Summary: Light in August – Chapter Nineteen

Chapter nineteen’s narration from the viewpoint of the town. After the last chapter, in which Joe found a certain peace within himself, he then returns to the community and apparently allows himself to be captured. Since none of the action is from Joe’s point of view, the reader must speculate about what caused him to make a break after he had apparently given himself up and decided to accept his punishment.

The first explanation is offered by Gavin Stevens, a new character who functions as a type of commentator on the action. This character, Gavin Stevens, will appear often in some of Faulkner’s later novels, but what the reader should remember is that any new commentator can give only partial reasons and partial motivations for the actions. However, Stevens’ view that Christmas’ actions were a result of the conflicting elements in his blood is to a large degree the correct interpretation. But Stevens is closer to the truth when he speaks of the role played by Mrs. Hines and how she and her husband, old Doc Hines, set peaceful elements into conflict.

In the preceding chapter Joe had realized that he could gain peace only in isolation and could never be accepted by the society as part white and part Negro. Joe no longer rebels against the conflicting elements in his blood until the arrival of old Doc Hines, and then the grandfather’s wild rantings and ravings cause Joe to despair, especially since his own grandfather is the chief person demanding Joe’s immediate death.

It has also been developed throughout the novel that women function as a type of destruction to Joe’s sense of order. Thus, having accepted his destined place in life and having accepted his death, the visit of Mrs. Hines probably set warring elements into conflict again. We must assume that she told him of the Reverend Gail Hightower, since Joe did go there when he escaped from the sheriff. Through Mrs. Hines, Hightower’s house functions as a type of haven for Joe where he can find some type of sanctuary from the influence of women.

Whether Joe knows of Hightower’s past tragedy with women is not important, since Joe does feel drawn toward this man who has also suffered at the hands of the community. At Hightower’s, Joe’s failure to fire the pistol and his submitting to the horrible atrocity show that he accepts his death in Hightower’s house as an escape from the destructive forces of the society and of women. It is as though Joe wills his own death in a sanctuary away from the influence of women.

Hightower’s attempt to help Joe Christmas by saying that Joe was with him on the night of the murder represents High-tower’s re-entry into life. Previously, he had rejected life and wished to live in total solitude. But he has just delivered Lena’s baby that day and has seen how great life can be, even for an old man; thus, his attempt to save Joe is his recognition of his responsibility to life and is also his hope to help another isolated person (Joe) discover the same thing.

Even this close to the end of the novel, Faulkner introduces a new character in the person of Percy Grimm. In later years, Faulkner commented that he did not realize at the time that he was creating a little Nazi Hitler. But the way Faulkner develops these secondary characters attests to his greatness. Grimm, as his name suggests, represents the horrible atrocities which man can commit against his fellow-man.

But Grimm is also another person who stands outside the mainstream of the community. Even though he was able to get some men to follow him, no one seems to be as cruel as he. His enthusiasm for his perverted aims far exceeds any normal reaction. After his castration of Joe, one of the men with him becomes sick and vomits, suggesting that even the average man who condescends to follow Grimm cannot withstand the brutality of his last act.

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