Light in August | Study Guide

William Faulkner

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Light in August | Chapter 16 | Summary

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Summary

Byron Bunch goes to see Reverend Gail Hightower, waking him to tell him that Joe Christmas has been arrested and that both he and Joe Brown are in jail in Jefferson. Hightower reproaches Byron for keeping Brown and Lena Grove apart. Byron then tells him that everyone makes a choice and the "good must suffer for it the same as them that are bad." Everyone suffers, he says, including "that other woman." At this Hightower asks, "That other woman? Another woman? Must my life after fifty years be violated and my peace destroyed by two lost women, Byron?" Byron explains that the "other" woman "ain't lost now"; she is Joe Christmas's grandmother.

Byron then brings Mr. and Mrs. Hines to see Hightower. Mrs. Hines tells their part of the story involving Joe Christmas. Joe Christmas is their daughter Milly's child. Mrs. Hines says she's there to stop Doc Hines from inciting a lynch mob to kill Joe. Doc Hines yells, "It's God's abomination of womanflesh!" Mrs. Hines and Byron explain that Milly slipped out of the house and had sex with a man from the circus. The man said he was "a Mexican," but Doc Hines was sure the man had black ancestry. Eventually Milly Hines ran away with her lover, but Doc Hines went after them, killed the man, and brought Milly home. He tried to find a doctor to perform an abortion, but then he went into a wild rage and attacked the doctor. He went to another town, and there he went to a prayer meeting and preached about white supremacy and brandished a gun—which resulted in his being jailed.

Doc Hines was released from jail not long before Milly went into labor. She died in childbirth, and Doc Hines went away, leaving the baby with Mrs. Hines. Then one day Hines returned and took the child away, leaving only a note. Hines brought the child to Memphis, where he had taken a job as a janitor at an orphanage. He left the baby on the doorstep where Joe was taken in and named Joe Christmas, because he was found on Christmas night. Byron and Mrs. Hines then explain that they want Reverend Hightower to lie and provide an alibi for Joe Christmas. Hightower refuses and screams, "Get out of my house!"

Analysis

The missing pieces of Joe's history are revealed here. Joe was the son of an unwed mother. The religious zealotry he experienced as a child was likely what his mother also experienced. His teenage experience of sneaking out his window to see Bobbie Allen also paralleled his biological mother's past. The reader will further note the parallel to Lena Grove, an unwed mother who went out her brother's window to meet with Lucas Burch.

This chapter also raises the topic of abortion. According to Katha Pollitt's article "Abortion in American History," in the 1920s, about 15,000 women died every year from illegal abortions. The procedure had actually been legal until the late 1800s when, in 1873, the Comstock Act banned "devices or medications for unlawful abortion," among other things. This state of affairs lasted until the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision in 1973. During the interim, abortions were conducted, but in secrecy and often in unsafe conditions.

What Doc Hines is pursuing for Milly is illegal and dangerous. He is so opposed to miscegenation that he would risk her life to end the pregnancy. To make this abundantly clear to the reader, the novel ties together the pursuit of a doctor for abortion with Doc Hines going to a revival and expressing white supremacist sentiments.

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