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Light in August

William Faulkner

Chapters 18–19

Chapters 16–17

Chapters 20–21

Summary: Chapter 18

As the grand jury convenes, Byron joins the gathering crowd downtown, self-conscious about his new role as the champion and savior of another man’s woman. He returns to the boardinghouse where Mrs. Beard has packed and stored his remaining items. He is finally able to meet with the sheriff and arrange to have Joe Brown taken out to the Burden farm later that day. Hidden in a clump of bushes, Byron watches the deputy push Brown into the cabin and close the door. Byron gets on his mule, loaded with his belongings, and rides off in an attempt to start a new life elsewhere. On the crest of a hill, he turns to see the Burden property below and notices Brown run out of the back of the cabin and make a mad dash for the woods. Turning the mule around, Byron gallops off in pursuit.

The narrative then shifts to Brown’s perspective as he is escorted from the jail and taken to the cabin. Once inside, shock, rage, and fear descend on him when he sees Lena and his newborn son. Brown lies, saying that he sent Lena money to come meet him but that he did so through an unreliable source. Realizing that he is trapped, he opens the cabin’s rear window and escapes. Reaching a shack, Brown pays a young man to bring a hastily scrawled message to the sheriff requesting that the courier return with the entirety of the reward money.

Brown is seated and waiting when Byron comes upon him. Byron gives Brown the chance to rise to his feet, and the men fight, Brown eventually getting the better of his smaller opponent. When Byron finally rises, bloody, from the grass, he walks to a railroad junction where he sees Brown jumping on a passing train. Headed back to town, a man in a wagon stops beside Byron to tell him that Christmas has been killed in town within the past hour.

Summary: Chapter 19

The district attorney, Gavin Stevens, places the Hineses on the train for their return journey home and assures the elderly couple that their grandson’s body will be sent along the next day. It emerges that Joe Christmas was found hiding in Reverend Hightower’s house when he was recaptured and killed. A former schoolmate, coming to Jefferson to visit Stevens, steps off the train as the Hineses are boarding.

The account of Christmas’s escape and death is then told through the eyes of Percy Grimm, a young white supremacist with a zeal for the U.S. military. With a ragtag guard of American Legion members, he commands his men to patrol the town square and surrounding area. When Christmas escapes, Grimm commandeers a messenger’s bicycle and takes off in pursuit. Chasing Christmas to Reverend Hightower’s house, Grimm and three armed men burst in on the minister, who, taken by surprise, claims that Christmas was there with him on the night of the murder. Ignoring the preacher’s somewhat incoherent words, Grimm finds Christmas in the kitchen, where he shoots him five times and then, with a butcher knife, castrates him.

Analysis

The recounting of Joe Brown’s trip to see Lena and his newborn son in the cabin epitomizes Light in August’s fluid sense of time and exploration of multiple perspectives. First, Faulkner offers Byron’s version of the proceedings, examining his murky motivations in wanting to reunite the child’s biological parents. Later, Faulkner retells the same event from Joe Brown’s point of view. The two separate accounts are then fused into a new and resulting action, when Byron witnesses Brown escaping via the cabin’s back window. Byron gives chase, and their showdown ensues. Though beaten, Byron emerges from the fight infused with a new purpose and willingness to assume personal risks he would never before have dreamed of.

While Joe Christmas seeks the essential knowledge of who he is and where he belongs in the world, Byron’s struggle centers on the perceived deficiencies of his existing identity. He deems the life he had known before meeting Lena an insufficient or outdated form. Implicit in his fantasy of flight is a notion of reinvention, the assumption of a new life and a new identity. “And Byron Bunch,” he reminds himself, “he wouldn’t even have to be or not be Byron Bunch.” Lying in the undergrowth near the railroad tracks, he perceives his old life slipping away. The people who had made up his existence, even he himself, are likened to “discarded and fragmentary toys . . . small objects which had never been alive, which he had played with in childhood and then broken and forgot.” Symbolically, Byron’s old sense of self has been replaced with a new order, a delayed but nonetheless welcome adulthood.

In Chapter 19, as Percy Grimm chases the desperately fleeing Joe Christmas, Faulkner introduces the lingo of chess: Grimm’s body moves instinctively in pursuit of Christmas, as if drawn by a more powerful agent, in “blind obedience to whatever Player moved him on the Board.” It is an ironic turn, as Faulkner’s characters, tormented over the course of the novel by their incomplete and imprisoning subjectivities, ultimately are rendered powerless objects, their will and sense of self-determination merely an illusion. The characters’ struggles—to resist suffering, to achieve a whole and grounded sense of self—turn out to be all for naught, as if they are merely acting out the final scenes of a scripted drama, going through the motions only to arrive at a predetermined fate. Faulkner equates life with a game of chess, with its various strategies and attacks and missteps, all obscuring the fact that these individuals are ultimately moving toward a predetermined and inalterable conclusion. In the interim, the characters maintain the sustaining illusion that they are the masters of their own fate, when in fact they are actually pawns being manipulated by forces larger than themselves and beyond their control.

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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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