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THE PLOT - SHORT CHAPTER SUMMARY (Synopsis)
Light in August tells three major stories-the stories of Lena Grove, Joe Christmas, and Reverend Gail Hightower. Though the novel weaves the tales together, this section describes them separately to make them easier for you to follow. For the same reason, this section presents events within each story chronologically even when the novel uses flashbacks.
Twenty-year-old Lena Grove has been searching for her unborn child's runaway father for four weeks. She has been walking the Deep South's country roads and depending upon the kindness of strangers. Lena feels confident that the Lord will reunite her "family." She has heard that her unborn child's father, Lucas Burch, is working at the lumber mill in Jefferson, Mississippi. But when she gets there, she finds sober, industrious Byron Bunch instead.
Lena's arrival changes Byron's hitherto solitary life. As soon as he sees Lena, he falls in love with her. Byron is upset when he realizes that the man Lena seeks is a disreputable bootlegger known in Jefferson as Joe Brown. Taking responsibility for Lena's welfare, Byron finds her a place to stay in a cabin on the outskirts of town. And to better care for Lena, Byron leaves his rented room and moves to a tent next to Lena's cabin. When Lena is about to give birth, Byron goes for a doctor. But he first sends his one friend, Reverend Gail Hightower, to help deliver the baby if the doctor is late. The doctor is indeed late, and Hightower successfully delivers a healthy baby boy.
Lena is the center of Byron's life, but she has refused his offer of marriage. Nevertheless, Byron selflessly arranges for the sheriff to bring Lena's runaway lover (Lucas Burch, alias Joe Brown) to her cabin. When Burch/Brown flees by the back door, Lena has to start her search again. This time, though, Byron is accompanying her. He hopes that she'll marry him some day after all.
* * *
Doc Hines suspects that his daughter Milly's lover is part black. So he kills the lover and deliberately lets Milly die in childbirth. On Christmas day Hines leaves Milly's child on the steps of an orphanage. The orphanage staff names the child Joe Christmas.
At the age of five Joe sneaks into the dietitian's room to eat some of her sweet-tasting toothpaste. The dietitian finds him hiding there and thinks that he has been spying on her lovemaking. Afraid of little Joe, she informs the orphanage matron that Christmas may be part black. The other children have been calling him "nigger." The matron arranges for Christmas to be adopted by a sternly religious farmer and his wife.
Three years later, Joe Christmas begins to rebel against that farmer, Simon McEachern. Despite repeated beatings, the child refuses to learn his catechism. The cycle of defiance and punishment continues until Joe's life with the McEacherns ends in a violent confrontation over Joe's first love affair. His girlfriend, Bobbie Allen, is a prostitute and a waitress at a seedy diner in town. When Joe sneaks out one night, his self-righteous father searches for him and finds him with Bobbie at a dance. After McEachern hits Joe, Joe strikes McEachern with a chair.
Believing he has killed McEachern, Joe wants to run away with Bobbie. But when he arrives at the diner, she is hysterically afraid and angry. She calls him a "nigger," then watches as her friends beat Joe up. Bobbie and her friends leave Joe lying semiconscious on the floor.
After these unhappy experiences, Joe spends fifteen years wandering from city to city. Wherever he goes, he struggles with his uncertain racial identity. When he arrives in Jefferson, he meets Joanna Burden, the only remaining member of a family of abolitionists, people who fought to end slavery. Joanna lets him stay in an old slave cabin on her property and leaves food for him in the kitchen of her own house. One night he enters her bedroom and forces himself on her. He does the same the next night, but then for six months thereafter the two ignore each other entirely.
Suddenly Joanna's attitude to Joe changes. She becomes sexually passionate about him, to a degree that frightens Joe. But almost two years later, a third phase of their relationship gradually begins. Joanna loses interest in sex. Discovering that she is entering menopause, Joanna turns to religion, as if trying to atone for her wildness. She asks Joe to declare himself a black and to work in a black law firm. The idea revolts him. When Joanna asks him to kneel and pray, he refuses. She points a gun at him, but he kills her first.
The town of Jefferson knows nothing of Christmas's upbringing nor of his relationship with Joanna. To the townspeople he has been a mysterious stranger. Then Joanna's body is found, and based on the accusations of Christmas's companion, Joe Brown (Lena's Lucas Burch), the people now regard Christmas as a "nigger murderer." They send a posse to chase him through the woods. He eludes the posse but decides to let himself be captured. Doc Hines and his wife hear of the arrest and travel to Jefferson. Doc is eager to have Christmas lynched, but his wife tries just as hard to save Joe.
Meanwhile, Christmas escapes from custody. Pursued by a National Guardsman named Percy Grimm, Joe runs to Hightower's house, where he beats Hightower and barricades himself in a room. When Grimm arrives, Hightower tries to provide Joe with an alibi for the night of the murder. Ignoring Hightower, Grimm shoots, then castrates Christmas.
* * *
Gail Hightower was once a minister in Jefferson, but his sermons focused more on the gallant death of his Confederate grandfather than on God. The townspeople found him strange, and, when his wife died in scandalous circumstances, his congregation forced Hightower from his church. For years now, he has lived in isolation.
Hightower's one friend in town, Byron Bunch, keeps him informed about both Lena Grove and Joe Christmas. When Byron meets Mrs. Hines, Joe's grandmother, he brings her to Hightower. They ask Hightower to give Christmas an alibi by saying that Christmas was with him on the night of the murder, but Hightower refuses. Later, though, he complies with Byron's request to help Lena Grove when she is in labor. By successfully delivering her baby, Hightower finally breaks out of his isolation. When the fugitive Christmas barricades himself in Hightower's house, Hightower offers the alibi he had refused before. His effort has come too late, however, and Christmas is killed.
Hightower thinks back on his life and on his obsession with his Confederate grandfather's violent death. He at last realizes that, as a result of that obsession, he had withdrawn from his wife. He recognizes his responsibility for his wife's death. But now he feels that he too is dying.