Light in August | Study Guide

William Faulkner

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Light in August | Chapter 4 | Summary



Byron Bunch and Reverend Gail Hightower continue to talk. In the process Byron shares what he knows: that Joe Brown (Lucas Burch) and Joe Christmas live in a cabin on the Burden property and that Christmas is having relations with Joanna Burden. Byron also tells how he put Lena Grove up at the boardinghouse where he lodges and that he's having feelings toward her. He reveals that Joe Christmas is part black. Byron then relates events at the Burden house, which was the source of the smoke Lena Grove saw when she first entered Jefferson. He wasn't there, but Byron relates how a passing countryman saw smoke coming from the house. He ran inside and found Joe Brown drunk. Brown tried to distract the man from going upstairs, but the countryman went upstairs anyway and found Miss Burden, her "head had been cut pretty near off." Brown reported that this was done by Joe Christmas, who had been living with Miss Burden "like man and wife" for 3 years. When Brown first learned about Christmas's relations with Miss Burden, Christmas threatened him. Brown is now helping the sheriff's men hunt Joe Christmas. Byron ends his revelations by telling Hightower that he's not yet told Lena Grove any of these things


The Faulknerian style of narration is particularly obvious here. Byron tells Hightower about what happened at the Burden house, as well as the romantic history between Burden and Christmas. Byron Bunch was not present at the murder, the fire, or the romance. He was not a confidante of either Burden or Christmas, yet he relates these current and past events as if they are factually accurate. The reader expecting a true and accurate accounting of "facts" of the back story will not find them easily because of Faulkner's style here. To piece together the events in Light in August may require reading the novel more than once. Additionally, noting the character who is relaying the information and his relationship to the situation may help—or raise useful questions in interpreting the plot.

Here, Byron is speaking of an unmarried couple: Burden and Christmas who were together as if "man and wife." He, however, is staying with Lena Grove (an unmarried woman). He is not "with her" in intimate ways. Moreover, Lena and Joe Brown are of the same race. The topic of miscegenation, or race mixing, underlies the public reaction to Burden and Christmas. Joanna Burden was an abolitionist. Earlier (Chapter 2) Byron says of Joanna, that "she is a Yankee ... They say she is still mixed up with niggers. Visits them when they are sick, like they was white." He adds that "folks don't ever go out there" because of this, except for Joe Christmas and Joe Brown. While Byron is not saying such things here to Hightower, he did say them to Lena when describing Joanna Burden.

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