Course Hero. "Light in August Study Guide." Course Hero. 7 Apr. 2018. Web. 3 June 2023. <https://www.coursehero.com/lit/Light-in-August/>.
Course Hero. (2018, April 7). Light in August Study Guide. In Course Hero. Retrieved June 3, 2023, from https://www.coursehero.com/lit/Light-in-August/
(Course Hero, 2018)
Course Hero. "Light in August Study Guide." April 7, 2018. Accessed June 3, 2023. https://www.coursehero.com/lit/Light-in-August/.
Course Hero, "Light in August Study Guide," April 7, 2018, accessed June 3, 2023, https://www.coursehero.com/lit/Light-in-August/.
The novel opens with Lena Grove, a young pregnant woman, walking from Alabama to Mississippi to find Lucas Burch, the father of her child. While seeking Burch, Lena encounters various people in Jefferson. Among them are several men who offer to help her. Mr. Armstid gives her a ride and shelter for the night. Byron Bunch gives her his room at the boarding house. She also meets Mrs. Martha Armstid, who gives her money but also shows her disapproval.
Meanwhile, in Jefferson, Lucas Burch has been going by the name Joe Brown. He'd been working at the mill with Joe Christmas, a man who believes himself to be of mixed ancestry, and Byron Bunch, a steady worker and quiet man. Brown and Christmas are no longer working at the mill. They have quit and are making a living as bootleggers. The men live at a cabin on the Burden property.
Inadvertently Byron reveals a detail about Joe Brown clarifying that he is Lucas Burch. At the same time, there is news of a fire and a murder at Miss Burden's place. Byron hides this information from Lena because of the potential for Joe Brown's involvement.
The novel switches from the current time to the history of Reverend Gail Hightower. Hightower was a minister in Jefferson, but a scandal over his wife—who would vanish for lengths of time and eventually died—caused the town to fire him. Hightower's wife died in Memphis where she was with another man. That death was either suicide or murder. Hightower also ran afoul of the Ku Klux Klan and was assaulted by them. Now he lives quietly in Jefferson on his own.
The story switches to the present tense, and Byron is visiting Hightower. Byron updates Hightower on Lena and the fire, and tells him that Joe Christmas and Joanna Burden were intimate the last 3 years.
The story moves backward in time once more in telling of Joe Christmas's life prior to his arrival in Jefferson. From Chapter 5 through Chapter 12, the events of Joe's life are recounted. Joe's story starts in an orphanage where he spies on a dietitian and a young doctor making love. His discovery causes him to be transferred to an all-black orphanage. The janitor (later revealed to be Joe's grandfather, Doc Hines) kidnaps him but is caught and Joe is returned.
Joe is then adopted by Mr. and Mrs. McEachern. The man is cold and stern, and he uses physical punishments often. When Joe is 8, he is punished with a whipping and passes out as a result. At 14, Joe is with other boys, and one of them has arranged with a young black woman to have sex with the boys in a shed. When Joe Christmas gets his turn, he begins beating her, and the other boys stop him.
At 18, Joe meets Bobbie Allen, a woman he thinks is a waitress. He sneaks out of the McEachern house to see her, and they begin a sexual relationship. Joe discovers that she is a prostitute. He hits her, but continues seeing her. Simon McEachern catches Joe with Bobbie at a dance one night, and McEachern attacks him. This time Joe responds with rage. He knocks the man down, violently striking him and presumably killing him. Joe offers to marry Bobbie, who rejects him and leaves with Max and Mame Confrey (owners of the cafe and house of prostitution where she works). Joe is left beaten and injured.
Afterward Joe leaves town and begins to travel. He continues doing so until he is 33 years old. At that time he arrives in Jefferson. He squats in a cabin and takes up with Joanna Burden, a 40-year-old unmarried white woman who lives on her own in the plantation house adjacent to the cabin. For 3 years, they have a relationship. Joanna finally says that she's become pregnant. Instead of suggesting marriage, she suggests that Joe study and become a lawyer to take over her business affairs. When Joe refuses, she presses him to reconsider and asks him to pray with her. He refuses again, and when she attempts to shoot him, he kills her.
The story returns to the present where the townsfolk are assembled at the site of the fire and the nearly beheaded body of Joanna Burden. Upon learning of her death, Miss Burden's nephew offers "a thousand dollar reward for the capture of her murderer." In Jefferson, Joe Brown comes to see the sheriff, hoping to collect the "thousand dollars reward." Dogs and men hunt for Joe Christmas, who is on the run.
Reverend Gail Hightower and Byron Bunch talk about Joe Brown's revelation that Joe Christmas is racially mixed, although this is never confirmed. Hightower and Byron also talk about Byron's feelings toward Lena Grove and his decision to protect her.
The sheriff and deputy discover that Lena is now living in the cabin, and they learn that Joe Brown is actually Lucas Burch and the father of her child. A black man comes to town telling of a "white man" who showed up at his church revival. The man, whom readers later learn was Joe Christmas, cursed God and was violent and abusive to the worshipers. The story switches to Joe Christmas who is not dead but is in a state of shock, in part from sleep deprivation and hunger. Joe Christmas eventually rides into Mottstown, where he is arrested.
An old man in Mottstown, Doc Hines, witnesses Joe's arrest and is rattled.
Doc Hines and his family take up the story of Joe Christmas's family. The Hines had a daughter, Milly, who took up with a Mexican circus employee that Mr. Hines swore was black. He followed Milly when she ran away with the circus worker, killed the man, and brought Milly home. Hines tried to find a doctor to perform an abortion, but then lost his temper. He went into a church meeting and began speaking racist things and brandishing a gun. Ultimately he landed in jail and when he got out, it was near Milly's delivery time. She gave birth to Joe Christmas, and she died. Hines took the baby to an orphanage in Memphis and left the infant on the doorstep. Hines worked as a janitor at the orphanage.
Joe Christmas is now being held in Jefferson. Mr. and Mrs. Hines are there, too. Byron Bunch, who is at Hightower's house with Mrs. Hines, asks Hightower to lie to provide an alibi for Joe Christmas. Reverend Gail Hightower is furious and kicks them out. The next morning Lena Grove delivers her child.
Byron sets out to ask the sheriff if he can tell Joe Brown about the baby. Mrs. Hines is confused, mistaking Lena for her daughter, Milly. She thinks the baby is her grandson, Joe Christmas. Mr. Hines sets out to incite a lynch mob. The deputy brings Joe Brown to see Lena and the baby, but he flees, taking a train out of town, but not before fighting Byron.
Meanwhile Percy Grimm organizes people to patrol the Jefferson downtown and ends up himself pursuing Joe Christmas, who has escaped from police custody. Percy finds Joe in Hightower's house, where he shoots him repeatedly, and castrates him before he dies.
The novel closes with Hightower thinking over the "phantoms" in his past, especially his father, grandfather, and wife. Elsewhere in Tennessee, a furniture dealer tells his wife about the odd young couple he gave a ride to, Lena Grove and Byron Bunch traveling in search of the baby's father.
Light in August Plot Diagram