52 pages 1 hour read

William Faulkner

Light in August

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1932

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Summary and Study Guide


Published in 1932, Light in August is William Faulkner’s seventh novel. The novel is set in the American South during prohibition and features an ensemble cast of characters who grapple with alienation, racism, and heartbreak across a nonlinear narrative. Classified as a Southern gothic and modernist novel, Light in August is considered a seminal work in 20th-century American literature.

Note: This study guide quotes and obscures Faulkner’s use of the n-word.

Plot Summary

Lena Grove, a young pregnant woman, leaves Alabama and heads to Jefferson, Mississippi, where she hopes to find Lucas Burch, the father of her child. Lucas left saying he was going to look for a job but hasn’t reached out in months. Reaching the edge of town, Lena sees a house on fire. She arrives at the mill in town, and Byron Bunch, who is working a shift there, becomes quickly infatuated with her. Lena is disappointed when she learns Byron doesn’t know Lucas Burch. They discuss the fire, which is at the home of Joanna Burden, and Byron mentions that Joe Christmas and Joe Brown—two vagabonds who quit working at the mill around the same time and are rumored to be bootlegging whiskey—live in a cabin on the same property. Hearing Byron’s description of Joe Brown, Lena realizes Brown is Lucas Burch using a new name.

Elsewhere in town, Gail Hightower spends his time alone in his house. He first came to Jefferson to preach but was ousted by the community after the mysterious death of his adulterous wife, and he now lives isolated from the rest of town. Hightower is haunted by visions of his grandfather fighting in the Civil War, where he was killed battling for the Confederacy. Byron is the only person who regularly speaks with Hightower. Byron visits and tell him about the fire, where Joanna was found dead at the scene. 

As a child, Joe Christmas grows up in a White orphanage. He’s picked on by the other kids and beaten by the staff because he is biracial. Joe is adopted by a strict religious man, Mr. McEachern, who beats Joe regularly and declares him a sinner. Joe runs away and turns to a vagabond lifestyle. He reaches Jefferson in his thirties and sneaks into Joanna’s house for food. Joanna catches him but lets him stay. Their tumultuous romance lasts for years. When their relationship fails, Joanna wants them to end their lives, and it’s implied Joe kills her. After Joanna’s death, Joe flees Jefferson. He is the most likely suspect, but Joe Brown is suspicious, too, as he was discovered at Joanna’s house during the fire.

A manhunt ensues for Joe. Brown, still in police custody, eagerly helps, obsessed with earning the reward money offered for capturing Joe. Joe evades captivity for several days but is eventually caught in the nearby town of Mottstown. Mr. Hines, a local man, sees Joe being apprehended and becomes hysterical. Mr. Hines and his wife are Joe’s biological grandparents. Mr. Hines hates Joe because he is biracial. It is Mr. Hines who took Joe to the orphanage after his mother died in childbirth. The Hines go to Jefferson. Byron meets Mr. and Mrs. Hines at church and takes them to meet Hightower. They tell him their story. Byron and Mrs. Hines ask Hightower to lie to the police, saying Joe was at his house the night of the murder, so that Joe won’t be killed. Hightower refuses and tells everyone to leave.

Lena gives birth to her baby in the cabin where Joe and Brown used to stay. Brown returns to the cabin with a police escort shortly after and meets Lena and their child. Brown flees out the window and escapes from Jefferson. Joe doesn’t confess to murdering Joanna at his trial. Outside the courthouse, he flees again. He makes it to Hightower’s house and hides upstairs. Percy Grimm, a racist captain in the National Guard, pursues Joe. Hightower tries to lie for Joe, but Percy ignores him. Percy guns Joe down and castrates him. Joe dies. After the commotion wanes, Hightower laments the state of the world. He thinks of his grandfather, the ruthless fighter of the Confederacy, and his father, the pacifist and preacher. Visions and sounds of war envelop Hightower, and he dies in his home.

Byron and Lena leave Jefferson to pursue Brown. A repairman offers them a ride in his truck. The man senses Lena doesn’t care if they find Brown or not. She just wants to travel for a while. Byron wants to marry Lena, but she brushes him off. Again, the repairman intuits she will never say yes to Byron. They travel along and cross into Tennessee.