Light in August | Study Guide

William Faulkner

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Light in August | Chapter 6 | Summary

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Summary

The chapter opens with one of the most iconic lines from all of Faulkner's novels: "Memory believes before knowing remembers." The narrator tells of Joe Christmas at 5 years old, in an orphanage. The boy is hiding behind a curtain in Miss Atkin's room after stealing and eating some of her toothpaste. He continues to eat more and more of it as he listens to the woman, a dietitian, and her companion, a young doctor. Ultimately Joe vomits from eating the toothpaste. Miss Atkins is furious and calls him a "little rat" and "little nigger bastard." The woman worries for 3 days and then asks him, "are you going to tell?" He cannot figure why he would tell that he stole toothpaste and vomited. She gives him a dollar to keep silent and that "next month maybe I'll give you another one." He refuses, saying he doesn't want more, and she mistakenly thinks he's going to tell.

Miss Atkins approaches the janitor, noting that he has watched the child for 5 years. (The janitor is unnamed at this point in the novel. Later it is revealed that he is Doc Hines, Joe Christmas's grandfather.) After a tense conversation in which the janitor remarks on her "womanfilth" and that no one "can hurry the Lord God," the dietitian leaves. She knows Joe is black and decides to tell the matron of the orphanage so the boy will be sent away because of his race.

The dietitian is in her room when the janitor comes in, saying more hateful things about women. He asks if she has told the matron that Joe is black. He says if she has, Joe will be sent to the orphanage "for niggers." In the morning the janitor and Joe are both gone. They are found, however, and the boy is returned to the orphanage. Not long after he is adopted by Mr. McEachern, who explains that he will "find food and shelter and the care of Christian people," but that "sloth and idle thinking" are abominable. He tells the boy that his name is now Joe McEachern not Joe Christmas.

Analysis

Faulkner's nonlinear storytelling is readily apparent here. Joe Christmas, who is in his mid-30s in the current time of the novel, is a child in this current chapter. The reader has ample reasons to know that the adult Joe is a murderer and has been committing what would have been considered an immoral act at the time. There were also laws preventing marriage between races. In the 1920s in Mississippi it was a felony—with imprisonment for life—for an African American to marry a white person. (This 1865 law was expanded in 1906 to include Asians.) These "anti-miscegenation" laws were not challenged until 1967. At that time, the U.S. Supreme Court decided in Loving v. Virginia that laws prohibiting marriage between races in various states were unconstitutional. Moreover, while modern readers might realize that there is no reason that people of different races should not marry or have children together, that was not the case in the 1920s. In 1890 it was decided that someone who was one-eighth African American was considered black.

The question that the adult Joe Christmas has wrestled with for years is reflective of societal fixations on ethnicity that dominated the South in the time of the novel (and since). Joe, a young child, is abandoned, mistreated, and hated due to a suspicion that he is of mixed ancestry.

Faulkner also introduces the question of religious "tolerance" at this point in the novel. Simon McEachern is strict, but that manifests as a continuation of a lack of affection in Joe Christmas's young life. The reader might find it useful to make note of McEachern's actions for later comparison with Doc Hines (Joe Christmas's biological grandfather, who at this time is introduced as the "janitor" at the orphanage).

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