On Sunday, Reverend Gail Hightower watches the street from his small bungalow. He looks through his study window and out across his lawn, gazing at the faded sign advertising the services he once offered as an art teacher. Hightower originally came to Jefferson years earlier as the minister of the local Presbyterian church. Aloof and disengaged, he was prone to giving obsessive sermons about his grandfather, a Civil War cavalryman who was shot from his horse in Jefferson.
Ultimately, Hightower was driven from his post at the church after his adulterous wife was found dead at a Memphis hotel, where she had been staying with another man. Hightower had long tried to cover up for his wife’s behavior, but once word of the scandal at the hotel spread, his parishioners turned on him and forced him out of his ministry. Rather than leave town, he bought a home and settled permanently in Jefferson, despite being ostracized from the community, accused of taking a black woman as a lover, and severely beaten by the Ku Klux Klan. After twenty years, the townspeople have grown to ignore if not accept Hightower, who lives as a recluse. Much of his sordid past has been forgotten, although vicious rumors of interracial lovers still circle him.
Hightower watches the August darkness fall over the street outside when suddenly he sees a strange figure walking up his path. It is Byron Bunch, who is never in town on Sundays.
Unnerved and guilt-ridden because of his feelings for Lena, Byron has sought out Hightower for words of comfort and advice. He tells the minister what happened after Lena’s unexpected appearance at the mill. After convincing Lena not to go off immediately in search of Joe Brown at the Burden place—which was still burning—Byron took Lena to his residence at Mrs. Beard’s boardinghouse, telling his landlady that Lena would be meeting her husband and needed to rest. Mrs. Beard put Lena in the boardinghouse for the night.
Moreover, Byron informs Hightower that the fire was not the only disaster that occurred at the Burden house the previous day. The first man to reach the burning house was a man passing by with his wife in a wagon. Running into the house, the man found Joe Brown drunk at the bottom of the stairs, suspiciously trying to deflect the man’s attentions from upstairs. Nonetheless, the man forced his way through and went upstairs to find Miss Burden slumped on the floor, almost entirely decapitated. When the man went back downstairs, Brown was gone.
Once the fire was put out, Byron says, Miss Burden’s nephew in New Hampshire offered a reward of $1,000 for the capture of her killer. Brown showed up promptly at the police station to claim the reward, declaring Joe Christmas the killer. Brown revealed that Christmas had been Miss Burden’s lover for nearly three years and that Christmas threatened to kill him if he spread this information. Then, Brown said that on the morning of the fire, Christmas told him he finally killed Miss Burden. When Brown sensed that the sheriff was questioning his credibility, he abruptly revealed that Christmas was part “negro” blood. Suddenly convinced of Christmas’s guilt, the officials locked Brown up and rounded up a posse to search for the presumed fugitive.
Hightower asks Byron whether he has told Lena about Brown’s current predicament, and Byron replies that he has not, because he is afraid that Brown will go on the run again.
One of the major themes of Light in August is the isolation of individuals from communities and from one another. In the first four chapters of the novel, Faulkner presents four major characters, each of whom is separated from society in some important way. Lena Grove, though she relies cheerfully on the kindness of strangers, is morally isolated because of her illicit pregnancy and socially isolated because of her constant traveling. The sullen Joe Christmas is isolated because of his seemingly mixed racial heritage, which causes him to emphasize the differences between himself and those around him. Byron Bunch is, like Lena, morally isolated, though by his own choice; he makes no friends except Gail Hightower and works almost all the time because he is so afraid of how he might spend his time otherwise. Hightower himself is isolated as an outcast, rejected by society—in his case because he failed in his appointed task as guardian of public standards, delivering incoherent sermons while his wife carried on obvious sexual affairs.
Faulkner establishes similarities between Hightower and Lena early on. Both characters use language willfully to manipulate or obscure the truth. Just as the church elders were unsure whether Hightower, in lying to cover up his wife’s indiscretions, “believed what he was telling or not,” Lena also distorts the facts surrounding her pregnancy and status as an abandoned single mother. Even though community gossip exposes both Lena’s and Hightower’s predicaments, they both continue in their distortions as a form of self-protection, a way of easing the shame they feel at being betrayed by their respective partners. In an attempt to salvage some form of dignity, they sidestep the truth, broadcasting elaborate self-delusions to try to justify the failings and misdeeds of their loved ones.
Even though neither Lena’s nor Hightower’s excuses fool anyone, they reveal competing layers of truth, representation, and belief—layers that Faulkner uses to infuse his characters with complexity and dimensionality. Characters’ interior states, with all their inconsistencies and unspoken motivations, overlap with the generalized voices of the community to create a dynamic and realistic portrait of individuals constantly asserting and renegotiating their places in the larger social order. In the face of these pressures, characters are left fractured, their various states of consciousness threatening to divide and unsettle them. Though the characters search for a sense of stability, belonging, and consistency, their inherently fractured natures consistently conspire to thwart these desires.
Faulkner often refers to these fractured natures implicitly, through imagery. For example, as Hightower, wounded and frozen in his self-imposed exile, sits listening to Byron relate Lena’s story, “it is as though there were two faces, one imposed upon the other.” This image serves as an apt summation of one of Faulkner’s many preoccupations in the novel. In plumbing the depths that exist beneath people’s words—the vulnerabilities, fears, and evasions that often do not register in articulated speech—Faulkner portrays inherently inconsistent and self-contradictory nature of identity. People, he argues, in all their complexity, cannot be reduced to a simple summation or generalized description. What exist instead are warring impulses and an often wide gulf between private and public worlds.