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Light in August

William Faulkner

Chapters 14–15

Chapters 12–13

Chapters 16–17

Summary: Chapter 14

The deputy in Jefferson informs the sheriff that Lena has settled into the cabin on the Burden property, believing that it was the house Joe Brown promised he would provide for her and the baby. Byron Bunch, meanwhile, is camped out in a tent a short distance from the cabin. Concluding that Lena is harming no one, the sheriff decides to allow her to stay there.

At three o’clock in the morning, the sheriff is summoned by a man who reports that Joe Christmas went on a rampage at a black church twenty miles away. Thundering in and disrupting the service, Joe assaulted several church members and cursed God from the pulpit. The grandson of one of the elder members whom Joe punched rushed at Joe with a razor, but Joe knocked him out with a blow to the head. After having a cigarette out front in the dark, he ran off.

The posse of men with bloodhounds arrives at the church to try to track Joe down. They find a note, consisting solely of an expletive, addressed to the sheriff and left in the church. The men then go on a chase across the countryside, tracking the fugitive to a cabin where he changed shoes with the woman inside. The sheriff returns the group to a cotton house, but the search yields nothing.

On the run, Christmas loses track of what day it is, running until he collapses from exhaustion and sleeping where and when he can. Starving, he eats old, worm-ridden fruit and unripe corn that he picks in fields. In his delirium and bedraggled state, people recoil from him whenever he meets or passes them on the road or in the backcountry. One day, he asks a farmer’s wife what day it is; he gets an answer but is told to keep going away from the property. He has the dim recollection of a black family feeding him a full meal. Eventually, a young man in a wagon gives him a ride to Mottstown.

Summary: Chapter 15

A strange old couple named the Hineses have lived in Mottstown for nearly thirty years. Mr. Hines, also known as Uncle Doc, once had a mysterious job in Memphis, but he lost it long ago and has never seemed to work again. The couple settled in a black section of Mottstown, and it seems that they are able to eat only because several black women take pity on them and bring food to their back door. Over the years, Mr. Hines has taken to preaching in rural black churches, where in his crazed, bombastic manner he counsels black parishioners to accept the superiority of whites.

On the day Joe Christmas is captured and brought to town, Mr. Hines breaks through the crowd and comes face to face with the fugitive. He attempts to strike Joe with his cane but is subdued and driven home. When the men walk the fatigued and catatonic Mr. Hines to his door, his wife is unusually curious about Joe Christmas, and the men begin to suspect that the couple once knew the prisoner. Once inside, Mrs. Hines asks her husband what he did more than thirty years ago with a baby belonging to a woman named Milly.

The town is abuzz with the news of Christmas’s capture and with Mr. Hines’s bizarre behavior—after being taken home, the old man reappeared suddenly downtown, demanding that Christmas be killed immediately rather than turned over to the authorities in Jefferson. Mrs. Hines then goes to the jail, asking to see Christmas. The jailer says she must secure the sheriff’s permission first. While she is off trying to do so, officials from Jefferson arrive to retrieve Christmas.

A large crowd has gathered, uninterested in the reward money and calling Christmas’s immediate death. The men from Jefferson, however, are able to escort the prisoner out of the courthouse and head him to the waiting cars. Breaking through the crowd, Mrs. Hines stands before Christmas and looks at his face before he is put in the car and driven off. Retrieving her husband, she tries to hire a car to take them to Jefferson, but it is too expensive. That night, the couple waits at the depot for the 2:00 a.m. train that will take them to Jefferson.

Analysis

Joe, on the lam, slides further and further from his own existence, crossing over a threshold to embrace and embody his bestial associations. On the run essentially since he has been a teenager, he has fallen outside of time and no longer has any idea what day it is. This change in him signals an even more foreboding distance and removal from humanity, an even wider gulf between Christmas and any form of acceptance, salvation, or belonging. “When he thinks about time,” Faulkner writes, “it seems to him now that for thirty years he has lived inside an orderly parade of named and numbered days like picket fences, and that one night he went to sleep and when he waked up he was outside of them.” As Joe plunges deeper and deeper into the backcountry, the ties that bind him to ordered, regulated society are severed. Night and day, the broad categories that provide order and a sense of definition are rendered meaningless. Joe’s evolution and eventual slippage outside of time mirrors the personal journey of Hightower, whose self-imposed exile slowly divorces him from a sense of time as it governs the outside world. In his cloistered realm, Hightower slides dangerously into a world of his own making, where he is beholden to none.

The importance—or lack of importance—that time has to many of the characters is reflected in the general overarching structure of the novel, with its cyclical structure and temporal shifts, as the main current of the plot is continuously interrupted with flashbacks and recurrences of the same event as told from various opposing perspectives. A prime example comes in the account of Christmas’s attack on the rural black church. The man sent to summon the sheriff does not know how the scene eventually plays out, and he mistakenly believes that Christmas has been killed by one of the angry parishioners. The partial, subjective, or erroneous information that individual characters contribute to the narrative underscores the lack of cohesion and unification that plagues the characters of Christmas, Miss Burden, and Hightower.

This section of the novel marks yet another evolution as Lena returns, drawn back into the action and thereby shifting the focus from the dark musings and aggressions of Joe Christmas to her guileless optimism and unquenchable life force. Lena takes up residence in the now abandoned cabin on the Burden property, symbolically replacing Christmas and negating his destructive presence. Whereas he brought death and suffering, she brings new life in the form of the newborn son she is about to deliver. As Joe moves deeper into self-annihilation, his existence is effaced he stands outside even nature itself—“a foreigner to the very immutable laws which earth must obey.” Lena, conversely, is tied vibrantly to time, subject to a cycle governed by the natural realm. Her baby represents a hope and a boundless possibility that Joe was never able to fulfill.

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Joe Christmas

by Lubasi, June 07, 2014

I think Joe Christmas' upbring is responsible for his complex behaviour in his adulthood. More often heredity creates individuals, but in the case of Joe Christmas its the environment in which lived that played a significant role in his creation. But what are the ramifications of Joe Christmas' biracial background?

Was Faulkner a racist?

by rhythmethod, June 11, 2014

I can't get past the ugly racism in this book. I'd like to think the racism belongs to the characters, but the author gives no reason for the reader to think it didn't belong to him as well.

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