Summary: Light in August – Chapter Six

Chapter 6 establishes Joe Christmas’s attitude toward women. It is a flashback to the earliest period he can remember of his life. It narrates the episode which affected Joe’s entire outlook on life. It covers the event that became one of the most crucial episodes in Joe’s life. First, it was there that Joe first learned that he might have Negro blood in him. He would spend the rest of his life attempting to compensate for these two bloods. We learn how he received the name “Christmas.” Since he was left at the orphanage on Christmas, his name was Christmas.

The chapter mainly sets the foundation for Joe’s attitude toward women and toward his world view of an ordered existence. Slipping into a dietitian’s room, Joe stole some toothpaste because it was a new experience. It tasted sweet. Having eaten too much and at the same time having to hide in the closet where the dietitian kept her clothes, Joe became sick while the dietitian was making love with the young doctor named Charley. When the dietitian discovered Joe’s presence, she immediately called him a “nigger bastard,” forcing Joe to correlate his actions with his Negro blood.

Joe, as a child of five, knew that he had done something wrong and expected to be punished for his offense. The dietitian, not realizing that Joe was too young to grasp her promiscuity, lived in fear that Joe would tell on her. Joe lived in a state of frightful expectation of being punished for his offense. Instead of being punished, he was offered a dollar. He could not understand this contradictory act.

The apprehension he was kept in was a draining experience which destroyed his sense of the order of things. The suspense is also linked with the fact that he was abducted shortly afterward from the orphanage by Hines, the janitor. After his return, he is adopted by Simon McEachern. This one episode messes up his calm order of existence. He views women as destroyers of his ordered way of life. Many of his brutal actions against women stem result from his resentment against the dietitian, whose actions perplexed him.

Joe’s desire to eat toothpaste becomes central to his entire life. In many scenes during the novel, Joe is motivated by his hunger and by his desire for food. Later he both meets Bobbie Allen in a restaurant amid the odors of food and encounters Joanna Burden while he is stealing food in her kitchen. The toothpaste also functions as a vague symbol relating to Joe’s sexual life.

Finally, we are introduced to a religious maniac, Euphues Hines. Even though we won’t learn until later, Hines is actually Joe’s grandfather. Hines language resembles that of an Old Testament prophet. Hines sees himself as either God’s messenger or as God Himself. His influence on Joe, however, is minimal because Joe’s main conflict comes from his relationship with women.

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