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...
(The entire section is 379 words.)
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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....
(The entire section is 1169 words.)
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.)
When Light in August opens, Lena Grove has been walking for four weeks from Alabama to Jefferson, farther from her home than she has ever traveled. After living in a tiny room in her brother's house in the small town of Doane's Mill for eight years after her parents died, she began to sneak out of the bedroom window at night until she found herself pregnant. Even though Lucas Burch had left town six months before her brother found out, Lena refused to reveal his name.
Deciding not to wait for him to come for her, Lena sets out to find Lucas. On the road, Mr. Armstid, a farmer, decides to bring her home for the night. She later admits to him and his wife that she is not married but makes excuses for Lucas, insisting that such a good natured fellow as he needs some time to settle down. The next morning Armstid drives her to the town store and informs the men there that she needs a ride to Jefferson.
Byron Bunch thinks about the time three years earlier when he first met Joe Christmas at the lumber mill where he works in Jefferson. Joe did not speak to anyone, and no one spoke to him for months. Another stranger who came to the mill named Brown revealed that Joe lived in the woods on Joanna Burden's estate. After three years, Joe suddenly quits his job at the mill. Rumors circulate that he and Brown are selling whiskey and that they both are living in the cabin on Miss Burden's place.
(The entire section is 3462 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 and town if anyone knows where she can find Lucas. No one knows anything about him, and they send her on to the next town. Eventually she has reason to believe he is heading for Jefferson in Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi.
Two men, Armstid and Winterbottom, sit in the shade of Winterbottom’s stable and watch Lena pass. They wonder where such a very pregnant, young girl could be heading, but they can tell she knows where she is going. Armstid gives her a ride in his wagon. He offers her a place to stay, although he sees she has no wedding ring and he knows what his wife will think about this. Indeed, his wife is not pleased; she feels contemptuous of how blind men can be about a woman in trouble.
Because Lena had said she was looking for Lucas Burch, Armstid introduces her to his wife as Mrs. Burch. Lena confesses that Burch is not her name, nor is she married. She explains that Lucas left but promised to come back for her. When he did not, she decided to go in search of him. Along the road, she heard that he is in Jefferson, working in the planing mill.
Despite her contempt for Lena’s condition, Mrs. Armstid smashes her piggy bank and gives its contents to her husband to give to Lena, telling him to take her away in the morning. He drives her up to the store. She tells her story to the men sitting there. One of them says he knows a man named Bunch who has worked at the mill for seven years, but it is not the Burch she wants. Thinking of the money that Mrs. Armstid gave her, Lena goes into the story feeling rich and buys a can of sardines, some cheese, and crackers. There is a wagon going into Jefferson willing to give her a ride, which she accepts gratefully. When they cross...
(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 stop work for lunch. Christmas asks how much is paid for overtime, and Byron knows that Christmas wears the city clothes because they are all he has. Byron offers him his own lunch, but Christmas refuses. On Monday, Christmas arrives wearing a new pair of overalls and carrying a lunch. Yet he still works alone.
Christmas remains an enigma to his coworkers. No one knows where he is from or where he is living. For the next two years, Christmas lives in a “Negro cabin” on Miss Burden’s place, continuing to do his “Negro work” of scooping sawdust. Six months prior to the beginning of the story, another stranger shows up at the mill and is given a job. The name he gives is Brown, and he is sent down to work with Christmas scooping sawdust. Mooney, the foreman, and Bunch discuss the newcomer, stating that he looks promising—just as a promise unfulfilled. Unlike Christmas, Brown talks to everyone. He tells them all about himself, but no one really puts much stock in what he says. He tells how he lost his first week’s pay gambling on dice. This is evident because he wears the same clothes for some time, unlike Christmas, who bought new clothes the first chance he got. Mooney and Bunch think every weekend that Brown will not be back on Monday, but he always is. Christmas quits first, after three years. He is selling bootleg whiskey from Miss Burden’s place. Brown works one day longer, then comes in wearing his new suit and chaffing the other laborers. The men no longer see him or Christmas at the mill, but the two evidently have bought a new car that they are seen driving around town.
It is not known how much Miss Burden knows about what Christmas is doing. She is still an outsider. Her...
(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 to Jefferson seven years previously, he was intrigued by Hightower’s story as he passed the sign outside his home advertising art lessons. He was told of Hightower’s wife, who came with Hightower to minister in the church but had kept herself apart. She was clearly unhappy, crying in the parsonage so loudly that the neighbors could hear her. Several times she left town. Even when she was in Jefferson, she frequently did not come to church. The true end came when she stood up at the back of the church, screaming out. She was placed in a mental institution for several months. When she came home, she seemed subdued, but she eventually returned to her bizarre manners. One day she took a train for Memphis. The next morning the people of Jefferson read that she had jumped from the window of a hotel where she had been staying with a man.
Hightower brought his wife’s body home and buried it with little ceremony. He continued to preach. As he had in the past, he especially focused on his grandfather, who had been killed in the Civil War. He kept his black cook, and eventually the people gossiped that they were having an affair. The Ku Klux Klan visited Hightower’s home, and the cook quit. Hightower next hired a black male cook, but he was also driven out by the Klan. Hightower himself had been tied to a tree and left. He never talked about who did it. Eventually he succumbed to the church’s request that he resign.
One Sunday evening, Hightower notices a man walking down the street. If it had been a weekday, he would have easily recognized him, but he does not make the connection now. He soon sees that it is Byron Bunch coming into town on a Sunday night—something that he has never done before....
(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 boarding house and introduced her to his landlady, Mrs. Beard, as “Miz Burch.” He explained that she has come to town to meet her husband but needs a place to rest. Mrs. Beard was suspicious. Byron said Lena could have his room, though he was not leaving as he usually does. Mrs. Beard fixed up a cot and told Lena to wait in the parlor, thinking she did not need to be around the male boarders at the moment.
Hightower is still not sure why Byron has come to see him; Byron sees that Hightower has not yet heard all the news of what happened at the fire. He first announces that Christmas is part “negro.” A country man found the fire first. He shouted into the house but got no response. He broke down the door to find Joe Brown, drunk. He kept insisting that there was no one upstairs. The country man pushed past Brown and went up the stairs. There he found Miss Burden almost completely decapitated. He ran downstairs and told his wife to call the sheriff while he began to draw water to put out the fire. The firemen arrived but were unable to put out the fire. Miss Burden’s nephew was informed, and he offered a reward for the capture of the murderer.
Both Brown and Christmas left, but Brown returned and told the sheriff that Christmas is guilty; Christmas had an affair with Miss Burden while he was living there. The sheriff was suspicious but changed his mind after Brown told him that Christmas has “nigger blood” in him. Byron tells Hightower that he cannot tell Lena yet in case Brown decides to take off.
(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, deciding that this is not “the right one.” He knows something is going to happen to him.
Christmas leaves the cabin and goes up to the house, where he is accustomed to go whenever the desire to sleep with Miss Burden comes on him. He is angry that she lied about her age but mostly that she started to pray over him. In the dark, Christmas takes off his underclothes and walks out to the road. A car passes, its lights shining on him. He screams at the people in the car, but they drive on. He goes back, finds his underclothes, puts them on, and returns to the cabin. He grabs a blanket then goes out to sleep in the stable. At dawn he enters the cabin to find Brown asleep but sober. He grabs his razor and soap and puts them in his pocket. He goes out to make a camp under some bushes and falls asleep again. When he wakes, he shaves in the spring water then goes to the general store to buy some breakfast. He returns to his campfire by the bushes, eats his breakfast, and reads a magazine. When he is finished, he burns the magazine. He digs up some tins containing whiskey. He empties the whiskey onto the ground and reburies the tins.
Christmas returns that evening to the town, where he eats at a restaurant. Afterward, he walks by the barbershop and sees Brown inside. He walks on down to the black section of town, but the streets are empty. He then returns to the white part of town, passing several black people on the way. They take him for a white man. Christmas finds that he has his razor in his hand. He puts it back into his pocket. He sits down beneath a tree and wonders if Miss Burden is asleep. He knows something is going to happen to him.
(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. Although the dietitian told him he could buy all the toothpaste he wanted, Joe no longer desired the toothpaste, associating it with vomit and guilt for stealing it. He had no concept of what the woman and the intern were doing. The dietician confided in the janitor, who was surprised that Joe was partially black. The dietician stated that Joe would have to go to the black children’s orphanage if his race were discovered. The janitor took Joe in the night, placing him in a black orphanage in Little Rock. Joe is returned to his original orphanage, but it is decided that he must soon be transported to a black orphanage. Joe recognized the man who was carrying him. The man had been watching him constantly for two years. Joe believed that the man hated and feared him so much that he could not allow him out of his sight.
Two weeks before Christmas, a man arrives at the orphanage to adopt Joe. He has been in correspondence with the dietician, which surprises the matron. The man is inquisitive about Joe’s parentage, but the matron can give him no information. The man, Mr. McEachern, explains that he and his wife are no longer young, so Joe will have a stable but simple home. McEachern assures the matron that Joe will grow up to fear God and abhor idleness and vanity. He does not like the name “Christmas,” calling it heathenish; he vows to change it. From now on, Joe’s last name will be McEachern. On hearing this, Joe vows to himself that he will not take the name of McEachern but will continue to be called Joe Christmas.
(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. He dumps the tray of food in the corner. Later, after Mrs. McEachern leaves, Joe eats the food like a dog.
On another Saturday afternoon, Joe and four other boys convince a Negro girl to have sex with all of them. They draw straws to take turns. When Joe’s turn comes, he cautiously enters the darkened barn where the girl is waiting. He accidentally touches her with his foot. He kicks her repeatedly and then begins beating her. The other boys rush in to stop him. They eventually break up and go home. When he reaches home, Joe bathes his swollen eye and then sees someone standing in the stable door. He recognizes that it is Mr. McEachern, who explains that he has done Joe’s chores for him. He sees Joes eye and questions him, but Joe refuses to explain. McEachern is immediately suspicious that Joe has been with a woman, but Joe tells him he has not.
When Joe is seventeen, McEachern notices that Joe’s heifer is missing. He also finds a new suit hidden in the barn. Joe tells him that the heifer is down by the creek and he will find her in the morning. McEachern tells him to call the heifer now, but Joe resists. Finally, Joe confesses that he sold her but lies in saying that he gave the money to Mrs. McEachern for safekeeping. McEachern confronts him with the new suit hidden in the barn. He hits him with his fists. Joe takes it, but then he warns McEachern not to hit him again. Later, as he lies in bed, he hears Mrs. McEachern tell her husband that she bought the suit for Joe. McEachern accuses her of lying and orders her to kneel down and ask God for forgiveness. That night, as Mrs. McEachern cares for him, Joe rejects her kindness; he feels that she is trying to break him by making him cry. This...
(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 comes to take his order. He orders pie and coffee, then he changes his mind about the coffee when he learns the pie is ten cents. Afterward, Joe finds reasons not to go into town.
Eventually, Joe goes back to the restaurant, intent on paying for the coffee he ordered but could not accept. The manager thinks he is up to some kind of racket. Joe meets the waitress later outside and explains that he was afraid she had had to pay for the coffee herself. On another Saturday, Joe goes to town with the intention of having sex with the waitress. He is worried that he does not know exactly what to do. He thinks he will let her show him without letting her know how much he does not know. When they meet, the waitress tells him she is sick and cannot have sex. Joe does not quite understand until she explains that she is menstruating. He jerks away from her and accidentally strikes her. He runs away from her back down the road.
Joe returns to town on Monday night and meets the waitress again. They go to the house where she is staying with the owners of the restaurant. Max, the owner, offers Joe a drink, but the waitress becomes upset. Later they make love, and Joe sees her naked for the first time. Afterward, Joe tells her about his past. He tells her that he has some “nigger blood” in him. She does not believe him.
Joe continues to go to town to visit the waitress, stealing money from Mrs. McEachern to give to the waitress. He thinks the money is to placate Max and his wife, Mame, for the use of the room for sex. One night she does not meet him, so he goes to her home. He hears a man with her in her room. Two weeks later, Joe meets the waitress and beats her. He has finally figured out that 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 forehead. Two men have to hold back the waitress, who is screaming because McEachern called her a harlot. She rushes out the door and Joe soon follows. When he tries to stop her, she beats him in the face and takes off in the car. Joe finds McEachern’s horse and mounts it but ends up going home.
Joe is exultant, proclaiming the fulfillment of his promise to kill McEachern someday. Mrs. McEachern is awake, but Joe brushes her aside. He goes to his room; Mrs. McEachern follows. He retrieves his money hidden under the floorboard. He tells Mrs. McEachern that he never asked her for it because he was afraid she would just give it to him. He then takes off on the horse.
Joe rides the horse through the main street of town, beating it with a section of broom handle that he retrieved from Mrs. McEachern’s flowerbed. The horse is galloping more slowly than a man could walk, but Joe continues to beat it until it stops by the curb. Joe dismounts and tries to drag the horse forward. He cannot, so he beats it until his stick breaks. Joe walks away from the horse and does not look back.
He goes to the waitress’s house, where he imagines her waiting for him ready to leave, although he never actually made plans with her. He hears voices within and knocks on the door. At length, Max lets him in. Joe rushes to the waitress’s room, where she is indeed dressed and ready to leave, but there is a man there with whom she plans to return to Memphis. Max asks Joe if he really killed McEachern, but Joe is not sure. The waitress is irate that Joe would drag her into such a mess. She says that Joe has “nigger blood” in him. The man strikes Joe in the face, knocking him down; Joe is unable to move. He...
(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 to leave the house and begins walking down the road, starting a journey that will last fifteen years.
Joe continues to travel and drink. His journey takes him throughout the central section of the country; he even goes as far south as Mexico. He has several different jobs as a laborer, but he never stays in one place for very long. He joins the army but deserts after four months (and is never caught). He sleeps with a multitude of women. He tells them he is part Negro when he does not have money to pay them; he hopes they will not raise a fuss about the money. The last time he tries this trick, the woman calls the police. He uses his race to try to pick fights just for the joy of beating someone up. Sometimes he lives with black people and avoids white people. He lives for a while with a woman with exceptionally dark skin. He thinks that, though it has seemed as if he has been running from himself, he is actually running from his intense loneliness.
When he is thirty-three years old, Joe finds himself on a Mississippi country road. He comes upon a large, unpainted house. He asks a boy who lives there and learns that Miss Burden is the sole occupant. Joe sits in the woods and watches the house until all the lights are turned off. In the dark, he climbs in through the kitchen window and eats some peas that were left out on the table. He hears slippered feet approach the kitchen, but he does not try to escape. A woman enters, wearing a faded dressing gown and carrying a candle. She tells Joe that, if it is just food he wants, he will find that.
(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 enters at night almost like a thief. Each time it makes him feel like a seducer intent on stealing her virginity. He recalls the first night he entered her bedroom, aggressively pressuring her although she did not resist. The second night he is almost insulted when he finds her door unlocked and food set out for him. As he did the last night at the McEacherns, Joe takes the plates and throws them against the wall. The next day he starts to work at the planing mill.
Several months pass, and one day Joe comes home to his cabin to find Miss Burden sitting on his cot. She tells him her life story, that she was born in the big house and has not ever been away from it longer than six months. She talks for more than two hours. Joe sees in this a sign that she has surrendered herself completely to him.
Her grandfather Calvin ran away from home at the age of twelve. He travelled to California, where he converted to Catholicism. After ten years, he journeyed back east to Missouri, where he married and settled down and publicly denied any allegiance to the Catholic church. When his son was born, he vowed to raise him according to the Unitarian church. Because he could read the Bible in English, he taught his son Spanish. After killing a man in an argument over slavery, he moved west. The boy, Nathanial, ran away when he was fourteen and did not return for sixteen years. When he returned, he brought a Mexican woman by whom he has a twelve-year-old son, who was later killed by a man named Sartoris in an argument over Negro voting rights, as was Calvin. Miss Burden was born fourteen years after Calvin’s death; her mother was a mail-order bride for whom Nathanial had sent after his Mexican wife’s death. Miss...
(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 of a baby, and after a while Joe realizes she is speaking seriously. He immediately says no to the idea. After Christmas, she tells Joe she is pregnant, but he does not believe her. After two months, she is sure and so is Joe; he begins to avoid her.
Joe is not sure if Miss Burden is going crazy or if her strangeness is a result of the pregnancy. He stays away from her and concentrates on his whiskey business, in which Brown now joins him. Brown moves into the cabin with him, and Joe worries that he will see Miss Burden. One evening he comes into the cabin to find a note on his cot. He theorizes that she has written to end it, but he does not read the note. He puts it away and begins to get ready to go up to Miss Burden’s house. He finds the food set out for him as before. He sits down to eat and is discovered by Brown, who now knows where he has been going at night. Joe fights him, but Brown takes off running. Joe goes up to see Miss Burden and finds her sitting at her table, wearing spectacles. She tells him she will pay for his education at a school for black law students. He calls her an old woman and she strikes him. He returns the blow several times. She tells him it would be better if they were both dead. She then turns to religion and urges Joe to join her, but he refuses. He goes down to the kitchen, gets a razor, and then returns to the bedroom where Miss Burden is sitting up in bed. She reveals that she is holding a revolver pointed right at him.
Standing out on the road, Joe stops a car and hitches a ride. The driver and his girlfriend offer to drive him to another town, but they seem nervous. As the car speeds down the road, Joe feels something heavy hit his thigh. He looks down...
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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 to town. At the bank, a letter is presented that is to be opened at Miss Burden’s death. It gives the name of her attorney as well as her nephew in New Hampshire. A wire is sent to the nephew, who replies that he is offering a reward of one thousand dollars for the capture of his aunt’s murderer. Soon word comes that the names of the two white men living in Miss Burden’s cabin are Joe Brown and Joe Christmas. Brown wants to talk to claim the reward money. Tracking dogs are sent to follow Christmas’s trail. The young man who drove Christmas to the distant town tells what he knows. Soon the trackers find the revolver that Christmas threw into the bushes. The dogs are let loose but soon become lost.
Byron enters Hightower’s house and is repelled by the unwashed smell of the disgraced minister. Byron wants to move Lena Grove out of the boarding house to a better place. Lena is bothered by the almost-exclusively male atmosphere of the boarding house and wants to find a place that will feel more like home in preparation for the birth of her baby. Hightower warns him that they cannot have a woman living in his house. Byron assures him that he has no intention of involving Hightower in this situation. Byron confesses that he revealed that Brown is really Lucas Burch. Brown does not know that Lena is in Jefferson, says Byron, because he is too busy trying to earn the reward money. At the moment, Brown is in jail under suspicion of helping Christmas kill Miss Burden, though he is allowed out to help run the dogs in tracking Christmas.
The next day, Byron returns to Hightower’s and confesses that he took Lena out to the cabin. She is now living there. There is a black woman living nearby who can...
(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 down by Joe, who leaves the church; he stops to smoke a cigarette on the front porch. The church members carry Roz, who has a fractured skull, to a nearby cabin. The next morning, the posse arrives with the dogs. At the side of the church, they find a note with a single unprintable phrase. The dogs easily follow Joe Christmas’s trail down the road to a spot by a cotton house where he had evidently stopped. The dogs pick up the scent and lead the posse to a Negro cabin, where the only occupants are a woman and a child. The woman explains that she had exchanged shoes with a white man at the cotton house, thus leading the dogs off the trail. The sheriff returns to the cotton house, but Joe has gone.
Joe travels across the countryside. He stops at a house and asks the woman what day it is. She tells him it is Tuesday and then orders him off her property. Joe continues to travel, eating only rotten fruit and ripened ears of corn. He sleeps where he can. One morning he shaves by a stream, cutting himself several times with the razor. Two black children approach. He asks what day it is, but they say nothing. The children leave and Joe sleeps. He awakens to the sound of wagon wheels approaching. A black man is driving the wagon; he tells Joe that it is Friday. He encounters a black youth who tells him he is near Mottstown. The youth gives him a ride into town, which is about twenty miles from Jefferson.
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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 Christmas is captured in Mottstown, Mr. Hines (called “Uncle Doc”) overhears the name and joins excitedly in the conversations about the capture of the murderer from Jefferson. He sees Christmas being held by the police and breaks through the crowd to beat him with his stick, calling out, “Kill him!” Two men take Mr. Hines, having succumbed with the excitement, back home. When the men mention Christmas’s name, Mrs. Hines stops and asks them to repeat it. She asks for a description, and the men tell her that he looks white but is said to be partially black. When she is alone with her husband, Mrs. Hines asks him what he did with Milly’s baby.
The next day, the people of Mottstown discuss the facts of the case and what they should do with Christmas. They also discuss Mr. Hines’s unusual reaction. Perhaps, they think, Hines should be put in jail with Christmas. Mrs. Hines brings Mr. Hines back into town and sets him in a chair outside the store. Then she proceeds to the jail, requesting to see Joe Christmas. She is unable to locate him, so she wanders around town. In the meantime, the officers from Jefferson arrive at the jail. A crowd forms and many people call for Joe Christmas to be lynched. As Joe is being led to the police car to be taken back to Jefferson, Mrs. Hines pushes her way through, looks Joe carefully in the face, and then turns to rent a car to go to Jefferson. When she finds that too expensive, they sit outside the courthouse until the evening. Then they go to the train station to buy two tickets to Jefferson, only to learn that the train leaves at two o’clock in the morning. They sit in the waiting room and Mr. Hines falls asleep. He awakens, bellowing, “Bitchery and...
(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 to participate in Joe Christmas’s lynching, and she has come with him to keep him from doing it. From the birth of their daughter, Milly, Mrs. Hines has told her husband that God was giving him a warning (Mr. Hines had been in jail when his daughter was born). A circus was in the area when Milly was a teenager. One of the workers, who said he was a Mexican, seduced and impregnated Milly. When Milly and the circus worker ran away, Mr. Hines chased them and shot the circus worker dead; he said he knew that he was part black, not Mexican.
Mr. Hines tries to find a doctor to perform an abortion on Milly but is unable to find one. Instead, he beats up a doctor and then returns home, where he begins to preach against the evil of “niggers” until he is led away. When Milly goes into labor, he refuses to go for a doctor. As a result, Milly dies in childbirth. Mr. Hines goes to Memphis and finds a job. He returns home, takes the baby, and places it in an orphanage. Later, he tells his wife that the baby is dead.
Hightower and Byron are unsure as to what Mrs. Hines wants them to do. She says that she wishes she could go back in time, just for one day, before Joe killed Miss Burden. Byron wants Hightower to say that Joe had been with him that night because it is only the word of Joe Brown that has led to Christmas’s capture. Hightower considers it as an opportunity to return Joe Christmas to his grandmother and to force Lucas Burch to marry Lena. However, he refuses and orders Mr. and Mrs. Hines out of his house.
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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 have stayed in bed. Mrs. Hines is confused; she thinks Lena is her daughter, Milly, and the baby she is holding is Joe.
When Lena first began to go into labor, Byron was in a state of shock. Although he knew in his mind that this would happen soon, the actuality of it was too much for him to comprehend. He went for Hightower first because he did not fully believe that a doctor was necessary. It did not strike him as really happening until he reached town. As he returns to the cabin, he realizes that his fantasy of him and Lena was not true; Lena was pregnant by Lucas Burch. He knows he will have to tell Lucas of the birth of his child.
Reverend Hightower feels resentful at being dragged from his bed unnecessarily. He walks back to town to clean himself up and dress, and then he walks back to the cabin. He passes Miss Burden’s burned house and thinks that if she could have lived another week, she would have seen luck return to her home by the birth of a child. When he enters the cabin, he finds only Lena and the baby present. Mrs. Hines has gone back to town, which concerns Hightower. Lena tells Hightower that Mrs. Hines kept holding the baby and calling him “Joey.” Lena says she does not like to get mixed up like that, though Mrs. Hines had been very helpful. When Hightower entered, he could tell that Lena was expecting someone else; he asks her if she thought he was Byron Bunch. He can tell that she was not, so he urges her to send Byron away. Lena tells him that Byron asked her to marry him but she refused. Byron left but returned later to tell her that he might be able to bring Lucas Burch to the cabin. Hightower goes to the mill to talk to Byron but learns that Byron quit that morning...
(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 Lena at the cabin. He asks Byron what he intends to do now, and Byron replies that he might go to Memphis. He thanks the sheriff for agreeing to his request and leaves.
At four o’clock, Byron hides in the bushes near Lena’s cabin and waits as the sheriff brings Lucas to see his family. After they go inside, Byron turns, mounts his mule, and leaves. At the top of the hill, he turns and looks at the cabin below. As he watches, a man bursts out of the back door and takes off running. Byron cannot believe that he has gone to all this trouble only to have Lucas take off and desert Lena and his son.
As Joe Brown (Lucas Burch) sat in jail, he was surprised when the deputy came to tell him that he was going to visit someone. Brown objected that he knows no one in Jefferson. He then believed they were taking him to give him the reward money. The deputy said he was taking Brown to the place where he would indeed get the reward he deserves. At the cabin, the sheriff pushes Brown through the door. When he sees Lena, he covers his surprise by telling her that he had sent her money to come to him but the messenger had been untrustworthy. Lena tells him that she knows a preacher who, she implies, will marry them as Brown had promised. Brown tells her that someone is waiting for him outside. He leaves out the back and begins to run. He stops at a black woman’s cabin and pays her to deliver a letter to town for him. The letter tells the sheriff to give the reward money to the bearer of the letter, to be delivered back to him.
Byron follows Joe Brown’s trail; he still feels astonished that Brown escaped. He encounters Brown, and the two men fight. Byron is no match for Brown, who is larger than...
(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 fought in World War I and blames this on his parents. Grimm is ultra-patriotic and resents any insinuation against the United States’ involvement in the European conflict; this caused him to join the new National Guard. He was suspicious of a perceived atmosphere of unrest in Jefferson; he sees himself as an enforcer of the peace. He proposed that the National Guard stand armed around the courthouse during Christmas’s hearing, but the sheriff nixed the suggestion. With silent contempt, Grimm promised the sheriff that he would not interfere with the sheriff as long as the sheriff did not interfere with him. Later, when the sheriff found Grimm outside the jail bearing his weapon, he told the captain to keep his gun hidden. Grimm ambiguously agreed. After a quiet Sunday, Monday brought the crowds back to the jail. It was evident that Grimm was now in charge of the situation. Later, however, Grimm blamed the sheriff that situation got out of hand. If Grimm had been in charge, nothing would have happened. When Joe Christmas made a break for it, Grimm followed him. He chased him down the alleys of the town out to the Negro cabin and back. He kept track of him by the glint of sunlight on the handcuffs that Christmas still wore. He followed him into Reverend Hightower’s home and found the minister bleeding on the floor, having been struck down by Christmas. Grimm found Christmas hiding under a table. Grimm unloaded his pistol, striking in so close proximity that a folded handkerchief could cover all the bullet holes. The other men found Grimm stooping over Christmas, cutting off his privates, vowing that Christmas would leave white women alone even in hell.
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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 soldier’s uniform sewed onto the gray uniform. Hightower developed a quiet fear of his father, his mother being dead. His grandfather had been killed during the war, having deeded the house to his son on the latter’s marriage. Hightower asked the black servant about his grandfather and how many Yankees he killed. His terror was replaced with pride.
Hightower was born when his father was fifty years old. Hightower grew up with the phantoms of his grandfather, his parents, and the ex-slave in their home. After Hightower returned to Jefferson following his studies in seminary, he told his church how his grandfather was shot down in the streets of Jefferson, and how he was destined to return to the town of his childhood. Hightower met his wife (who was the only child of one of the ministers) while he was in college. She saw marriage as an escape from her life at the seminary. They married immediately following his graduation.
In reflection, Hightower sees that he married his wife for his own purposes, not for God’s or hers. He blames himself for her unhappiness, her unfaithfulness, and her death. He thinks of the others in his life, especially Christmas and his inner goodness. He feels that it would be better if he were to die. He imagines that he is waiting for death, and as he waits, he hears the hoof beats of the approaching horses from the past: on one of these rides his grandfather.
(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 front seat rather than in the back of the truck. As they drive along, she occasionally checks to make sure the young man has not fallen out of the back. The dealer wonders at the couple: he sees them as mismatch because the young man is nothing much.
The young girl tells the dealer she came from Alabama, having had the baby on the way. She mentions Jefferson, and the dealer recognizes it as the place where a black man was killed. They stop for the night and the dealer invites them to sleep in the back of his truck (because it is obvious they do not have money for a hotel room). The young man appreciates that he will let her sleep in the truck, though the dealer notices that he does not say anything about himself sleeping with her. The dealer then understands that the man and girl are not married and that the baby does not belong to the young man. Ready to turn in for the night, the girl climbs into the truck. When the young man tries to climb in with her, she forces him out. He goes off into the bushes and does not come back. The next morning, the dealer and the young girl take off. Eventually they find the young man standing by the side of the road. The dealer stops the truck, and the young man climbs in the back.
The dealer reflects that the young girl is just travelling before she has to settle down with a baby. When they approach the town of Salisbury, the young girl reflects that she left Alabama only two months previously, and now she is already in Tennessee.
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