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Light in August | Study Guide

William Faulkner

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Light in August | Chapter 11 | Summary



This chapter continues chronologically from the last one. Joe Christmas lives in the cabin adjacent to the big house. He recalls that although Miss Joanna Burden appeared to be no more than 30, later she told him she was 40. The narration notes that "even after a year" when Joe saw her, "it would be on Saturday afternoon or Sunday or when he would come to the house for the food." They did not talk much and when they did, they were like strangers despite their physical intimacy. He learns about the work she does via her correspondence of "advice, business, financial and religious, to the presidents and faculties and trustees, and ... alumnae, of a dozen negro schools." The narration recounts the first time he went to Burden's bedroom and had relations with her. He thought that afterward he would be sent away, but he is not. Come spring he "went to work." The following September, he returns to the cabin one day to find her there, waiting to talk.

The narration shifts to the Burden family history, related by Joanna to Joe. Calvin Burden was the youngest son of a minister, Nathaniel Burden. Calvin's son, also called Nathaniel, ran away. When he returned, he brought with him a young Spanish wife and infant son. The infant son was Joanna's brother, although not by the same mother. The boy grew up and was killed 14 years before Joanna was born. There was a quarrel, it seems. "He was killed ... by an ex-slaveholder and Confederate soldier named Sartoris, over a question of negro voting." Joanna recounts her father taking her to the family graveyard when she was a child and speaking of "the white race's doom and curse," which was black men and women.

They discuss why her father didn't murder the man who murdered her brother, and Joe says he would have done so. In the dark, Miss Burden then asks Joe, "You don't have any idea who your parents were?" He replies that he doesn't, but that he knows "one of them was part nigger." She pressed, asking, "How do you know that?" He has no answer save, "If I'm not, damned if I haven't wasted a lot of time."


For all the novel's focus on Joe Christmas's race, he is unprepared in this chapter for Joanna Burden's unanswerable question. At the same time she is asking this question, she is sharing her own family history. She knows hers: they are "Yankees." In Chapter 2, Byron Bunch says of Joanna, "she is a Yankee ... They say she is still mixed up with niggers. Visits them when they are sick, like they was white."

Joanna is well aware that she is not accepted in Jefferson or the South. She tells Joe, "They hated us here. We were Yankees. Foreigners. Worse than foreigners: enemies." As she speaks to him, she tells him the people there thought that her family was "stirring up the negroes to murder and rape" and "threatening white supremacy."

Joanna reveals to Joe—and the reader—that she was raised to believe that the "white race" was "doomed and cursed." That curse was a "black shadow already falling upon them before they drew breath." Significantly, however, she freely tells her history to Joe herself. In contrast, Hightower's, Joe's, and Lena's histories have all been revealed by the narrator or by others. What Joanna reveals is a motivation for her actions that is self-serving and—like Joe's—influenced by her own upbringing. Joanna's father told her that she "must raise the shadow [negroes] with you. But you can never lift it to your level." Joe Christmas is not accepted here any more than he was during his childhood. He is part of the burden that, in an example of verbal irony, Joanna Burden must carry.

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