Light In August opens with Lena Grove sitting on the side of the road, realizing that she is now farther from home than she has ever been in her life-she has walked all the way from Alabama to Mississippi in a little less than a month. When Lena was twelve, both of her parents died, and she went to live with her brother, McKinley. McKinley is twenty years older than she is and has a wife who is always pregnant. Lena takes care of all of the children for her sister-in-law because she is too busy having more to do it herself. When Lena is twenty, she starts sneaking out at night to meet a man, but after doing this only about a dozen times she discovers that she is pregnant. Her brother does not realize her situation until she is already six months along and the father of the baby, Lucas Burch, is long gone. McKinley calls her a whore, but Lena believes that Lucas will send for her as he promised, so that they can get married before it is "too late." One night, realizing that she is running out of time, she decides to sneak out and find Lucas herself. She just walking, inquiring in every town she passes whether anyone has heard of Lucas Burch.
Armstid and Winterbottom, discussing a deal for a cultivator, see Lena Grove walking by and speculate on her condition. Winterbottom will not accept Armstid's offer for his cultivator, so Armstid leaves on his wagon. He passes Lena sitting in a ditch by the side of the road, and offers her a ride. He takes her to his house and offers to let her stay the night, because she is still far from town. Armstid's wife, Martha, shows contempt for Lena's naive belief that Lucas is planning to marry her, but she gives Lena all of her personal savings to help her on her way.
At Varner's store, all of the men watch Lena. They assume that she is worried about her situation and angry at Lucas Burch for having deserted her. In reality, she is trying to decide whether to buy a can of sardines with some of the money from Martha Armstid, as well as priding herself on having "et" so lady-like at the Armstid's that morning. She decides to buy the sardines, and when she is done there is a wagon waiting to give her a ride into Jefferson. When they arrive in Jefferson, they see that a house is burning.
Byron Bunch remembers the time three years ago when a young stranger, dressed well but with an air of homelessness about him, came to the planing mill looking for a job. The men at the mill find his expression of cold contempt offensive, and they are surprised when the superintendent tells them that he has given him a job. The foreman tells them that the stranger's name is Christmas, and they all assume he is a foreigner, believing that explains his clothing, which is inappropriate for mill work. Byron sees Christmas hanging around after the normal Saturday shift is over, and realizes that Christmas wears his Sunday clothes to work and doesn't eat anything because he has no money. Byron offers Christmas some of his lunch, but Christmas refuses. After earning some money he starts to wear more appropriate clothes, but he still never talks to anyone at the mill for the first six months that he works there, and he keeps the look of contempt on his face.
The men eventually learn from another stranger who comes to the mill to work, Brown, that Christmas sells whiskey illegally, and just uses the mill job as a cover. They also learn from Brown that Christmas lives in the woods behind an old colonial plantation house where a middle-aged spinster, Joanna Burden, lives alone. Brown comes to the mill looking for work about two and a half years after Christmas's arrival. He is young and tall, and the men at the mill consider him worthless, sharing a feeling that he is lying about his past and his name. Brown gambles every Saturday, and most weeks loses his paycheck. Christmas and Brown work together; Christmas is always silent, and Brown is always telling stories and flinging his shovel around without accomplishing anything. They are seen together in town sometimes on Saturdays, with Brown always acting ostentatious.
One day, Christmas quits the mill job without warning. The men tell Byron that they saw Brown and Christmas driving around in a car, so clearly Christmas has made enough money from his bootlegging-which Brown helps him with-that he doesn't need to work in a planing mill anymore. The men predict that Brown will soon be gone too, and the next day they are proven right-he only comes back once more, to pick up his paycheck.
From that day on they always see Brown in town in his car, not making a very good job of hiding his illegal activities. No one is completely sure whether or not Christmas is helping him, but they do know that Brown is too stupid to act on his own. They know that both Brown and Christmas are living on the shed on the Burden property, but they don't know if Joanna Burden is aware of this-and nobody plans to tell her.
On the Saturday afternoon of Lena Grove's arrival, Byron is working alone at the mill, and the whole town has gone to watch Joanna Burden's house burn down. While he is there, Lena Grove comes to the mill looking for Lucas Burch, but finds only Byron, and so believes she has made a mistake. She sits down to rest and tells Byron the whole story. Christmas and Brown come up in conversation, and Lena starts to ask questions about Brown. Only after Byron has said more than he should have does he realize that Joe Brown is actually Lucas Burch, and by then Lena has already figured it out.
The first two chapters of Light In August introduce the theme of perception that predominates throughout the novel. The idea of perception and knowledge itself is already seriously complicated by the end of these chapters. Lena is often depicted seeing without looking: she is able to understand a scene completely with barely a glance, and yet she is completely blind to the reality of her situation and the pity that everyone who meets her feels for her.
The reader is introduced to Joe Christmas in the second chapter, and again is baffled by the problems of perception. Joe Christmas becomes the pivotal character of the novel, and yet in the first chapter where he appears, he is described only through the eyes of his coworkers at the mill and the rumors that are spread amongst the townspeople. Christmas is an enigma throughout the novel, but in his first appearances he is even more so, and the novel shows us how even in ignorance of any facts the town starts to build a communal understanding (or misunderstanding) of Christmas.
Byron Bunch and Reverend Hightower are also both introduced as mysterious figures in Jefferson, but to different ends. Hightower, hidden away in a house that he rarely leaves, is trapped by the town's perceptions and misperceptions of his character. Byron is similarly unknown to the town-the narrator explains that only Hightower knows where Byron goes every weekend, and nobody knows why he works every Saturday afternoon. And yet the town's lack of understanding of Byron does not confine him, but instead allows him to move about unnoticed; rather than being pigeonholed incorrectly, he is pigeonholed as a mystery, and thus anything he does can be attributed to his enigmatic persona.
The importance of names also comes up in the opening of the novel. Lena's journey to Jefferson is based on the similarity of the names Bunch and Burch; Joe Christmas is assumed to be a foreigner because of his unusual last name; Byron can't decide whether Joe Brown is an alias or not, because the name seems fake but also fits Burch's personality perfectly. The characters' names symbolize the community's perception of them, and thus the importance of names in the first two chapters predicts the deep significance that the communal perspective will have on all of the main characters.
These opening chapters also hint at the unreliability of the narration. The narrator highlights how untrustworthy each of the characters' own perceptions are by contrasting them with each other, and with the so-called reality. Yet the narrator himself often uses uncertain phrasing that makes it clear that he is not wholly omniscient, or that if he is, he chooses to hide the complete truth from the reader. The narrator also contradicts his own perceptions as he switches between different focalized perspectives, thereby drawing attention to the unreliability of all perception.