Light in August | Study Guide

William Faulkner

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Light in August | Chapter 7 | Summary

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Summary

The story resumes when Joe Christmas is 8. He is whipped 10 times with the strap by his adoptive father, Simon McEachern, for not learning his catechism—then 10 times again, and 10 times yet again. Joe passes out, and when he wakes Mr. McEachern asks him to come pray. Neither of them has eaten yet that day. Later Mrs. McEachern brings Joe food, which he initially rejects until she says that Mr. McEachern hadn't sent it. He stands, walks to the corner, and dumps it. An hour after she leaves he goes and eats "like a savage, like a dog."

Joe is 14 in the next section. A young black girl meets Joe and 4 other boys at a shed. The others take turns in the shed with her. At Joe's turn, he begins kicking her and hitting her viciously. The other 4 boys stop him. Afterward, when they part, one of them says, "See you tomorrow at church, Joe." Joe returns home late to find Mr. McEachern waiting with the strap because Joe has failed to do his evening chores.

A few years later when Joe is 18, and almost the size of McEachern, Joe sells a heifer he has been raising and lies about it to Mr. McEachern. Mr. McEachern punches Joe. After accepting the first 2 blows, Joe stops him. Later, inside the house, Joe hears the way Mrs. McEachern attempts to cover for Joe. The section ends with Joe hearing, "KNEEL DOWN, WOMAN. Ask grace and pardon of God; not of me."

In the final section of the chapter Joe recalls his relationship with Mrs. McEachern, who cares for him and shares her secret about her small tin of hidden money. He remembers her bathing him and bringing food to him. However, he believes that "she was trying to make [him] cry," and that if she had, "they would have had" him—presumably referring to the ability to manipulate him.

Analysis

Faulkner's depiction of women is often deemed problematic by modern critics. Women are often represented as mother figures, caretaking and sexless, or sexualized and dangerous. In Light in August that is abundantly clear. At this point the reader has seen numerous damaging representations of women in the child Joe's life: Miss Atkins, the dietitian, at the orphanage (sexual and deceitful), the young black woman (raped and subjected to a violent rage by the teenaged Joe Christmas), and the mother figure who tries to nurture Joe but is unable to truly help him. Further, Joe sees Mrs. McEachern's offers of kindness as a ploy.

The narrator notes the violence in Joe's behavior when he enters the shed where the young woman has just had sex with his friends. The violence is not atypical. The reader will recall that when Joe thought of being with Joanna in Chapter 5, he considered that sometimes he would "take her as hard and as brutally before she was good awake." His violence against women did not begin with Joanna. It does culminate with her murder, however, as these aspects of his history portend.

This troubling representation of women is not simply an aspect of Joe Christmas's character; it is an aspect of Faulkner's body of work. Specifically in Light in August the reader can see it in the depictions of the two women who have been pregnant outside of marriage. This pattern will be continued in the story of Joe's biological mother as the novel progresses.

By stepping back into the novel's present timeline, the reader sees two opposing representations of women: the pregnant Lena Grove and the sexualized Joanna Burden. Lena is kind and asks only for the smallest of things; she is a mother willing to walk for days and weeks to unite her family. She is not sexual, aside from a pregnancy that happened when she trusted the wrong man. Joanna Burden, however, has been having an illegal, immoral relationship. She lives in seclusion, carrying out a furtive sexual relationship with Joe that results in her death. This division in the representation of women continues in the next chapter as the narration continues to explore Joe Christmas's history.

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