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.