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Faulkner's Light in August: Summary & Quotes

Instructor: Margaret Stone

Margaret has taught both college and high school English and has a master's degree in English.

William Faulkner's novel ''Light in August'', published in 1931, depicts people driven by fear, bigotry, and love. Faulkner reveals the complex motives driving these characters as their lives intersect in a small Mississippi town in the 1920s.

Lena's Journey

The novel begins with Lena Grove, a young woman from Alabama, traveling to Jefferson, Mississippi. She is pregnant, and she has come to Mississippi to find her baby's father. Lena sits beside the road, amazed at how far she has traveled. 'I have come from Alabama: a fur piece,' she says. 'All the way from Alabama a-walking. A fur piece.' At times, Lena walks, but she is often able to travel in wagons with strangers. The baby's father, a man named Lucas Burch, promises before leaving Lena in Alabama that he will find work, establish a home, and send for her. Most of the strangers Lena meets suspect that Lucas Burch does not intend to marry her; in fact, they believe he has run away to Mississippi to escape responsibility for Lena and the unborn child.

When Lena arrives in Jefferson, she goes to the planing mill where she believes Lucas works. There she meets a man named Byron Bunch, who tells her no one named Burch works at the mill. Byron tells Lena about another man who has recently started at the mill. This man's name is Joe Brown, and he fits Lena's description of Burch. Byron knows that Brown is now a bootlegger, living in a small cabin at Joanna Burden's place. The Burden house has caught fire as Lena enters Jefferson, but Byron keeps this information from her at first. Byron attempts to help Lena, who appears close to delivering the baby, by installing her at the boarding house where he lives. Meanwhile, word of the fire spreads throughout the small town.

Fire and a Murder

The fire at Joanna Burden's house has been discovered by a passing stranger, who finds a drunk man inside the house. The drunk man is Joe Brown, and he appears at first to have set fire to the house to conceal a murder. Joanna Burden's body is found upstairs. She has been brutally murdered and nearly decapitated. Brown, the only person found at the crime scene, is arrested. When Joanna Burden's family offers a reward of a thousand dollars, Brown begins to accuse Joe Christmas of the murder. Brown is desperate to claim the reward and helps the sheriff search for Christmas.

Joe Christmas has been living in the cabin with Joe Brown at the Burden place. The two met while working at the planing mill. Later, they work together selling bootleg liquor. Christmas and Joanna Burden have had a secret sexual relationship for years. The townspeople know little of what occurs at Miss Burden's, because she is a civil rights activist and thus shunned by the citizens of the small Southern town.

Who Is Joe Christmas?

The novel reveals Joe Christmas' past through flashbacks. Christmas lived in a Memphis orphanage until he was five. When Christmas' racial identity is called into question because of his dark skin, the orphanage administrators arrange to place him in the home of Mr. and Mrs. McEachern. The McEacherns adopt him and change his name to Joe McEachern.

Mr. McEachern is a harsh disciplinarian and a religious zealot. He orders Joe to memorize the Presbyterian catechism, but Joe refuses to learn it. McEachern brutally beats Joe for his obstinacy, as Mrs. McEachern stands by, passive and fearful. Joe grows to hate his adopted father, and in a further act of rebellion sneaks into town to see a prostitute named Bobbie. When McEachern discovers Joe's deception, he tracks the couple to a barn dance and confronts Joe. Joe strikes McEachern with a chair, presumably killing him. Joe runs away and begins to use Christmas as his surname once again.

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