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Free Barron's Booknotes-Light in August by William Faulkner-Free Notes
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Chapter 2 introduces Byron Bunch, Joe Christmas, Gail Hightower, and Lucas Burch/Joe Brown. Byron is working at the mill and thinking about Joe Christmas's arrival in Jefferson three years ago. At the end of the chapter, his thoughts are interrupted by the arrival of Lena Grove, with whom he falls in love.

Byron Bunch is remembering what he knows of Joe Christmas and Joe Brown.


Who is narrating the first section of this chapter? Are we listening to the objective authorial voice of an all-knowing narrator? Or are we eavesdropping on the thoughts of one character, Byron Bunch? In this chapter, Faulkner frequently refers to Byron's "knowing" or "remembering" the events being related. And indeed all the events are ones that Byron could have observed himself or heard about through other workers at the mill. On the other hand, the chapter's language and insights are beyond what we could expect from a character as unsophisticated as Bunch reveals himself to be. Doesn't some of the description of Christmas's arrival seem too eloquent for Bunch? Some readers argue that in such passages Faulkner is using a character's "heightened voice." We are listening not only to the character's explicit perceptions, thoughts, and feelings but also to those of which he is not aware and for which he would not be capable of finding words.

In Byron's reverie it is three years ago. Christmas appears at the Jefferson lumber mill where Byron works. The boss gives him a job shoveling sawdust. Wearing city clothes and looking contemptuous, Christmas talks to no one. And though he has no lunch, he refuses the food Byron offers him.


Byron thinks of Christmas's name as a warning of what to expect from the man. Both Christmas's last name and his initials suggest a comparison to Jesus Christ. As you will see later in the novel, these parallels between Christmas and Jesus are only the first of many. But how do you interpret them? You could argue that Faulkner is underlining some fundamental similarities between Christmas and Jesus. But you could also argue that the parables are ironic and that they are meant to contrast the two figures rather than to identify them. Try to resolve this issue after you learn more about Christmas's character.

Two and a half years later, another stranger appears. Joe Brown becomes as instantaneously unpopular as Christmas but for different reasons. He strikes everyone as completely unreliable, all bluff and bluster. Whereas Christmas is sullenly quiet, Brown talks too much. The boss assigns Brown to the sawdust pile with Christmas. The two become companions. Then one day Christmas quits, and Brown does likewise shortly thereafter. Byron finds out what the other men have known all along, that Brown and Christmas are living together in a cabin on the property of Joanna Burden and that they are working together as bootleggers.

Back in the novel's present time, Byron is working alone at the mill one Saturday afternoon as usual. (On Sundays he leads the choir of a country church thirty miles away. But the only person who knows that he does so is his friend Gail Hightower, who was once the minister at the town's main church but who long ago left that position in disgrace.)

You have now met, however briefly, Light in August's five major characters and one of the more important minor characters (Brown). Notice that they have one thing in common: they are all loners. Lena is a homeless wanderer on the country roads. Hightower is an outcast, and so is Joanna Burden, whom the town perceives as a Yankee and a friend to blacks. Brown is an unwelcome newcomer, and Christmas is a stranger who keeps to himself. But even straightforward, reliable Byron Bunch is a solitary man. He has been in Jefferson for only seven years and he keeps aloof from everyone except his fellow outsider, Hightower.

Though the characters are different in many respects, this underlying similarity highlights Faulkner's interest in the theme of isolation. As you read further, try to see where isolation from the community helps a character become more autonomous (freer), or where that isolation simply deadens the character. Try to decide if the characters are isolated by their own choice or by the community's. And finally, look to see whether the community perceives these outsiders accurately. The community thinks that Byron works overtime for the money, but Byron says he does the extra work to stay out of mischief. Light in August has many such discrepancies. While Byron undoubtedly knows himself better than the town does, you may want to question his rationale for his isolation as well.

While at the mill, Byron sees the Burden house burning in the distance. Notice that even that sight doesn't provoke him to leave work. Then Lena Grove arrives, hoping to find Lucas Burch. Byron takes a break and tells her about the two "Joes" Christmas and Brown. Surprisingly, the steady and reliable Byron falls in love with Lena immediately. And he feels bad when he realizes that Brown must be the Lucas for whom Lena has been searching. Through Byron's talk, however, Lena has figured out Lucas's identity too.

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