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CHAPTER SUMMARY AND NOTES
Chapter 12 describes the next two phases of Joanna and Joe's relationship, a phase of sexual passion and a phase in which Joanna tries to bring Joe religion. The chapter ends immediately after Joanna's murder.
After their conversation, Joanna and Joe's relationship enters a second phase. Their days are the same as they always were, but at night the couple conduct a wildly passionate affair. Joanna falls into fits of jealous rage; she makes Joe hunt for love notes that she hides away; she becomes obsessed with sex and with the forbidden words of sexual activities.
Joe thinks he is falling into a sewer. The metaphor he uses makes his and Joanna's affair seem like something beyond his control. He feels that the street represents who he is better than does this new pit he feels himself being sucked into. But you could also claim that Joe's having stayed in the cabin so long indicates that he is ready to change his life and leave that street on which he has spent the last fifteen years.
Why is Joanna so passionate about Joe? Perhaps she is simply compensating for a lifetime without love. But note that during their lovemaking, she murmurs, "Negro! Negro! Negro!" At this moment even her sexual passion seems directed to the racial categories with which she has always been preoccupied. Joe may have good reasons as well as bad reasons to beware of Joanna Burden.
The couple's relationship is beginning to enter a third phase. By now Joe
is working at the mill and bootlegging liquor on the side.
Joe refers to Joanna as a "phantom" of her night personality. The words "phantom" and "shadow" recur frequently in Light in August. Some readers think that this metaphor suggests that each character perceives others as shadows or phantoms. According to this point of view, the image emphasizes the inability of each individual to know another fully.
Joanna's passion is subsiding. "Dear God," she implores, "let me be damned a little longer." It's possible that Joanna sees her relationship with Joe through the eyes of her father's and grandfather's religious outlook.
Joanna suggests to Joe that they have a child. For a brief second he considers accepting the lifetime security of marriage to Joanna. Then he decides that he couldn't accept that security because to do so would be to deny his thirty years of having "lived to make me what I chose to be." Here Joe seems to be suggesting that he has chosen his life's course, but he also seems to feel that the choices he has already made make it impossible for him to change course now. Is he right about either? Both?
Joanna announces that she is pregnant. Joe thinks of leaving, but he doesn't. Re may have more feelings for her than he is willing to admit. One night Joanna summons him to her room, but she has no interest in his touch. She tells him that he is wasting his life and asks him to become her assistant in helping the Negro schools. Joe refuses.
She does not call him for some months. By now Joe has brought Brown into his business and his cabin. One evening Joanna leaves Joe a note. He assumes that she wants him as a lover again and heads for her room without even reading the note.
When Joanna asks him to declare himself black and to go to a black law school and work with a black lawyer, he refuses. She hits him, and he hits her back. Staring at her, Joe notices how old she looks. He realizes that she is not pregnant but menopausal.
Joanna summons Joe many times in the next several months. She tells him she needs to save his soul. She asks him to kneel and pray.
Whom else from Joe's life does Joanna resemble? You could argue that Joe has been as naive in his relationship with Joanna as he was with Bobbie. In both cases he expects continuing love, and in both he feels betrayed. Like Bobbie, Joanna classifies him as a black, even if her goal is to "help" him. And like McEachern, this woman whom he considered marrying wants to impose her self-righteous religion on him.
It is now August. It is the night on which Joe began this long reverie into his past. He enters Joanna's house, and she asks him to kneel in prayer. He refuses. She aims an ancient revolver at him and fires.
Shortly thereafter, Joe finds himself standing in the road. He stops a car. The young couple in the front seat give him a ride but seem terrified of him. When they let him out, he realizes that he has been holding the revolver. Joanna had put two bullets in the chamber. The one she fired at Joe didn't go off. The other she had meant for herself.