Light In August

Light In August Summary and Analysis of Chapters Three to Five

Seven years earlier, when Byron arrives in Jefferson, he asks about the mysterious Reverend Hightower. He learns that Hightower came straight from the seminary to Jefferson with his young wife-he had been obsessed with the town of Jefferson, and so refused to accept any other calling. The elders of the church in Jefferson were quickly disillusioned with Hightower because he never gave any indication that he was at all interested in the church or the people, but only in the town itself. He was deeply obsessed with his grandfather, who had been killed during the Civil War in Jefferson, to the point that his sermons barely made sense and bordered on sacrilegious because they were so infused with battles and galloping horses.

After a year, Hightower's wife stops going to church and rarely shows her face in town. The townspeople get suspicious, and one day when she is supposed to be visiting relatives out of town she is seen in a hotel in Memphis. As she disappears more and more often and comes to church less and less, the townspeople all come to realize that she is probably living in sin, but nobody says it aloud, and nobody knows whether Hightower knows or not. Hightower's wife ultimately has a breakdown and is confined to a sanatorium for a while, which is paid for by the church elders. When Hightower's wife returns from the sanatorium she seems healed, and everyone almost believes that things will be normal. However, she soon starts disappearing to Memphis again. One day she is found dead there, having jumped or fallen out of the window of a hotel room where she was staying with a man. All of Jefferson is scandalized, and after a great deal of public shaming, Hightower is forced to leave the church. They cannot, however, make him leave the town, and so he stays even though he is completely shunned, and once even physically attacked.

The weekend of Lena's arrival, Byron goes to see Hightower on Sunday night. Hightower is surprised because Byron is always away on Sundays. Byron tells Hightower about meeting Lena and accidentally revealing to her that Joe Brown is both a bootlegger and Lucas Burch. Lena wants to go to the fire, where she expects to find Lucas, but Byron convinces her to wait until evening, and takes her to get a room at Mrs. Beard's boarding house. On their way, many people try to tell him gossip about the fire, but he is afraid of what they will say and afraid of having Lena hear it, so he ignores them. Byron eventually finds out what happened, but by the time he comes to see Hightower, Hightower still doesn't know, so Byron has to be the one to tell him. Byron explains that the first man to find the house on fire found Brown inside, very drunk. Brown tried to prevent the man from going upstairs, but the man became suspicious and wanted to make sure everyone got out of the house alright, so he went up, where he found Joanna Burden's body. She was dead, her head barely attached to her body. He carried her body down and out of the fire carefully to preserve the evidence of murder. The police notified Joanna Burden's nephew from the north, who offered a one thousand dollar reward for the capture of his aunt's murderer.

Joe Christmas and Joe Brown both disappeared after the fire, but once word of the reward gets out, Brown goes to the Jefferson police to tell them that Christmas murdered Joanna Burden. He explains that Christmas and Joanna had been having a secret relationship, and that it was Joanna that bought Christmas the car that Brown used. Brown goes on and on, trying to prove Christmas's guilt and clear himself, desperate for the reward. When he realizes that the police suspect him more than they suspect Christmas, he decides to tell them that Christmas is black. Once he has convinced them that Christmas does indeed have African-American ancestors, the revelation has the desired effect: the police believe that Christmas is the murderer-but they keep Brown in jail, just in case.

One night, Brown wakes Christmas up coming in drunk, and Christmas beats him until he is quiet. Christmas can't fall back asleep, and is thrown into a rage thinking about the fact that Joanna has started praying over him. He goes to sleep in the barn to avoid Brown's snores and to be near the smell of horses, and he sleeps until dawn. When he wakes up he goes to shave, buys a magazine, and empties out his store of whiskey before going to town to get dinner. At nine he sees Brown out as usual, but as soon as he sees him he turns away and wanders around, ending up in Freedman Town. He suddenly panics, and runs until he is in a white section of town again. Eventually he goes back to Joanna's house.


This section of Light In August describes more fully characters that were wholly mysterious in the first two chapters. Reverend Hightower is especially brought to life-and yet still only through the perspectives of others. The entire story of Hightower's tragedy and shame is told from the perspective of the townspeople, who told the story to Byron Bunch when he first moved to Jefferson. And yet the narrator blends this perspective into his own so that the reader often forgets that the perspective they are experiencing is not the narrator's. This underscores the ability of a community's accepted truths to become its reality.

Joe Christmas also starts to emerge more clearly in this section, and so too does the book's complex understanding of race and racial identity. Just as the characters' names are essential parts of their identities from the perspective of the town, race is an essential component of their beings. According to a Jefferson police officer, to accuse a white man of being black is unforgivable, even if that man is a murderer. Similarly, as soon as Joe Brown has convinced the police that Joe Christmas is black, they accept Christmas's guilt-without any more evidence than Brown's word.

Thus race fits into the town's understanding of good and evil, moral and immoral, guilt and innocence, as if on a set line: to be black is worse than to be a murderer, and to be black is to be guilty. That Joe Christmas is profoundly affected by this communal understanding of race does not become fully clear in this section of the novel, but there are hints that questions of race are at the root of his irrational anger. His journey through the black and white sections of Jefferson especially underscores this.

It also starts to become clear that Christmas is profoundly misogynistic-he sleeps in the stable because horses have a smell that is "non-woman," and his murderous hatred for Joanna is rooted in her femininity. That his obsessions with race and with misogyny are closely connected can be seen in the episode where a car of white people drives by, and the women shriek at the sight of his naked body. He is filled with rage, but finds vengeance in the fact that he has slept with white women-to him, that is more an act of racial assertion and vengeance than of sexual desire.

This section of Light In August also develops the meta-narrative aspect of the book. In chapter five, Christmas reads a magazine so closely that the words lose their meaning and hold him captive, removing him from time. In addition, the structure of the novel, with its complete disregard for chronology and multiple protagonists, presents an idea of a novel as an organic story that relies not on time, but on connecting moments and interweaving characters.