The narrative jumps to a Sunday, three years after Mr. McEachern adopts Joe. In his calm, cold, yet not unkind manner, the strictly Presbyterian McEachern chides his adopted son for not learning his catechism by heart. He gives Joe another hour to try before he begins beating the child in the stable, asking him at hourly intervals whether he has committed the passages to memory. When Joe does not respond, McEachern whips him again with the strap. Eventually, Joe passes out.
Joe wakes several hours later to the sight of his father seated beside him on the bed. McEachern makes Joe kneel beside the bed and pray for forgiveness before placing the catechism once again in the child’s hands. After McEachern leaves to attend a distant church service, Joe’s adoptive mother brings him a tray of food. Despite her insistence that Mr. McEachern knows nothing about the food, Joe takes the tray and angrily dumps it upside down in the corner. Only later, alone and famished, does he eat the food off the floor “like a dog.”
Several years later, at the age of fourteen, Joe and the other farm boys lure a young, willing black woman into a darkened shed to have sex. When Joe’s turn comes, he begins to beat the woman. The other boys subdue him, but only after using considerable force. When they finally release the seething Joe, he returns home to face his father’s punishment for not completing the evening chores. His father, knowing his son is growing up quickly, asks Joe whether he has been with a woman.
At seventeen, Joe sells his calf without his father’s approval and buys a suit with the money. His father finds the suit hidden in the hay loft and asks where the calf is. Joe lies. Having revealed Joe’s blasphemy and false truths, McEachern punches his son twice in the face. Joe, able to defend himself, advises his father to stop the beatings. Later, Joe’s foster mother tells her husband that she purchased the suit herself with her butter money. Calling her a liar, Mr. McEachern forces his wife to beg God for forgiveness.
Joe muses that Mrs. McEachern has always tried to be kind to him, from her first fumbling attempts to be his mother to her later fumbling attempts to deflect Mr. McEachern’s wrath away from him. Joe, however, feels that the punishments would be bearable and impersonal if Mrs. McEachern were not always trying to make them seem personal. He thus hates Mrs. McEachern bitterly, despite the fact that the beatings and forced labor come from his father. He believes that she is always trying to make him cry.
His parents finally asleep, seventeen-year-old Joe silently shimmies down a rope that he has rigged outside his bedroom window. Scurrying into the barn, he puts on his new suit and consults his new watch, which he has forgotten to wind. Ready, he heads down to the road and waits for his date to pick him up in her car and take them to the dance.
Joe recalls how he first met the woman in town, accompanying his foster father on a trip to meet with a lawyer. When the consultation runs late, Mr. McEachern takes them to a dingy back-alley restaurant, staffed by a thirty-year-old waitress. After the two gulp down their food, Mr. McEachern tells Joe that the restaurant is the type of place he should always avoid and that he must never enter the establishment again. On the next trip to see the lawyer, Joe’s father gives him a dime. Joe immediately heads to the restaurant and orders pie and coffee from the same waitress. When he realizes he has enough only for the pie, the waitress covers for him when the proprietor’s wife notices.
Joe, unnerved by his sexual attraction to the waitress, avoids town and tries to lose himself in bouts of hard work. His father rewards his efforts by giving Joe a heifer. But Joe suddenly resumes his interest in going to town and accompanies his father on the next trip, carrying a half dollar that his foster mother has secretly given him. When he returns to the restaurant and tries to pay the nickel for the coffee he ordered last time, he is laughed at and quickly leaves, only to bump into Bobbie, the waitress, on the street. Two days later, Joe is early for the nighttime rendezvous that they have planned. Bobbie saunters up and tells him she is menstruating—a process that is not altogether familiar to the sheltered Joe. He strikes her and runs off, only to return a week later to drag her hastily into the bushes, where he has sex for the first time.
Soon, the two are seeing each other regularly, and Joe is stealing more and more money from his foster mother, all the while unaware that Bobbie is a prostitute whom the restaurant’s proprietors, Max and Mame, brought to town with them. Joe visits Bobbie at Max and Mame’s, where he is also given his first taste of alcohol. When he shows up to meet her on the street corner one evening and she does not appear, he goes to her window to discover she is entertaining another man inside. At their next meeting, he strikes her repeatedly before she calms him down and explains to him that she is a prostitute. Before long, Joe has been fully seduced into a life of carousing, and though his mother notices the missing money, his father still has no idea what his adopted son has been up to.
Throughout Light in August, Faulkner explores the importance of memory amid the various layers of consciousness and thought that contribute to an action, motivation, or story. This approach gives us a more dynamic and complex understanding of character, gesturing to the parts of an individual that words cannot access or elucidate. For all the thoughts, impulses, and articulation that help define a person, there is always an unspoken element, the haunting record of the past that can never be expunged. Amid this seeming confusion, memory emerges as a potent and supreme form of knowledge, or personal truth. For Joe Christmas, memory consists of a painful personal history, an autobiography told not in facts and events but in an ever-present and instinctively referenced record of humiliation, abuse, and shame.
For Joe, memory is a burden that cannot be erased or escaped. No matter how far or fast he attempts to run from his past, it is always contained within him, in his conscious recollection of all that has transpired in his life and led to his fateful months residing in Jefferson. Rather than provide Joe with solid grounding from which to draw support and stability, his past is a chronicle of debasement in which he is systemically dehumanized—not only by those around him but also by his own actions. Instead of a unified and focused sense of self, Joe has a precarious lack of identity, which serves only as a backdrop for the gradual unraveling of his life. We see that Joe begins the gradual and inexorable hollowing of himself even in his formative years, and we see later see how this hollowing leads eventually to his violent rampages. With his own life and sense of self so emptied and devalued, mercilessly taking the lives of others becomes a tragic, if not inevitable, result. Ultimately, the mystery of Joe’s ambiguous identity is solved only when it is too late and no longer of any value to the troubled man.
Joe is an imprisoned subject, unable to fully embrace or embody his identity, yet unable to achieve the escape and release he desperately seeks. He longs to run away from the McEacherns but remains trapped and static. At one point, Faulkner, in one of a number of animal images associated with Joe, compares his protagonist to an eagle, “though he did not then know that, like the eagle, his own flesh as well as all space was still a cage.” Joe’s roiling and explosive anger is like that of a caged beast, pacing the borders of his imprisoned psyche, serving out a sentence both self-imposed and visited on him by a racist and dismissive society. Joe debases himself further in spurning the kindness and attention that his foster mother forces on him. After overturning the tray of food and throwing it in the corner, Joe’s hunger eventually outweighs his spite, and he is reduced to an animal, eating scraps from the floor.