Byron finds Reverend Hightower sleeping in the yard when he arrives to tell his friend of Joe Christmas’s capture. The minister accuses Byron of using the situation to his advantage and that his kindness and charity toward Lena mask less selfless and more carnal and insidious desires.
Hightower muses that, since being defrocked, he has slowly slipped out of conventional time and entered an existence of his own making. He believes that suffering is the lot of the wicked and good alike. He also believes that joy and pleasure are complicated gifts that most people do not know what to do with.
Byron leaves and returns with the Hineses, who are revealed to be Joe’s grandparents. Mr. Hines, still in his detached coma-like state, rants and raves about the weakness and sin of his daughter Milly, Joe’s mother. Mrs. Hines then recounts the story of Joe’s conception, birth, and first months. Milly became involved with a worker at a circus passing through the town where they lived at the time. Claiming he was Mexican, rather than part black, he seduced the young girl, and the couple attempted to run off together. But they were caught by Mr. Hines, who shot and killed the man and forced his daughter to return home.
Mr. Hines then attempted to find a doctor willing to perform an abortion, but his anger and religious zeal got the best of him during his search, and he assaulted a physician before heading to the next town. There, he took over the church service, trying to convince the congregation of the inherent evil of blacks. When the parishioners tried to coax him down from the pulpit, Mr. Hines pulled out a gun and eventually found himself in jail. By the time he was released and returned home, Milly was about to have the baby. When Milly started going into labor, Mrs. Hines sent her husband off to fetch the doctor. However, he refused and merely stood guard on the porch with his shotgun, striking his wife with the barrel of the gun. Milly died in labor, and Mr. Hines went off again, leaving his wife to care for the infant. One day, Mrs. Hines found a note and saw that the baby was gone.
Mr. Hines arranged a job at an orphanage in Memphis, where he left the infant Joe on Christmas Eve. Joe was taken in and lived in an atmosphere of racial taunts and slurs until the day he snuck into the dietician’s room to steal the toothpaste and unknowingly witnessed her having sex with the intern. Shortly thereafter, Mr. Hines, knowing that the child was adopted and taken away, returned home permanently, telling his wife the child was dead.
Reverend Hightower remains unclear what Byron and the Hineses want him to do about the situation. Mrs. Hines says she wishes only to see Joe freed from jail for one day, to suspend time temporarily as though he had not committed the crime. Byron, however, wants Hightower to claim falsely that Joe Christmas was with him at his house on the night of the murder. Outraged, the reverend refuses and orders the threesome out of his house.
Lena is about to have the baby, and Byron returns to Reverend Hightower’s to wake him and have him assist with the labor. He then dashes off to find a doctor, which he neglected to arrange earlier. The elderly practitioner is slow in getting dressed and cannot find his car key. By the time he and Joe arrive at the Burden cabin, the baby is lying in Mrs. Hines’s lap, beside Reverend Hightower, who looks sickly and overwhelmed. Mr. Hines is sleeping on the other cot.
Mrs. Hines, confused and somewhat delusional, mistakes Lena for her own daughter, Milly, and believes that the newborn is her infant grandson Joe. Byron realizes suddenly that he must tell Joe Brown all that has happened. When Hightower is ready to leave, he sees that the mule is gone, so he walks the two miles back home, where he makes breakfast and decides not to go back to bed. Nonetheless, he falls asleep shortly after settling into his reading in the yard. Waking, he walks back to the cabin, where he finds Lena alone with her newborn son. Lena says that Mr. Hines slipped out and returned to town while his wife was sleeping, but that Mrs. Hines awoke shortly afterward and left to find him.
Lena is glad that Mrs. Hines has left, as Mrs. Hines seemed to believe that the baby was actually Joe Christmas’s child, which began to unsettle and confuse Lena. Hightower sees that Lena had been anticipating the return of Byron; she tells him that Byron has arranged for the baby’s father to be released temporarily from jail to visit Lena and his new son that evening. Hightower walks to town, to the mill, where he learns that Byron has just quit the job he held for seven years. Hightower learns that Byron is most likely at the courthouse, where the grand jury is being convened.
As Faulkner reveals more of Joe’s past and personal history, he draws certain parallels between the Hineses and the McEacherns. Each of the patriarchs in the respective families subscribes to a faith that borders at times on religious fanaticism, blindly following his own absolute moral code and expecting all within his care to do the same. Both men are drawn by an instinctive almost clairvoyant force that draws them to the exact sites where their respective children succumb to the temptations of the flesh. Just as Mr. McEachern is intuitively directed to the school on the night of his death, so is Uncle Doc Hines able to track down his daughter fleeing with her lover in his wagon. The women also share similarities, as they live in the shadows of their spouses, meekly accepting their husbands’ often abusive and authoritarian rule.
Women form a curious, tangential presence in Light in August. The novel resides in a male-centered, male-dominated world, exploring masculine brutality and the idea of the Byronic hero (named for the nineteenth-century English poet Lord Byron)—a brooding, restless, and flawed individual wounded by life’s cruelties and slights. Women exist on the edges of this world, scapegoats for the frustrations and unrealized potential of the men in their lives, and often the victims of physical brutality.
In Faulkner’s imagining, his female characters fall into one of two broadly defined and generalized types. The first type, the meek and ineffective nurturer, is embodied by Mrs. McEachern and Mrs. Hines. Their silence, inaction, and easily cowed natures give free reign to the cruelty and disastrous choices of their spouses and indirectly result in harm to others. Lena, Hightower’s wife, and Milly (Joe Christmas’s mother) are representative of Faulkner’s second type—fallen women, seen as loose and prodigal in overtly embracing and asserting their sexual desires. Often, they are erroneously seen as the source of the undoing of the men with whom they are associated. It is Miss Burden, the female presence in the work that comes the closest to being fully realized, who resists easy categorization. She exists on the edges of these broad groupings—carnal and nurturing at the same time, seen as brazenly straddling the gender divide.
Surprisingly, Hightower, despite his isolation, emerges as the philosophical center of the novel—a humanist presence who rejects the rigid moral codes that confine Jefferson’s residents. Hightower’s static, abstract journey to self-knowledge and self-acceptance contrasts with the strivings of the other main characters, who either fail to attain insight or fail to act on it. Hightower, Lena, and Christmas all attempt to salvage their pride, turn from the harsh realities of the past, and infuse their lives with a newfound purpose. They all are damaged individuals whose reputations and senses of self have been compromised, both by their own actions and by social forces beyond their control. Hightower eventually makes peace with his life of internal struggle, stoically embracing his impending death, armed with the understanding that suffering is an unavoidable component of existence.