Summary: Light in August – Chapter Five

Chapter Five is a small skip back in time and covers the events of the night and day preceding the death of Joanna Burden. The idea that returns persistently to Joe’s thinking is the impending act of murder.

We find elaborate and highly complicated rituals preceding the real murder in the chapter. These provisions are to emphasize that the murder was not committed in cold blood. Many of Joe’s actions in this chapter are understandable only in the light of later events in the novel.

Joe’s realizes that he was tricked or fooled by Joanna. He thought she was pregnant. Then he realizes that she had lied about her age. She was actually several years older than she had told him. Joanna is the symbol of all the women in his life who have lied to him or who have tried to destroy his sense of peace and security. Only at a later point in the story do we realize that women have tried to bring elements of disarray into Joe’s life and that he has regularly fought against the corrupting influence of women.

Joe’s first symbolic act is that of removing his clothes. He then walked naked through tall wet grass. He seems to be undergoing some type of cleansing ritual. Next, we see him revealing his nudity to a passing car. The relationship of light and darkness on his body suggests the conflicting white and Negro blood in his body. He does some weird stuff. He tries to reject all the weakening influence of women by going to the barn and sleeping with the animals, thinking that even a female horse is a type of male. This suggests Joe is attempting to deny the female world.

The book is full of symbolisms that scholars love and average readers may not be aware at first reading. I know I had a “say what?” attitude when I first studied the book years ago. I needed a teacher guiding me through the chapter almost sentence by sentence to get all the deep stuff. I had just enjoyed the story when I read it. Following a brief sleep, he becomes immersed in phallic images–the ladder, grass, lumber, icicles, and his own dark serge trousers set off by his white shirt. The cracked mirror in the cabin also reflects Joe’s conflicts as he can see and come to terms with only half of his self. In the valley, he rests and goes through another cleansing episode as he shaves, this time using the water from the spring as the mirror, thereby severing connections with all man-made objects. His next act is to destroy the whiskey which had been his chief means of income in Jefferson society.

Joe’s last act before the murder is to visit the two sections of the town. He goes first to the white section. He rejects this part of town because he senses his isolation from it. He then goes to the Negro section, where he is rejected. This helps him to realize that his isolation is complete. He then makes his way back to the house where the murder is to take place. Joe makes advanced preparations for the murder. The murder will sever him forever from any hope of becoming a meaningful part of society.

The entire scene is intermingled with many images of black and white. Joe carries his razor. He is tempted to use it in the Negro section, where he is rejected. And as a topical refrain, the phrase, “All I wanted was peace” runs through the scene.

If you want to give yourself a good headache you can look at the Christian analogies many see in the chapter. The entire scene is filled with Christian symbols. The baptismal ritual, the struggle comparable to Christ’s struggle before the crucifixion, the night in the barn (or manger) are all resonance of actions of Christ, but these shouldn’t be used to suggest that Christmas is the Christ-figure. They deepen Christmas’ struggle by suggesting as a comparison the depth of Christ’s struggle before His crucifixion, thus intensifying Christmas’ struggle. I told you some of this stuff is pretty deep. I guess you write many books like this and you get the Nobel Prize in literature as Faulkner did.

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