Summary: Chapter 17

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.