, who represent the resilience and optimism of human love in the face of adversity.
1. Overly Dense and Meandering Prose
While Light in August is undeniably a classic piece of literature, it is not without its flaws. One of the main issues some readers encounter is the novel’s dense and meandering prose.
Faulkner’s writing style often features long, winding paragraphs that can feel overwhelming and overly detailed. This verbosity can lead to readers feeling lost within the text and disengaged from the story, making it difficult to fully appreciate the novel’s rich imagery and character development.
2. Inconsistent Pacing and Implausible Plot Points
Another issue with Light in August is its inconsistent pacing and occasional implausible plot points. The novel sometimes feels as though it was written and developed as Faulkner went along, resulting in a sense of disjointedness and a lack of natural rhythm.
This can be particularly noticeable when plot elements are introduced seemingly out of nowhere, such as Joe Christmas acquiring a pistol near the end of the novel. These instances can feel jarring and may detract from the overall reading experience.
3. Defeatist Depiction of Human Nature
Lastly, some readers may find Faulkner’s depiction of human nature in Light in August to be defeatist and disheartening. The characters in the novel are often portrayed as being entirely shaped by their circumstances, with little to no agency in their actions or decisions.
This perspective can be seen as pandering to the notion that human beings are merely products of their environment, which may not sit well with those who believe in individual agency and the power of personal choice. This disconcerting view of human nature can make for a challenging and, at times, uncomfortable read.
William Faulkner’s Light in August is a complex and thought-provoking novel that delves into the lives of its diverse characters as they navigate the challenges of the Old South. Hightower, trapped between light and darkness, is a symbol of the past haunting the present.
Lena embodies hope and the promise of a brighter future, while Byron represents the transformative power of love and devotion. Joe Christmas, the novel’s tragic central figure, serves as a poignant reminder of the burden and sin carried by the South due to its dark history of racial prejudice and discrimination.
Although the novel may have its shortcomings, such as dense prose, inconsistent pacing, and a defeatist view of human nature, its exploration of these compelling characters and their struggles provides a unique and valuable insight into the complexities of the human experience.
Light in August remains an important work in American literature, offering readers a chance to reflect on the forces of light and darkness that shape our lives and the world around us.
William Faulkner was an American writer born in Mississippi in 1897. Though his family home was in Oxford, Mississippi, he was actually born in New Albany, Mississippi. He didn’t finish high school and worked odd jobs before serving briefly in the Royal Canadian Air Force in 1918. After that, he worked in journalism in New Orleans before returning to Oxford, where he spent most of his life.
Faulkner is famous for his series of novels set in “Yoknapatawpha” County, which is loosely based on Oxford. His first novel in this series, Sartoris, was published in 1929. Some of his most important works include The Sound and the Fury (1929), As I Lay Dying (1930), and Light in August (1932).
Later in his career, Faulkner wrote several other novels, including Absalom, Absalom! (1936), The Unvanquished (1938), The Hamlet (1940), Go Down, Moses (1942), and The Reivers (1962), which was his final novel. He also wrote many famous short stories and was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1949.
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