Light in August | Study Guide

William Faulkner

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Light in August | Chapter 20 | Summary



This chapter is primarily about Reverend Gail Hightower and his memories. He imagines he lives among phantoms, as he thinks of the people who hold power in his memories. He thinks of his grandfather, who was a slave owner, and his father, who was an abolitionist "almost before the sentiment had become a word." His father didn't fight in the Civil War and instead became a doctor. Hightower thinks of the "negro woman, the slave" who stayed at the house after his grandfather's death, refusing to believe the man was dead. He recalls his romance with and marriage to his wife, a minister's daughter, and his failures as a husband. Then he recalls the people of Jefferson with an elongated image of a wheel—a "sandclutched wheel of thinking [that] turns on with the slow implacability of a medieval torture" device. Beneath this wheel is the "wrenched and broken sockets of his spirit, his life." He thinks of Joe Christmas, Byron Bunch, and Lena Grove. The chapter closes as he hears "the wild bugles and the clashing sabres and the dying thunder of hooves."


Reverend Gail Hightower's reflections serve as a reminder to the reader that history matters, including family history. Hightower's history is complicated. His family owned slaves but also had abolitionist tendencies. He is a true Southerner, wrestling with questions of race, slavery, and war. He weighs all this history in Chapter 20. He has been a peripheral figure in many lives, both in his years as a minister and in the lives of Byron Bunch, Lena Grove, Joe Christmas, Mrs. Hines, and Joe Brown.

Hightower was present at the brutal death of Joe Christmas at the hands of a racist. He cautioned mercy—and yet he was aware that Joe Christmas was a murderer. The chapter closes with his familial memory of "wild bugles and ... clashing sabres." The image calls to mind the Civil War, which tore apart families and was still fresh on the minds of Southerners decades after its end. The many "phantoms" that fill his mental pondering recall the scope of the novel. Light in August has repeatedly looked to the past to explain present events. On a smaller, more personal scale, this is precisely what Hightower himself is doing—examining his own life through the lens of history.

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