After midnight, two nights before the fire and the murder, Joe Christmas is in bed, unable to sleep. Joe Brown stumbles into the cabin the two men share, drunk and laughing. Annoyed by the rowdiness, Christmas holds Brown still and hits him repeatedly. Brown casts racial slurs at Christmas but eventually quiets and settles into a deep sleep.
Christmas, still unable to sleep, focuses his anger on Miss Burden. He feels he can forgive the fact that she lied to him about her age, but he cannot excuse the fact that she prayed over him. As his anger gets the best of him, he curses Miss Burden and goes outside, wandering the darkened yard. He takes off his clothes and stands by the road; when a car goes by and a woman screams, he screams back at the car. Finally, he goes to the stable and manages to sleep there for two hours.
At seven o’clock in the morning, Christmas goes to a clearing, where he shaves, reads a magazine, and then unearths a cache of metal tins, pouring the whiskey they contain onto the ground. He then put the tins back where they were originally. That evening, he eats dinner in a restaurant, stares coldly at Brown being shaved at the barbershop, and wanders around town desperately. He eventually passes through the predominantly black part of town, then the white neighborhood, then the woods and trails outside of town. He confronts a group of blacks on the road and, after they leave, realizes that he is holding a razor in his open hand. He goes toward Miss Burden’s and sits in the yard in the dark. When he hears the clock strike twelve, he enters the house, thinking, Something is going to happen. Something is going to happen to me.
The action then shifts to when Joe Christmas is five years old. Living in an orphanage, he sneaks into the dietician’s room to steal some of her toothpaste. Suddenly, the dietician enters the room with a young male doctor, and Joe hides behind a curtain. The dietician and the man begin to make love, and Joe, sick from eating too much toothpaste, suddenly vomits loudly and is discovered. The angry dietician handles him roughly, hissing a racial slur at him in the process.
After the incident, the dietician becomes paranoid that the boy will tell the director of the facility what he saw. She tries to bribe him with a silver dollar to keep quiet, but he is too young to comprehend what has happened and does not accept the money. The dietician then approaches the orphanage janitor, who confirms her suspicion that the child is biracial. However, he refuses to help the dietician reveal that fact to matron, as it would result in the boy’s removal and transfer to an orphanage for black children.
Later, the janitor appears at the dietician’s door, asking her what she plans to do and whether she is going to reveal the boy’s parentage to the matron. When he realizes her intentions, the janitor disappears with the child, only to be taken into custody several days later in Little Rock. The child is returned to the orphanage and, with the dietician’s intervention, is quickly adopted by a stern, unemotional, devoutly religious farmer, Mr. McEachern. The matron tells McEachern that the nurses found the boy on Christmas Eve, but McEachern says that Christmas is a heathen name and that from now on, the young boy will be known as Joe McEachern.
In telling the backstory of Joe Christmas, Faulkner continues to explore the notion of a fluid, unstable, indeterminate identity. Christmas is literally a man without a name, as his cartoonish surname derives merely from the fact that he was left on the steps of the Memphis orphanage at Christmas. His unknown parentage and ambiguous racial heritage condemn him to a life as a shadow figure. He is a man who walks on the edges of society, just as he restlessly and silently wanders the streets of Jefferson, passing unnoticed through the black and white neighborhoods alike, a stranger to both realms and accepted fully by neither. At times mistaken for a foreigner, Christmas is variously tagged as being either white or black—absolute distinctions that deny his essential nature as a biracial man, a person with roots in both worlds.
Although Faulkner often shows us that competing interpretations and perspectives can reveal new truths, we see that they can also result in misunderstandings and pave the way for tragic events. When the five-year-old Christmas is caught behind a screen in the dietician’s room, a black comedy of misinterpreted intentions and mistaken impressions ensues. The dietician fears that Joe will tell the matron about her tryst, but the child is unaware of what really happened and fears only that his petty thievery of toothpaste will be exposed. The chain of misunderstandings that is unleashed results in Joe’s forced removal by the orphanage’s custodian and, ultimately, his adoption by the McEacherns—all orchestrated by the anxious dietician, who willfully exposes Joe’s mixed racial heritage.
The sudden jump to Joe Christmas’s childhood is typical of the nonlinear structure of Light in August. Just as perceptions are fluid and ever-shifting in the novel, so is the conception of time. Faulkner’s authorial eye darts forward and backward in time, often presenting a scenario from one character’s point of view and then revisiting the same incident from an alternate perspective. This technique reinforces Faulkner’s notion that there is no one solitary or ultimate version of the truth. Although the novel’s focus is planted firmly in Jefferson during a brief but tumultuous time in August, Faulkner examines the past with equal scrutiny, presenting the complex influences that have come together to form the character of Joe Christmas.
The episode from Christmas’s childhood elucidates the present, portraying a seminal event that casts long shadows into the future. Perhaps most important, it serves as an early and stinging lesson in racism for the young protagonist. At the same time, the episode is completely isolated from the main current of Faulkner’s tale, taking on the qualities of a dark, Gothic fairy tale. Nameless and mysterious figures—the matron, the janitor, the dietician (revealed to be named Miss Atkins only at the episode’s end)—populate a classic setting of childhood deprivation and abuse: the orphanage. A kidnapping takes place, and ultimately Joe is taken off to a remote homestead with an emotionally distant foster father. Interwoven with the dietician’s and janitor’s oblique references to sin and expiation, the chapter assumes the quality of a dream, approximating the dim memories, half-impressions, and limited comprehension of a five-year-old child.
Ultimately, Faulkner’s portrait of Joe’s formative years serves to complicate the moral questions of his tale. As more information is revealed about Joe’s childhood, we begin to wonder whether Joe’s violent, brooding nature was predisposed or whether his abusive treatment as a child unleashed a tragic chain of causation. For the most part, Faulkner leaves this question provocatively unresolved.