Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Joe Christmas is the illegitimate son of a dark-skinned circus trouper who was thought to be of African American descent and a white girl named Milly Hines. Joe’s grandfather, old Doc Hines, kills the circus man, lets Milly die in childbirth, and puts Joe—at Christmas time, hence his last name—into an orphanage, where the children learn to call him “Nigger.” Doc Hines then arranges to have Joe adopted by a religious and heartless farmer named McEachern, whose cruelties to Joe are met with a matching stubbornness that turns the boy into an almost subhuman being.
One day in town, McEachern takes Joe to a disreputable restaurant, where he talks to the waitress, Bobbie Allen. McEachern tells the adolescent Joe never to patronize the place alone. Joe goes back, however, to meet Bobbie at night, and the two become lovers. Night after night, while the McEacherns are asleep, Joe creeps out of the house and hurries to meet Bobbie in town.
One night, McEachern follows Joe to a country dance and orders him home. Joe knocks McEachern unconscious, whispers to Bobbie that he will meet her soon, and races to return home before McEachern can. There he gathers up all the money he can lay his hands on before he leaves to go into town. At the house where Bobbie is staying, he encounters the restaurant proprietor, his wife, and another man. The two men beat Joe, take his money, and leave for Memphis with the two women.
Joe moves on. Sometimes he works, but more often he simply lives off the money that women give him. He has sex with many women and nearly always tells them that he is black. Eventually, he arrives in Jefferson, a small town in Mississippi, where he gets work shoveling sawdust in a lumber mill. He finds lodging in a long-deserted cabin near the country home of Miss Joanna Burden, a spinster of Yankee origin who has few associates in Jefferson because of her zeal for bettering the lot of African Americans. She feeds Joe and plans to send him to a school for African Americans. Miss Burden and Joe become lovers, and they carry on their affair for three years. Her reactions to him range from sheer animalism to evangelism, as she tries to make Joe repent his sins and become a Christian.
A young man who calls himself Joe Brown arrives to begin working at the sawmill, and Joe Christmas invites Brown to share his cabin with him. The two begin to sell bootleg whiskey. After a while, Joe tells Brown that he is African American, and before long, Brown discovers the relationship between Joe and Miss Burden. When the two men’s bootlegging business prospers, they buy a car and give up their jobs at the lumber mill.
One night, Joe goes to Miss Burden’s room half determined to kill her. She attempts to shoot him with an antiquated pistol that does not fire, and Joe cuts her throat with his razor and runs out of...
(The entire section is 1169 words.)
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Summary (Identities & Issues in Literature)
Light in August, one of William Faulkner’s great novels, centers on Joe Christmas, whom the critic Alfred Kazin called “the most solitary character in American fiction.” His father, a swarthy man who may have been Mexican or black, is murdered by Christmas’ fanatical white grandfather, Doc Hines, who abandons the baby at an orphanage. Christmas grows to manhood in Mississippi, where race necessarily defines who he is. Unsure of his racial identity and divided within himself, Christmas discovers that he belongs neither to the white world nor the black. His tortured figure is always halved, clothed symbolically in dark pants and white shirt, seen alternately in light and shadow. Arrogant and proud, he learns to answer every insult with violence.
Christmas is discovered by Joanna Burden in her kitchen, where he has come to steal food, and he becomes her lover. Daughter of a Yankee abolitionist and a philanthropist and supporter of African American colleges, Joanna quickly slides into a terrifying corruption, consumed by sexual desire for Christmas in the autumn of her life. She finds her Puritan and Calvinist identity perverted into cruelty like that of mad Doc Hines and Christmas’ harsh adoptive father. Eventually she urges Christmas to study law at a black college so that he can take over her work. By doing so, Joanna tries to make him admit that he is a black man. When he refuses to pray with her, she draws a pistol, and he is forced to kill her.
Hunted down for Joanna’s murder, Christmas attempts to escape a white mob by fleeing to the home of the Reverend Gail Hightower, a failed Presbyterian minister who has been expelled by his congregation. Hightower has been rendered ineffectual by guilt and grief since the death of his wife, but he redeems himself by attempting to save Christmas from his attackers, even though this act brings about his own death.
Christmas in turn is shot and castrated by white supremacist Percy Grimm, but he dies “with peaceful and unfathomable and unbearable eyes,” a sacrifice to the unreasoning hatred between men. Christmas’ name and initials, his birthdate, his dual nature, and his acceptance of death suggest that he may represent a Christlike figure, offering himself in atonement for the sins of others.
Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Light in August, Faulkner’s fifth Yoknapatawpha novel, brings together, in and near Jefferson, characters with varying backgrounds and personalities but with one common bond—they all have deep-seated problems. Lena Grove arrives in town from Alabama, pregnant but unmarried and in search of Lucas Burch, the father of her child. She finds instead Byron Bunch, a good man who is timid and withdrawn. Burch, using the name Brown, has just burned Miss Joanna Burden’s house to cover her murder by Joe Christmas, who killed Joanna after being her lover for three years. Joe had lived at her place while being partners with Brown in the bootleg whiskey business.
Gail Hightower, a defrocked minister who withdrew from society after its rejection and mistreatment of him, now has a different religion: ancestor worship of his grandfather, who fought in the Civil War. Hightower is friends with Bunch, who involves him with Lena (he delivers her baby) and with Joe (he lies when Joe takes refuge in his house, attempting to prevent the fugitive’s murder at the hands of his pursuers). The leader of the three-man posse pursuing Joe is Percy Grimm, a deputized young man who has a storm-trooper mentality years before Adolf Hitler’s rise to power. He shoots the armed Joe Christmas and mutilates his body.
Much of the novel is devoted to the events and people that have influenced Joe’s character. The son of a Mexican (or black) carnival worker and Doe...
(The entire section is 520 words.)
Chapter 1 Summary
Lena Grove is walking from Alabama to Mississippi in search of Lucas Burch, the father of her child. Lena was raised in a three-room log cabin, the youngest child of aging parents who both died during the same summer. She goes to live with her older brother, McKinley, who is twenty years older than she is. Lena works and cares for her sister-in-law, who is always either pregnant or recovering from being pregnant. When she is a teenager, Lena crawls out through the window of the lean-to in which she sleeps. She quickly finds herself pregnant. Her brother and sister-in-law treat her harshly, so eventually she crawls through the window one last time to find Lucas Burch. She has been on the road for a month now, asking at each village...
(The entire section is 467 words.)
Chapter 2 Summary
Byron Bunch recalls the day three years previously when Joe Christmas arrived in Jefferson, wearing worn city clothes: he looks down on his luck but not like he intends to stay down. Joe looked at the men in the mill, spat, then turned away. This outrages the men, who know nothing about him. They are surprised when Joe Christmas is hired immediately to work at the mill. Christmas begins to work without changing his clothes, which causes the other men to become even more suspicious of him. The next day, Christmas is at work before the other men arrive, still wearing his city clothes. He separates himself from the other workers, quietly doing his job of scooping sawdust into a pile. Only Byron speaks to him when Christmas does not...
(The entire section is 605 words.)
Chapter 3 Summary
Twenty-five years previous to the current time of the story, Gail Hightower had come to Jefferson with his wife to be the pastor of the Presbyterian church. His wife, however, was unfaithful, and she was eventually killed in a house in Memphis. The community questioned whether Hightower knew about his wife’s affairs. They judged that Hightower had done little enough, either in keeping his wife in line or keeping her satisfied, so he was forced to resign from the church. Despite the urging of several in the community, Hightower refused to leave Jefferson and instead set himself up as an instructor of art. He had precious little business, however; he barely had enough to keep himself warm and fed.
When Byron Bunch came...
(The entire section is 439 words.)
Chapter 4 Summary
Byron Bunch tells Hightower of the events of the night before, when he met Lena. He regrets telling Lena where to find Joe Brown (Lucas Burch). She planned to walk out to the burning house, though Byron told her that it is over two miles away. Lena points out that she has just walked all the way from Alabama.
Byron tells Hightower that both Christmas and Brown were living in a cabin on the Burden property and selling bootleg whiskey, about which Miss Burden evidently did not know. Both Christmas and Brown got out of the fire all right. Hightower cannot see why Byron is so upset about telling Lena about Brown because Lena had come to Jefferson specifically to find her “husband.”
Byron took Lena to his...
(The entire section is 411 words.)
Chapter 5 Summary
The novel switches back in time to a night before Miss Burden’s murder. It is past midnight when Brown comes in, drunk and singing loudly. He runs into Christmas’s cot. Christmas tells him to shut it, but Brown begins to laugh maniacally. Christmas grabs his face and beats him repeatedly, but Brown continues to laugh. Christmas puts his hand over his mouth and nose and eventually Brown stops laughing and starts gasping for breath. Christmas lets go of him. Brown curses him, calling him “nigger blooded.” He differentiates between himself, a “white man,” and Christmas, a “nigger,” claiming that Christmas told him he was black. Christmas shoves Brown to the floor and reaches under his pillow for his razor. He pauses,...
(The entire section is 443 words.)
Chapter 6 Summary
When Joe Christmas was five years old, he lived in an orphanage. He had discovered the dietician’s pink toothpaste and frequently sneaked into her room for a taste. In one instance, he was hiding in the closet, eating more toothpaste than he knew was good for him, when the dietician and a young intern came in and began to make love. Joe’s stomach rebelled at the excess of toothpaste and he vomited. The dietician heard him, dragged him from the closet, and called him a racist name; it is the first time he had been called this.
The dietician worried for days that Joe would tell the orphanage matron what he had seen. She offered him money, but Joe refused. Joe believed that it was he who had sinned, not the dietician....
(The entire section is 415 words.)
Chapter 7 Summary
A few years after the McEacherns adopted Joe, he is assigned to learn his catechism but fails to do so. Mr. McEachern gives him another hour to learn it, but he confesses that he has not. Mr. McEachern takes him out to the stable and orders him to drop his trousers. Mr. McEachern beats Joe several times with a leather harness strap. He then sets the catechism before him again and gives him another hour to learn it. Again Joe does not, and again he is beaten. Joe refuses to even try no matter how much he is whipped. McEachern prays over him then goes off to his church. Mrs. McEachern brings up a tray of food for him, but he refuses to eat because he thinks Mr. McEachern ordered her to bring it. She insists that it was her own idea....
(The entire section is 478 words.)
Chapter 8 Summary
Joe sneaks out of the house and dresses in his new suit in the stable. He is late for a date for which he has long prepared. He has bought a new watch but forgot to wind it. Joe’s date is a waitress at a dingy, backstreet restaurant. She is over thirty but small.
McEachern took Joe to the restaurant some time before; this is when Joe meets the waitress. McEachern warns Joe about going into a place like that. Joe knows the restaurant is more than a place to get food, but he does not know what else it is.
Joe returns to the restaurant another time when McEachern takes him into town and gives him a dime to spend. Joe goes to the restaurant to see the waitress. He does not see her at first, but finally she...
(The entire section is 493 words.)
Chapter 9 Summary
McEachern lies in bed, thinking of the suit he saw hidden in the barn. He could tell it had been worn, and he concludes that Joe has used it in pursuit of “lechery.” He looks out the window and barely catches sight of Joe climbing down a rope from his room. Joe walks down the lane, where he is picked up by a passing car. McEachern rushes out, saddles the horse, and follows him. He rides to the school building where he knows a dance is being held. He enters the school and sees Joe dancing with the waitress. He approaches the couple, calls the waitress a harlot, and strikes Joe; he does not see Joe’s face but Satan’s. Joe grabs a chair and beats McEachern with it. McEachern drops to the floor with blood streaming from his...
(The entire section is 474 words.)
Chapter 10 Summary
As Joe lies semiconscious on the floor, too bruised and beaten to move, the waitress and the others get ready to leave. They debate whether they should take the money Joe offered to give to the waitress, but she declines. Instead, she takes some of her own money and places it in his pocket. They leave, and Joe still is unable to rise. Slowly he regains movement to his limbs and gets to his feet. He does not feel pain, but he gazes at his battered face in the mirror. In another bedroom he finds a bottle almost full of whiskey. He drinks it all, slowly feeling its fire spread out to his limbs. He repeats to himself that he has to get out of there, but he cannot seem to get focused enough to walk to the front door. He finally manages...
(The entire section is 440 words.)
Chapter 11 Summary
Joe cannot at first tell how old Miss Burden is, but he thinks she is over thirty. In fact, she is over forty. They do not talk much; they only have sex. Occasionally, Joe eats at the house, though Miss Burden does not eat with him. Miss Burden busies herself with the promotion of Negro schools, often visiting them in person as well as conducting extensive letter-writing campaigns. She has a Negro lawyer in Memphis who takes care of her legal affairs, even the disposal of her body after death. By this, Joe can tell that she and the town of Jefferson do not have much communication with each other. He decides he will not be bothered at Miss Burden’s place.
Miss Burden has never invited him into her house, though he...
(The entire section is 536 words.)
Chapter 12 Summary
Joe Christmas continues to visit Miss Burden in the night, but they avoid making contact during the day. Joe imagines what she is doing all day. He reaches a stage where he is shocked by her behavior even though he is equally involved. She sets up a place to leave secret letters, but Joe lies about checking the spot daily, and Miss Burden tries to catch him in the lie. She becomes a nymphomaniac within six months, and Joe is afraid of her. His interest in her begins to cool, and he begins to sell bootleg whiskey. He goes to Memphis weekly and sleeps with prostitutes. Miss Burden begins to put on weight. She speaks of the need to pray and ask for forgiveness but decides to continue in sin for just a while longer. She begins to speak...
(The entire section is 518 words.)
Chapter 13 Summary
A crowd gathers around Miss Burden’s burning house. Many of the spectators immediately assume that the perpetrator is black. The sheriff takes a look at Miss Burden’s body, with its severed throat, and sends it away. The fire truck arrives, but there are no hydrants to which it might hook the hoses. The few facts that are known of Miss Burden’s doings are shared, and it is said that two men, perhaps black, lived in the cabin. The sheriff feels frustrated with the lack of a crime scene and sends for a black man to question, but he claims he knows nothing. The sheriff whips him with his belt, and the black man says that two white men lived in the cabin but he does not know who they are.
The sheriff leads the crowd...
(The entire section is 505 words.)
Chapter 14 Summary
After hearing that someone is living in Joe Christmas’s cabin, the deputy investigates on the sheriff’s orders. He learns meets Lena Grove, who promptly tells him her story of having come to town to find her husband, Lucas Burch, who is living by the name of Joe Brown. Byron Bunch is camping in a tent nearby. All this is reported to the sheriff, who decides that she won’t do any harm living there.
On a Sunday morning, Joe Christmas enters a black church and disrupts the service. He charges down the aisle, knocking down a woman. He grabs the preacher by the throat and then knocks down an elderly deacon. Joe climbs up into the pulpit and begins to curse God. One of the parishioners, Roz, has a razor, but is knocked...
(The entire section is 404 words.)
Chapter 15 Summary
Mr. and Mrs. Hines had moved to Mottstown thirty years previously. Mr. Hines lived there only one weekend a month; the rest of the time he was in Memphis, where he worked. After five or six years, however, he moved back permanently to Mottstown. He did odd jobs for several years, though he and his wife never connected to any of the townsfolk. Eventually, having moved to a house on the edge of the black community, Mr. Hines became an iterant preacher among the black churches. The people of Mottstown looked on him with forbearance, though they would have crucified him if he had been a younger man. While the white people ignored the Hineses, the black people quietly provided them with food and necessities.
On the day Joe...
(The entire section is 447 words.)
Chapter 16 Summary
Byron Bunch comes to see Hightower, whom he finds sleeping in a chair under a tree. He wakes the former minister to tell him Joe Christmas has been captured. Hightower expresses mild contempt for Byron’s posing as a protector of the morals of the community after having hid Lena away from the father of her child. Byron ignores his words about Lena and tells him that Mrs. Hines, Joe Christmas’s grandmother, has been found. Hightower hears the people making their way to church. He is bitter that this world has been shut to him. Byron leads Mr. and Mrs. Hines into Hightower’s study.
Mrs. Hines explains that she never knew her grandson was still alive; Mr. Hines had told her he was dead. Mr. Hines has come to Jefferson...
(The entire section is 427 words.)
Chapter 17 Summary
Byron arrives at Reverend Hightower’s home in the middle of the night to tell him that Lena has gone into labor. At first Byron is reluctant to awaken him, but Hightower has had experience with delivering babies. Byron is on his way to get the doctor but urges Hightower to hurry to the cabin. Byron curses himself for not arranging for the doctor before he was needed. He feels that Hightower was a good enough midwife to deliver a black baby, but he thinks a white woman should have a regular doctor. When Byron and the doctor arrive at the cabin, Lena has already given birth. Mrs. Hines is holding the baby and Mr. Hines is fast asleep on the cot. Hightower fusses that if he had known that Byron had gone to fetch a doctor, he would...
(The entire section is 520 words.)
Chapter 18 Summary
Byron stands outside the courthouse, observing the crowd that is waiting for the Grand Jury to try Joe Christmas for the murder of Miss Burden. He reflects that he has wasted time taking care of another man’s woman who is bearing another man’s child. He goes back to his boarding house and pays Mrs. Beard his rent due. Mrs. Beard has already packed up his belongings for him. She expresses her contempt for Lena Grove as well as for Byron for getting involved with her.
Byron goes to see the sheriff and requests that he let Lucas Burch out of jail to see Lena and his newborn son. The sheriff predicts that Lucas will be set free and might even be given the thousand-dollar reward, so he sees no harm in letting him visit...
(The entire section is 495 words.)
Chapter 19 Summary
As the district attorney, Gavin Stevens, puts the Hineses on the train, promising that the body of their grandson will soon follow so they could give him a decent burial, a college friend of Stevens’s arrives. Stevens explains the situation to his friend; he says he believed Joe’s inner struggle during his escape was based on the “differences” in his blood. Joe ran to the Negro cabin, then the church, because of the pull of his black blood. However, his white blood forced him out and into the home of the white minister, Reverend Hightower, where he was captured.
The point of view changes to that of Percy Grimm, a twenty-five-year-old captain in the State National Guard. He resents that he was too young to have...
(The entire section is 415 words.)
Chapter 20 Summary
Reverend Hightower reflects on his childhood and youth prior to coming to Jefferson. His grandfather had been a slave owner at the time of the Civil War, but his father opposed slavery. He eventually joined the Confederate army, though never fired a single shot; he served as a medic. When the war was over, Hightower’s father returned home, put up the uniform he scarcely wore, and did not wear it again for twenty-five years. Continuing with his experience as a medic in the war, he become a doctor and did not speak of his military life. He often preached in country churches, never having a church of his own. When Hightower was a child, he climbed up to the attic and found the uniform. He found a patch of dark blue from a Union...
(The entire section is 384 words.)
Chapter 21 Summary
A furniture dealer returns from a business trip to Tennessee and tells his wife of an event that occurred on the way. He was stopped at a service station to get some gas when he sees a young girl holding a bundle. He belatedly also notices a nondescript young man. Sensing that the man is going to ask for a ride, the dealer volunteers that he is going to Jackson, Mississippi, not Memphis. The young man says that is all right, but he would appreciate it if the dealer would give him and the girl a ride. When the dealer asks their destination, the young man says they are just travelling. The dealer invites them to ride in the back of his truck, but he notices that the bundle is a baby as the girl climbs in. He invites her to sit in the...
(The entire section is 428 words.)