Study Guide

Light in August

Light in August Summary

In the 1920s, twenty-year-old Lena Grove hitches a wagon ride to Jefferson, Mississippi. She's pregnant and in search of Lucas Burch, the father of her baby. On the way into town, the house of a town outcast, Joanna Burden, is on fire. Lena eventually learns that there is no one in Jefferson named Burch, but that there is a fellow named Byron Bunch. Bunch, a worker at the local planing mill, talks to Lena, telling her stories about a stranger in town named Joe Brown. Once Byron confirms that Joe Brown has a white scar on his face, Lena knows that this Joe Brown is the father of her baby, so she settles into town to try to find him. But Byron falls in love with Lena right after meeting her, and vows (to himself and the local Reverend Hightower) to protect her and see her through the pregnancy, with or without this Joe Brown fellow.

Through flashback, the narrator recounts the lives of Joe Christmas and Reverend Hightower. Joe Christmas was dropped off at an orphanage on Christmas day, as an infant. When he is five years old, Joe accidentally witnesses the dietician having sex with a doctor at the orphanage. The dietician freaks out, becoming convinced that Joe is going to tell on her, and so she plots to have him removed from the orphanage. She tells Joe that he is part black, and that she's going to get him kicked out of the orphanage. Instead, she sets Joe up with a strict religious couple named the McEacherns.

Mr. McEachern is a Calvinist who believes that hard labor and obedience are the only ways to assure salvation. He beats Joe regularly and does not allow much joy or laughter into the young boy's life. Soon, Joe begins to have sex with a prostitute named Bobbie who lives in town. He sells a cow that McEachern gave him and uses the money to buy a brand new suit, so he can take Bobbie to a local dance. McEachern finds the suit and follows Joe when he sneaks out of the house. When he shows up to the dance, Joe hits him over the head with a chair, possibly killing him. He steals money from Mrs. McEachern and runs away from home, never to see either of his foster parents again.

Christmas drifts for years, sleeping with various women and trying to deal with his racial identity. He arrives in Jefferson and begins working at the planing mill with Byron Bunch and other local men. Christmas takes up residence in a cabin owned by Joanna Burden, a white woman from a long line of local abolitionists. Due to her radical views on racial equality, Miss Burden is an outcast in the town of Jefferson. Miss Burden and Christmas begin a tortured affair that involves him sneaking into her house at night; sometimes they have physical fights. Christmas quits his job at the planing mill when he starts selling whiskey illegally; he takes another stranger in town, Joe Brown, as his business partner, and invites that Joe to move into Burden's cabin with him. When Miss Burden tries to make Christmas become more religious, though, he starts hating her, plotting her murder.

Reverend Gail Hightower's story is also revealed in flashback. Hightower came to Jefferson because his great-grandfather, a member of the Confederate army, was murdered there. He's therefore obsessed with Jefferson, which is his sole reason for coming to town. None of the parishioners approve of his sermons, which he delivers bombastically and egotistically, without regard for his parish. After years of being ignored, his wife begins having affairs with other men in Memphis. One day, she's found dead, having jumped or been pushed out of a hotel window in Memphis. Hightower is defrocked and forced to resign from the church after this, and becomes a town outcast.

In the present, one night, Joanna tries to shoot Christmas with a pistol; he retaliates by murdering her with a razor and nearly decapitates her. Miss Burden's nephew offers a $1,000 reward for the capture of her murderer. Soon after the reward is announced, Joe Brown comes forward and claims that Christmas is the killer. Christmas evades the police for days, but eventually they find him in Mottstown.

In Mottstown there lives a strange couple named the Hineses. When Joe Christmas is arrested downtown, Mr. and Mrs. Hines both have strange reactions to seeing him. When he is driven off to Jefferson for his trial, the couple follows him there. When they arrive, Mrs. Hines tells Reverend Hightower that Joe Christmas is her grandson. Years ago, she reports, her daughter Milly got knocked up by a carnival worker who claimed he was Mexican. Doc Hines, however, believed differently, becoming convinced that the man was actually black. This enraged him, and he murdered Milly's lover and let her die during childbirth. Doc Hines kidnapped the baby and dropped him off at a white orphanage, telling his wife that the baby was dead.

Meanwhile, Byron arranges for Joe Brown and Lena Grove to finally meet. Brown freaks out and jumps out of the cabin window, escaping police custody. Byron tracks him down and the men fight; Joe Brown wins and jumps on a passing train, leaving Jefferson.

Joe Christmas escapes from police custody and is hunted, and ultimately killed, by a white supremacist named Percy Grimm. Grimm shoots and castrates Christmas. Lena Grove and Byron Bunch travel together through Tennessee with Lena's baby, still in search of Joe Brown.

  • Chapter 1

    • Twenty-year-old Lena Grove arrives in Mississippi on foot. She is pregnant and has been traveling for four weeks to get there.
    • Lena has come to Mississippi all the way from Alabama, and she's looking for Lucas Burch, the father of her child.
    • As Lena rests in a ditch on the side of the ride, Armstid happens upon her in his wagon and offers her a ride.
    • After chatting for a while, Armstid offers to let Lena spend the night with him and his wife, even though he knows his wife is probably going to throw a fit! Lena agrees and the two head to Armstid's.
    • Mrs. Armstid gives Lena some money and Armstid drops her off at a storefront where she'll be able to catch a wagon into town.
    • On the steps of the store, a man named Varner tells Lena that the man she's looking for is named Bunch, not Burch. Bunch works at a planning mill in Jefferson. Lena sets her sights on Jefferson and waits at the store until a wagon appears to give her a ride.
    • The driver of the wagon listens to Lena's story on the ride. As the two approach Jefferson, the driver points out two columns of smoke; it seems there's a house burning in Jefferson.
  • Chapter 2

    • Byron Bunch, a worker at a mill in Jefferson, recalls the day three years prior when Joe Christmas, a strange, silent and rude man drifted into town and began working at the mill.
    • The men at the mill take turns guessing about the stranger, and many assume that he's a foreigner because of his strange name.
    • Byron Bunch also remembers how just six months ago another stranger named Joe Brown began working at the mine. Brown has a white scar on his face and laughs, gambles, and drinks far more than he works.
    • Byron admits that he knows a lot more about them now than he did back then. Now he knows that Christmas wasn't only working at the mill – he and Joe Brown were selling whiskey illegally (this is during Prohibition so alcohol is illegal) in a cabin owned by Miss Burden.
    • Miss Burden is a local recluse whose ancestors were Northerners that settled in Jefferson after Reconstruction in order to advocate for African-American rights.
    • Christmas and Brown live on her property and make a good deal of money selling whiskey. The money allows Christmas to buy a new car and quit his job at the mill.
    • Brown quits the mill job soon after.
    • The men in the town wonder if Miss Burden knows exactly what Brown and Christmas are doing on her property.
    • Some say that Miss Burden has had sex with black men in town.
    • On a Saturday at the mill, Byron Bunch is working alone. He works on Saturdays in order to stay out of trouble.
    • Only Reverend Hightower knows that, on Saturday nights, Bunch leads a choir at a church thirty miles away. The two men hang out and talk two to three nights a week, in Hightower's study.
    • One Saturday while Bunch is at the mill, Lena Grove comes into the loading shed looking for a Lucas Burch. Bunch tells her that she must have heard the name wrong since there's no one there named "Burch," only himself, Byron Bunch.
    • As Lena shares her story, Bunch falls in love with her. He tells her about the fire going on in town at Miss Burden's place, and about the two odd men named Joe who live in her cabin.
    • Lena gets intrigued by Bunch's description of Brown so she asks if he has a white scar on his face. Bunch admits that Brown does, and Lena realizes that she's found her baby's father in Jefferson after all.
  • Chapter 3

    • Hightower sits in his house staring at a sign he made years ago, advertising art lessons. He recalls losing his church due to his wife's infidelities and her eventual murder, by her lover, in Memphis.
    • Byron remembers coming to Jefferson seven years ago and asking people in the town about Hightower. They told him that Hightower requested a minister position in Jefferson, that he was obsessed with Jefferson because his grandfather was killed there during the Civil War.
    • Hightower's sermons were strangely emotional and wild and none of the church members approved of them.
    • Byron also hears from the townsfolk that Hightower's wife went crazy because Hightower didn't pay enough attention to her. They remember her weeping uncontrollably in the church at first and then they recall her leaving town for days at a time.
    • One Sunday after a trip to Memphis, Hightower's wife came to church and started screaming in and fighting in the middle of the sermon.
    • Hightower walked into the audience, approached her, and walked her out of the room.
    • Hightower then put his wife into a sanitarium.
    • When she was released, she seemed normal and she went to church regularly.
    • Eventually, though, she began going to Memphis again to take lovers.
    • One Sunday a newspaper reported that Hightower's wife had jumped or fallen from a hotel window in Memphis. She was with a man at the time and the pair was registered as husband and wife.
    • Humiliated, Hightower was asked to resign from the church and eventually he does. He refuses to leave the town, however, and eventually the town gets tired of gossiping about him.
    • Bunch visits Hightower's study a few times a week for conversation.
    • In the present, Byron approaches Hightower's house on the Sunday night after he meets Lena. Hightower, surprised, teases Bunch for being in town on a Sunday.
  • Chapter 4

    • Bunch tells Hightower how Christmas has been living in an old slave cabin off of Miss Burden's property. He and Brown have been living there and selling whiskey illegally.
    • Byron relates to Hightower how he told Lena that Brown was living in the cabin and then instantly regretted it.
    • Bunch takes Lena to the boarding house where he lives and asks Mrs. Beard to give Lena a place to stay.
    • In the present, Bunch tells Hightower that Christmas is part black – everyone in town learned this yesterday.
    • The day of the fire, a young man from the country stumbled across the burning house and ran inside. He found Brown inside the house, drunk. Brown tells the man not to go upstairs and that there is no one up there.
    • The countryman went upstairs anyway and he found Miss Burden lying on the floor with her head almost entirely cut off. When he ran back downstairs, Brown was gone.
    • Miss Burden's nephew announces a $1,000 reward for whoever finds the killer.
    • Once he hears about the reward, Brown shows up at the sheriff's office saying it was Christmas who killed her. Brown tells the sheriff that Miss Burden bought the car for Christmas and that the two had been having an affair for years.
    • Sensing that the cops aren't believing his story, Brown blurts out that Christmas is biracial – so now this is suddenly a case of a black man killing a white woman.
    • The cops believe him now but they take him to jail anyway so he won't run away.
    • In the present, Bunch tells Hightower that he hasn't yet told Lena that Brown is in jail.
  • Chapter 5

    • At an indeterminate time in the past it's after midnight, and Christmas can't sleep.
    • Brown stumbles into the cabin, drunk and laughing loudly. Christmas tells him to shut up but Brown continues to make drunken noises and eventually he falls to the floor.
    • Christmas attacks Brown, beating him until he stops laughing.
    • Brown eventually falls asleep.
    • Christmas smokes a cigarette and then leaves the cabin. He walks toward Miss Burden's house and stands outside the window, cursing her.
    • Christmas takes his clothes off and walks, naked, toward the main road. A car carrying a white couple zooms past him and he yells, "White bastards!" at the car.
    • Christmas dresses again and then goes back to the cabin, where he still can't go to sleep. He ends up sleeping in the stables.
    • Upon waking up he takes a walk through town. He goes to the white part of town and through the black part of town, feeling increasingly anxious. He walks through the woods as well.
    • When he emerges from the woods he encounters a group of black people; when they leave, he realizes that he has been carrying a razor in his hand this whole time, seeming to threaten them.
    • He walks back to Joanna Burden's house and sits in the yard, in the dark. When the clock strikes midnight he walks into the house thinking, Something is going to happen to me.
  • Chapter 6

    • In a flashback, we get Joe Christmas's history. When he is five years old, Joe Christmas sneaks into an unspecified room, looking for a tube of toothpaste.
    • He spreads the toothpaste onto his finger, but before he can put it in his mouth he hears footsteps.
    • The dietitian enters the room with a man named Charley, and Christmas hides behind a curtain. Charley and the dietitian begin to have sex while Christmas hides.
    • Christmas keeps eating toothpaste until he gets sick and vomits.
    • When he vomits, the dietitian and the young doctor, Charley, discover him. The dietitian scolds Christmas and calls him a "little nigger bastard."
    • As days pass, the dietitian becomes convinced that Christmas is going to tell on her. One day she offers him a dollar if he keeps his mouth shut. Christmas doesn't understand that she means to give the dollar to him so he keeps silent and doesn't take it.
    • The dietitian plots to get revenge on the boy, convinced he's going to tell on her.
    • One afternoon, the dietitian approaches the janitor. She tells the janitor that she knows that he hates the boy too, because she's seen him spying on Christmas. She tells the janitor that he knows that the boy is biracial.
    • The janitor agrees but tells the dietitian that she cannot tell the matron yet; instead she must wait for God to find a way to tell the matron.
    • Later that night the janitor comes to the dietitian's room while she's undressing. He pushes his way into her room and asks her if she's told the matron yet. He says that the matron will send the boy to a black orphanage once she finds out the truth. He curses her, refers to her things as "womanfilth," and leaves the room.
    • The next morning the janitor and Christmas are gone – the janitor has kidnapped Christmas.
    • The dietitian tells the matron that Christmas is black, but she sure doesn't mention having sex with the doctor!
    • The narration now follows Christmas and the janitor. The janitor wakes up Christmas, dresses him, and takes him out of the orphanage. They get into a streetcar and then onto a train. They travel for three days before the police catch them and take Christmas back to the orphanage.
    • One day, two women clean Christmas up and ask him if he'd like to live with a nice family out in the country.
    • Christmas is introduced to a stern-looking man named McEachern, who says he will raise Joe to fear God. He says that Christmas is a heathen name.
    • Joe goes with McEachern to begin his new life in the country with his foster parents.
  • Chapter 7

    • McEachern asks Joe repeatedly if he has learned his catechism. Joe has not.
    • McEachern gives Joe one hour to learn the catechism. When Joe still has not learned it, McEachern beats him ten times.
    • McEachern takes Joe out to the stable and whips him every hour for not knowing his catechism. He beats him to the point where Joe collapses.
    • Later, McEachern prays for forgiveness for hitting a child.
    • Joe lies in bed, sulking in his room.
    • Mrs. McEachern enters the room and offers him food; Joe rejects it. When she leaves the food, Joe leaps out of bed and kneels on the rug, eating with his hands like a dog.
    • One day, when he's fourteen, Joe's friends kidnap a young black woman and take turns raping her in a barn.
    • When it's Joe's turn, he does not rape her, but begins to beat her instead.
    • Joe's friends run into the barn and pull him off the woman, and then he begins to fight them too.
    • When he returns home, McEachern asks what he was fighting about. Joe says he doesn't know.
    • One day McEachern notices that the cow he gave Joe to care for is missing. He also finds a brand new suit hidden in the barn.
    • Joe claims the cow is down by the creek, so McEachern says they should go there to see.
    • When they reach the creek, Joe claims that he sold the cow. McEachern asks what he did with the money and Joe claims that he gave it to Mrs. McEachern.
    • Knowing he has been lied to, McEachern punches Joe in the face. Joe tells him not to hit him anymore.
    • Back at the house, Mrs. McEachern lies for Joe, stating that he really did give her the money.
    • McEachern calls her a liar and tells her to repent before God. Thankfully, he doesn't punch her in the face too.
    • In flashback, the narration recalls how Mrs. McEachern cared for Joe when the couple first adopted him. Mrs. McEachern bathed and dressed him on his first night in the house.
    • She created a secret world between them – bringing him food after his beatings and hiding money in his bedroom – in order to secure Joe's trust. But these actions only disgusted Joe, because he felt Mrs. McEachern was trying to make him cry so that she could control him.
  • Chapter 8

    • Christmas gets his suit from its secret hiding place in the barn. He can tell it's been messed with – McEachern has found it.
    • Christmas leaves the house and waits in the road until a car picks him up.
    • In flashback, we learn how Christmas met Bobbie Allen when he was seventeen.
    • One day, while McEachern is in town on business, the pair eats at a diner. McEachern tells Joe he should avoid places like this.
    • Christmas spots a small waitress who has big hands.
    • Christmas goes back to the diner one day on his own. He sees the waitress with big hands again and orders pie and coffee from her but he doesn't have enough money to pay for both. Ashamed, he runs out of the diner.
    • A month later, he goes back to the diner to pay the waitress back the nickel that he owes her. They properly introduce themselves and plan to meet up.
    • The next week, Christmas goes to town to meet the waitress. She tells him (without telling him) that she's on her period so they can't have sex. Christmas doesn't really get it, so he gets embarrassed and runs away.
    • The next Monday he comes back and the two start to have sex. Christmas pays the waitress with money he steals from Mrs. McEachern, and they have sex in the house she shares with a couple called Max and Mame.
    • One night after sex, Christmas tells the waitress that he's partially black; she doesn't believe him.
    • The waitress blows him off for two weeks, and the next time he sees her, he beats her. She tells him that she's a prostitute.
    • Christmas starts smoking and drinking.
  • Chapter 9

    • Back in the present, McEachern sees Joe sneak out of the house and get into a car.
    • McEachern gets on his horse and follows the car to a school house where a dance is being held.
    • McEachern storms onto the dance floor and calls the waitress a harlot and a Jezebel. Joe hits McEachern over the head with a chair and he falls to the floor.
    • Joe grabs McEachern's horse and heads back home. Laughing, Joe tells Mrs. McEachern that her husband is at a dance. He steals all the money she has hidden in a tin can in his room and heads back to the waitress's house.
    • Max asks Joe if he killed McEachern, and Bobbie, the waitress, wants nothing to do with him.
    • Bobbie tells everyone in the house that Joe has black blood. A man in the house punches Joe in the face to "see if his blood is black." The man continues to beat Christmas up, looking at his blood.
  • Chapter 10

    • Max and Mame steal half of Joe's money and leave the house while he's passed out.
    • Christmas drifts around for fifteen years, living everywhere from Oklahoma to Mexico to Chicago.
    • He ends up back in Mississippi one day, where he finds an abandoned cabin; he moves into it even though it's located on the property of an older white woman named Miss Burden.
    • One night Christmas sneaks into Miss Burden's house and starts eating her food.
    • She walks into he kitchen and catches him, saying that if it's food he wants, he'll find it.
  • Chapter 11

    • One night, Christmas barges into Miss Burden's bedroom, tears her clothes off, and forces himself on top of her. She doesn't really resist but she doesn't exactly agree either. Christmas is convinced she'll kick him out of the cabin for this.
    • The next day, however, Miss Burden leaves out a table of food for him; this pisses him off, so he throws the food against the wall, one dish at a time.
    • He avoids the house for months until one day Miss Burden shows up at the cabin. She tells him that all of her family is buried on her property, including her grandfather and her brother. Both men were killed by a man named Colonel Sartoris, over their views that blacks should have equal voting rights.
    • Christmas reveals that one of his parents was part black.
  • Chapter 12

    • Miss Burden and Christmas have become regular lovers.
    • In what Christmas calls their "second phase," Miss Burden becomes possessive and totally jealous, going into fits over Christmas.
    • She sends him notes telling him to climb through the window to see her or to come and find her somewhere hidden in the house. Sometimes she tears her clothes to shreds and calls out "Negro!" when they have sex.
    • Christmas starts to get really freaked out.
    • In their "third phase," things calm down a bit. Christmas starts selling whiskey (illegally) on the side.
    • Miss Burden starts to talk about having babies and one day she says she's pregnant. Christmas doesn't believe her and begins to plot his escape.
    • One day Miss Burden tells Christmas about what she considers a brilliant plan – she wants to have Christmas take over her role as an advisor to black schools. This freaks out Christmas even more and he avoids her for months.
    • During this time, Christmas invites Joe Brown to live with him in the cabin, mostly so he can use Joe Brown as an excuse to avoid Miss Burden.
    • One day, Miss Burden leaves a note on Christmas's bed; without reading it, he goes to the house and sits at the kitchen table, eating dinner.
    • Brown follows him to the house and barges in, teasing Christmas for sleeping with Miss Burden. Christmas punches him in the face and in the shoulder and runs away.
    • Miss Burden comes in and tells Christmas that she wants him to go to a black school to be a lawyer.
    • Christmas refuses and tells her to shut up. She hits him and he punches her; they fight.
    • After this fight, Miss Burden starts to pray for Christmas and, like McEachern, she tries to get him to pray too, in order to save his soul. This makes Christmas really angry.
    • In the next scene, Joe Christmas is walking up Miss Burden's stairs with his razor. She tries to get him to pray again and he refuses, so she shoots at him with a pistol.
    • Suddenly we find Joe outside, dazed and somewhat out of it. He flags down a car and gets in with a white man and his girlfriend. They're acting strangely and he doesn't know why. Eventually he realizes something is wrong with them and he gets out of the car. He looks down and sees that he had Joanna Burden's pistol in his hand the entire time. There are two bullets in the gun, and Christmas realizes that one was meant for him and the other, for her.
  • Chapter 13

    • There's a huge fire at Miss Burden's house and the entire town comes to watch it burn.
    • The guy who discovered the fire tells the sheriff how he ran into the house and found Miss Burden upstairs with her head nearly chopped off. He remembers seeing a drunken white man in the house too, but that guy has since disappeared.
    • The sheriff wants to find out who lives in the cabin on the property, so he finds a black kid and begins asking him questions. The black kid tells him that two white men live in the cabin.
  • Chapter 14

    • The sheriff finds out that Byron has Lena Grove living in the old Burden cabin.
    • A black man comes to the police station and tells the sheriff of an incident that just occurred in a black church. A white man entered the church, attacked the preacher, and started cursing and yelling at the pulpit. The man also attacked another churchgoer named Roz, who tried to stand up and defend his church. Then the man escaped.
    • The sheriff recognizes the man as Christmas and sends the bloodhounds out to the church. The dogs search for days but Christmas successfully evades them.
    • Christmas walks and walks for days without eating; he becomes thin, hungry, and delirious.
    • One day he stops a black man driving a wagon and hitches a ride to Mottstown.
  • Chapter 15

    • The Hineses, a bizarre older couple, have lived in Mottstown for thirty years.
    • Mr. Hines used to work in Memphis (doing what, we don't know) but for mysterious reasons he stopped working there.
    • The Hineses live in the black section of town and they're really poor. They can barely afford to eat, but some local black women take pity on them, bringing them food on a regular basis.
    • Mr. Hines preaches white supremacy at a local black church, trying to convince the black churchgoers that white people are just plain better at everything.
    • When Joe Christmas is captured in Mottstown, Mr. Hines moves quickly through the crowd and looks Joe in the face.
    • Mr. Hines tries to hit Christmas in the face with his cane but some nearby men pull him away, subdue him, and drag him home.
    • Mrs. Hines is also particularly curious about this Christmas fellow and the men begin to wonder if the couple knows him.
    • When the men are gone, Mrs. Hines asks her husband what he did over thirty years ago with the child who belonged to a woman named Milly.
    • Meanwhile, Mottstown is gossiping about Joe Christmas's capture and Mr. Hines's strange behavior. After the arrest, Mr. Hines returned downtown and demanded that Christmas be lynched.
    • Mrs. Hines comes to the jail asking to see Christmas, but the jailer won't allow her to without permission from the sheriff.
    • A group of men from Jefferson arrive to take Christmas back there to be tried. Outside the jail an even larger group of people stand outraged, demanding Christmas's death.
    • The men escort Christmas through the crowd and into a car, but not before Mrs. Hines is able to catch a glimpse of him.
    • Mrs. Hines becomes determined to get to Jefferson; she and her husband wait at the depot for the 2am train to Jefferson.
  • Chapter 16

    • Byron shows up at Hightower's house to tell him that Christmas has been captured; he finds Hightower sleeping on a chair in the backyard.
    • Hightower chides Byron for keeping Lena and Joe Brown apart, hinting that Byron is being influenced by selfish, carnal desires. He also resents being Byron's confidante about the matters of the town, since he's no longer a man of God.
    • Byron leaves and comes back with the Hineses, who are revealed as Joe Christmas's grandparents. Mr. Hines, who seems to be losing his mind, goes on and on (and on) about his daughter Milly (Joe's mom) and all her sinful behavior.
    • Mrs. Hines tells Milly's story, which is as follows:
    • Over thirty years ago, Milly got pregnant by a guy who worked for the circus. The guy told her that he was Mexican, but once Mr. Hines saw him he claimed to be able to tell that he actually had black blood in him.
    • Mrs. Hines doesn't know if someone in the circus told him this or if he just had a feeling. Regardless, Mr. Hines became convinced his daughter was going to give birth to a black baby.
    • The couple tried to run away together, but Mr. Hines found them and shot the man, killing him.
    • Mr. Hines traveled to find a doctor to give Milly an abortion, but when he found the doctor he went crazy and attacked the guy, then went to another town.
    • In this town, he barged into a church and started preaching about white supremacy.
    • When the churchgoers tried to stop him he pulled out a gun and was taken to jail.
    • By the time Mr. Hines was released, Milly was about to have the baby. Mrs. Hines begged him to call for a doctor but he stubbornly refused, standing on the porch and eventually hitting his wife with his gun.
    • Milly died during childbirth.
    • One day, Mrs. Hines found a note and the child was gone – Mr. Hines had taken him.
    • Mr. Hines gets a job in Memphis and places Joe in the orphanage, where the young boy is teased, catches the dietician having sex with the doctor, and eventually gets adopted by the McEacherns.
    • In the present, Mrs. Hines finishes her tale and Hightower wonders why they told him all this and what they expect him to do.
    • Byron asks Hightower to give Christmas an alibi and say that he was with him the day of Miss Burden's murder.
    • Hightower refuses and kicks them all out of his house.
  • Chapter 17

    • Lena goes into labor.
    • Byron goes to Hightower's place, asking him to go to the cabin and help with the delivery while he finds a doctor.
    • By the time Byron returns with the doctor, the baby has been born and Mrs. Hines is holding him. Mr. Hines is asleep, while Hightower looks completely exhausted and even sickly.
    • Mrs. Hines is delusional now, and she's convinced that Lena is her daughter Milly and that the new baby is Joe Christmas. She's staring at Lena and Lena is really starting to freak out.
    • Byron realizes that he should probably tell Joe Brown about his new family since all this crazy stuff is going down. So he leaves to find Joe.
    • Hightower heads back home but can't sleep, so he comes back to the cabin to find Lena alone. She seems surprised to see him and Hightower thinks that she was expecting Byron to walk in, and not him.
    • Lena tells him that Mr. Hines snuck out of the cabin and Mrs. Hines left to go find him.
    • Still restless, Hightower walks to the mill, where he learns that Byron has quit. Hightower hears that Byron is probably at the courthouse awaiting Christmas's trial.
  • Chapter 18

    • Downtown, the grand jury convenes to decide Christmas's fate.
    • Byron swings by Mrs. Beard's boardinghouse where he lived, in order to pick up his things. He's preparing to start a new life in a new town.
    • Byron meets up with the sheriff and tells him Lena and Joe Brown's story, convincing him to take Joe Brown to see his newborn child in the Burden cabin. The sheriff agrees.
    • Byron spies as the police take Joe Brown to the cabin. He then mounts his mule and starts heading out of Jefferson. From a hilltop, Byron happens to look down to see Joe Brown jump through the window of the cabin and begin to run.
    • Byron turns the mule around and starts to chase him.
    • Now the narration moves to Brown's perspective.
    • Inside the cabin and face-to-face with Lena, Brown becomes anxious, irritated, and scared. He lies to Lena, telling her that he sent for her and that he's glad to see her. He says that once he receives his reward for turning in Christmas, they'll be able to start a life together.
    • This is all a ruse, of course, and the first chance he gets, Brown jumps through the cabin window and flees.
    • Brown comes upon a black cabin and asks a young black boy to take a message to the sheriff: he wants the sheriff to give the boy his $1,000 reward, which the boy will then give to him.
    • Byron catches up with Brown and provokes him into fighting, even though Byron knows he doesn't stand a chance since Brown is bigger than him.
    • Brown indeed wins the fight near some railroad tracks, just as a train is passing by. Brown jumps on the train and is never heard from again.
    • Byron catches a ride with a man in a wagon who tells him that Christmas escaped from police custody and was later murdered.
  • Chapter 19

    • District attorney Gavin Stevens puts the Hineses on a train back to Mottstown, assuring them that Joe Christmas's body will be sent along after them.
    • The story of Joe Christmas's death is told from the point of view of Percy Grimm, a white supremacist.
    • Percy rounds up a motley crew of American legion members in order to patrol the downtown area where Christmas is being held.
    • When Christmas escapes, Percy hunts him down and finds him in Hightower's house, where he shoots and castrates him.
  • Chapter 20

    • Hightower sits by the window of his study as afternoon light begins to fade.
    • Hightower contemplates his life, focusing first on his grandfather. His grandfather was a lawyer who owned slaves, and didn't agree with Hightower's abolitionist views. Hightower was an outcast even in his own family.
    • Hightower's father was in the Civil War but he never fired his weapon; he trained himself to be a doctor instead.
    • Hightower's grandfather was killed in Jefferson while trying to steal chickens. Hightower remembers being obsessed with his grandfather's Confederate uniform.
    • Hightower describes himself as being surrounded by phantoms – the ghosts of his father, his grandfather, and one of his grandfather's female slaves.
    • Hightower remembers his marriage, and takes responsibility for ignoring his wife and for being a selfish minister and a selfish husband.
    • Hightower sees a wheel of faces containing all the townspeople of Jefferson. He also hears trumpets and the hooves of horses belonging to his grandfather's cavalry.
  • Chapter 21

    • A furniture dealer tells his wife about a couple he just met on the road.
    • He recalls meeting Byron, Lena, and her baby who need a ride "down the road."
    • He learns that Byron is not the father of the baby, and that the couple is looking for a third man.
    • The furniture dealer stops driving for the night, and Lena asks to sleep in the bed of the truck.
    • When Byron tries to sleep with her, Lena rejects him and sends him to sleep somewhere else.
    • Byron leaves and it doesn't look like he's coming back.
    • The next day, Lena and the driver start their journey again. Eventually Byron appears at the side of the road and joins up with Lena once again.
    • The strange family heads into Tennessee and Lena remarks that she's traveled more in the past two months than she has in her entire life.