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Light in August | Study Guide

William Faulkner

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Light in August | Chapter 12 | Summary



The story continues on a linear path as it recounts Joe Christmas's history with Joanna Burden. The narrator describes a "second phase" of their relationship. Joe Christmas "watch[es] her pass through every avatar of a woman in love." She has fits of jealousy and sets up a secret place to hide letters and notes. The third phase of their relationship centers around her announcement, "just after Christmas," that she is pregnant. Joe expects her to pressure him to marry her, but that does not happen. Instead she explains her plan to hand over her business affairs to him. He sees her "once more within the next two months." Around this time Joe invites Joe Brown (Lucas Burch) to live in the cabin with him.

Christmas returns to the cabin one night to find a letter from Joanna Burden on his bed and is relieved. He thinks, "It will be like it was before." After a few words with Brown, Christmas goes to the house to see Joanna. Joe Brown follows, and they have an altercation. Brown disappears into the dark. Upon seeing Joanna, Joe Christmas discovers that his relief was premature. She has plans for him to go to school, which he will not have to pay for because he is black. She wants him to study in Memphis with her lawyer and then "take charge of all the legal business." Joe asks, "Tell niggers that I am a nigger too?" They argue, and Christmas hits her. The section ends with Joanna saying, "Maybe it would be better if we both were dead."

In the following scene, Joe Christmas and Joanna Burden are at a hostile point in their relationship. She no longer leaves meals for Joe, and she pressures him to kneel and pray. He sits outside all night watching the house and "saying to himself I had to do it already in the past tense; I had to do it." Again she asks him to kneel. This time he sees "her right hand come forth from beneath the shawl." She's holding a gun. The section ends abruptly as he is "watching when the cocked shadow of the hammer flicked away."

In the final pages of the chapter Joe leaves, stops a car, and gets in. The couple inside are nervous, and the car is driven quickly. Eventually he gets out and realizes he is holding the "ancient heavy pistol" in his right hand, and this is why the couple was afraid of him. After noticing that there were 2 loaded chambers "for her and for me," he throws the pistol away.


In reading this chapter, which continues the description of the events leading up to the murder of Joanna Burden, readers must keep in mind the racial environment of the 1920s and 1930s. The Jim Crow laws enacted between 1877 and the 1950s enforced racial segregation in the South. One of the most well-known of these was the Plessy v. Ferguson decision by the Supreme Court in 1896. That decision supported segregation by allowing states and local governments to provide "separate but equal" facilities for black and white people. The purpose of these laws, of course, was to protect white supremacy. The Plessy v. Ferguson decision was not reversed until 1954. Other laws prohibited white and black people from marrying. These laws were not reversed until a decade later, in 1967. Thus Joanna's relationship with Joe puts both characters at risk. Joanna is a Yankee and a willing advocate for raising up "the shadows," but she has also been instructed by her father, as related in Chapter 11, that "you can never lift it to your level."

The violence that ends Joe and Joanna's relationship is an outgrowth of cultural norms. The murder continues a pattern of violence detailed over numerous chapters describing Joe's past. Joanna's suggestion that Joe attend what is, in essence, a "separate but equal" college and work for her implicitly states that he is less than her—not a man to marry, but an employee. It is a rejection of any possibility that they can take their relationship to a new level.

So there are several paradoxes at play in the relationship between Joe and Joanna. They explain Joanna's words, "Maybe it would be better if we both were dead," and her attempt to kill both Joe and herself.

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