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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
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
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
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
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
Ace your assignments with our guide to Light in August!