Light In August

Light In August Summary and Analysis of Chapters Twenty and Twenty-One

Reverend Hightower was an only child, born to a fifty-year-old father and an invalid mother. His father, a minister, though living at a time when slavery was a normal part of life, refused to eat food that had been grown or cooked by a slave. Because of this, Hightower's mother almost starved to death during the Civil War and became an invalid for the rest of her life. Hightower's father had gone to fight in the war, although he never fired his musket, and he always wore a frock cloak rather than an army uniform. As a child Hightower became oddly obsessed with the Civil War, sneaking up to the attic to look at his father's old frock and constantly asking their servant to tell him the stories about his grandfather's valiant deeds. Hightower's grandfather was very different from his father, and never set foot inside his son's house after his marriage. Hightower's father had, however, lost some of the sanctimoniousness that had irritated his father by the time he came back from the Civil War. He also had learned some medicine during the war, and so became a doctor.

Hightower grew up with three people who while alive already seemed like ghosts: his mother, his father, and a former slave of his grandfather's who came to live with Hightower's family after she finally accepted that the grandfather and her husband had both died in the war. Hightower's primary source of joy as a child was listening to the servant tell him stories of his grandfather killing hundreds of Yankee soldiers, although the idea of his father killing even one would make him ill for days.

Hightower saw joining the seminary both as a chance to let his spirit grow in a safe shelter, and as a path that could lead him to Jefferson, the town where his grandfather was shot and killed during the war. While at the seminary he met his future wife, who was the daughter of one of the ministers who taught there. He thought their love sprang up spontaneously through the notes they left each other in a hollow tree, but really she had watched him from the time of his arrival with the cold calculation of someone desperate for a way out. After three years, she brought up the idea of marriage to him, but she didn't even try to hide the fact that her primary motivation was to escape from the seminary. He was not hurt, simply believing that he had been wrong about what love is. His illusions about marriage, love, and the seminary thus dispelled, he accepted his life for what it was but still looked forward to the idea of living in Jefferson with great excitement.

Hightower's grandfather and his men had rode into Jefferson, a garrisoned Yankee town, and set fire to the stores, all without being shot. It was only when Grandfather Hightower tried to steal chickens from a chicken coop on their way out that he was shot in the back. They never knew who shot him, but Hightower chooses to believe it was the wife of the Confederate soldier whose chicken coop he was looting.

Hightower sits at dusk, looking out the window and thinking about all of this. He questions whether his wife's fall was his fault, and whether in marrying her he had only been serving his own interests. He also admits to himself that when he was forced to step down from the church he did his best to make it look as though he was completely reluctant, but really he was glad to leave-he had realized that it was not for him. As he sits there, he suddenly sees the faces of everyone he has ever known rise before him, and he realizes that he is dying. Then what he has been waiting for happens: the ghosts of his grandfather and his men thunder past on horseback.

A young furniture repairer and dealer returns home after a week of travel and tells his wife the story of something that happened to him on the road. He had been stopped by Lena and Byron, who asked for a ride to wherever he was going. He accepted, assuming that they were a family, but that night while they were camping out he overheard them talking and realized that they were not married, and that they were still searching for Lucas Burch. He overheard Byron trying to convince Lena to give up searching for Lucas and intimating that she should marry him instead. As usual she did not say yes or no, but he got himself so worked up that she eventually had to kick him out of the wagon where she was sleeping. He walked off into the woods, and when morning comes he still had not returned. Lena got into the back of the wagon and they started off again, without Byron. Eventually they came around a turn to find Byron waiting for them, and he got back in the wagon. The furniture repairer tells his wife that he is pretty certain that Lena did not have any desire to find Lucas, that she just wanted to keep on traveling for as long as she could.


As in the previous sections of Light In August, in the final chapters Faulkner meditates on the problems of storytelling. Lena and Byron's story is resolved by an unnamed character who only spends two days with the pair, and whose conclusions arise mostly from conjecture. His motivation in telling the story also may have colored these conclusions, thus highlighting the problem of creating an unbiased presentation of any story.

By ending the story in yet another storyteller's voice, Faulkner puts his own narrator on a level with all of the characters who tell stories throughout the novel, thus ultimately throwing his own narrator's motivations into question and underscoring his essential unreliability. Yet he also creates a model for storytelling from multiple voices as a possible way to avoid the pitfall of perspective that is highlighted as a problem so often in Light In August.

The power of storytelling and its ability to give the past significant power in the present is also highlighted in the final chapter. Hightower's life is completely shaped by the stories that his grandfather's former slave tells him of his grandfather's participation in the Civil War. His own father, who also fought in the war and who was a physical presence in the young Hightower's life, does not have nearly so much of an effect on the boy, because he is not a story.

The final two stories, Hightower's and Lena's, stand in interesting contrast to each other. Hightower has spent his entire adult life in the same town, only leaving his house to buy his necessities. His final scene shows how much the past still engulfs his life-the ghosts that represent the history of the place and the ghosts of all the people he has known are the last things that he sees. Lena, in contrast, is constantly in motion. The book opens with her arrival in Mississippi, and ends with her arrival in Tennessee. By moving constantly, Lena avoids the pitfalls of the past that keep Hightower from ever truly living in the present. There are no ghosts to surround her as she travels on the road. Lena's obsession with travel, and thus with the present, makes her an alternate model for how to live in the South.