Light In August tells many stories, but at its center are the story of Joe Christmas and the story of Lena Grove. Joe Christmas is an orphan who is convinced he is of biracial descent and has been tortured by this belief for his whole life. He is adopted by a hard, devoutly Presbyterian man, McEachern, who beats any happiness or self worth out of him, and after falling in love with a prostitute whom McEachern scorns, he kills his adoptive father. His life from that point on is a continual journey: he moves from town to town and city to city, switching between living in white and black communities. He ends up in Jefferson, Mississippi, where he starts a complicated relationship with Joanna Burden, a white middle-aged spinster who is completely ignored by the town because they consider her a Yankee. Joanna slowly morphs from being obsessed with sex to being obsessed with religion, and tries to bring Christmas with her. When Christmas will not follow Joanna on her path to spiritual salvation, she decides that they both must die. When she pulls out a gun, however, Christmas kills her and then burns down the house. The fire attracts the town's attention, and soon the Jefferson police are on Christmas's tail, convinced of his guilt only because they are told he is partially black. The rest of Christmas's story is about his escape, capture and eventual lynching.
Lena Grove is a young woman, more than seven months pregnant, who walks from Alabama to Mississippi in hopes of finding the father of her baby. Lucas Burch, after hearing that Lena is pregnant, skips town quickly, telling her that he will send for her. When Lena's due date starts approaching, however, she decides to take matters into her own hands. She ends up in Jefferson, where Lucas has been living under the false name of Joe Brown and making money selling whisky with Joe Christmas. With the help of Byron Bunch, who is in love with Lena, her journey goes on.
Light In August interweaves many other stories into these two primary tales. Reverend Gail Hightower is the town pariah, obsessed with his family's past and determined to remove himself from life. Bryon Bunch is a hardworking Christian who is distracted from his set ways for the first time by Lena's appearance. Doc Hines is a violent and racist Calvinist whose only goal in life is to make sure that Christmas suffers. In Light In August, Faulkner offers readers a confluence of very different characters that together show the interconnectedness of the South.