Light in August: Chapters 12-13
Christmas regards the second phase of his relationship with Miss Burden as beginning with her capitulation, and he feels as though he has ‘fallen into a sewer’. The days stayed the same and ‘the sewer ran only by night’. As the novelty of this phase wears off, he begins to think he does not belong there. He also sees her ‘pass through every avatar of a woman in love’. She would have fits of jealous rage and appears not to have experienced this emotion before. She also demonstrates a taste for intrigue and insists that they have a place for sharing notes and letters. Furthermore, she reveals her passionate nature and says, ‘Negro! Negro! Negro!’ when in the throes of love-making.
She is completely ‘corrupted’ within six months, but not by Christmas. She seems to gather it from the air and begins to corrupt him. He feels afraid that he is being sucked into a ‘bottomless morass’ and thinks of moving away.
They move into the third phase of their relationship gradually over the space of two years. He sells whiskey and does not tell her, although she probably would not have minded. He connects this with concealing the rope from Mrs McEachern and not telling ‘the waitress’ where he got his money. He sees himself as ‘doomed to conceal always something from the women who surround him’.
She talks of having a child and her appetite grows. She puts on 30 pounds and is no longer jealous of his movements even though she would have reason to be now. He does not want to marry her or have a child with her, but just after Christmas time she tells him she is pregnant. He thinks she will want to get married; however, she tells him it is a good time for him to run away.
He considers leaving, but stays in his cabin. In February, he finds a note from her asking him to come to her house that night. He eats the food she leaves and then goes to her bedroom as before. In this third phase, she has turned into a stranger. Her face is ‘remote and fanatic’ and she tells him he is wasting his life. She wants him to take over her business affairs with the African-American schools. He would have control and she would be his assistant. She does not mention her child and her face remains calm.
When Brown is staying in the cabin, Christmas finds a note from her and visits her house knowing Brown has seen where he has gone. She tells Christmas he should go to school (an African American one) and then study law at Memphis from her lawyer’s office. If he tells them he is African American, he will not have to pay. He responds by informing her that she is looking old now with the gray in her hair. She hits him and he hits her back. He says she never was having a baby - ‘you just got old’ - and that she is ‘not good anymore’. She replies that it would perhaps be better if they were both dead. He continues to visit her and when he leaves her room it is suggested he can hear her praying.
Two nights previously (in August), she left him another note asking him to visit her. When he arrives, she is on her knees praying and asks him to kneel with her (as McEachern did). He refuses and after a length of time she says ‘then there’s just one other thing to do’ and he agrees. The narrative shifts to the present and to Christmas thinking ‘so now it’s all done, all finished’. It shifts back again to Miss Burden asking him to light her lamp and he refuses. She asks him to kneel with her and when he does not, she pulls a revolver from her shawl.
The narrative cuts away again to Christmas standing in the middle of the road as he puts up his hand to stop an approaching car. A boy is driving and a girl is sitting next to him. They look at him with horror, but he does not notice at first and gets in the car. When he realizes they are afraid, he tells them he will not hurt them and gets out. The car races off and he feels something hits him. When the car leaves, he realizes that he was hit by a gun that he had been holding. He also understands that he flagged the car down whilst holding it. He sees there had been two loaded chambers and one is empty now. They had been intended for him and her. He throws the gun into the undergrowth.
Chapter Thirteen returns to the time of the fire and how people begin to gather five minutes after the countryman raises the alarm. They see Miss Burden’s body and believe her throat has been cut. They believe the crime has been committed ‘not by a negro but by Negro ….’ Men arrive to put out the fire, but there is nowhere to hook the hoses to. Some of the men have pistols in their pockets and ‘canvass about for someone to crucify’, but there is not anyone to blame (as yet).
The deputy reports to the sheriff about how the countryman found a white man in Miss Burden’s house and that someone has been living in the cabin. The deputy presumes an African American has been living there and the sheriff says ‘get me a nigger’ to find out. They take an African-American man to this cabin and the deputy hits him with a strap when he says he does not know who has stayed there. After being hit, he tells them that two white men have been living in it. A third white man present says it will be Christmas and Brown.
The crowd watch the fire for three hours and become accustomed to it. It disperses when the sheriff leaves for town. A cashier from the bank takes a letter written by Joanna Burden to the sheriff. This is to be opened on her death. It says to notify her lawyer, Peebles, (and the cashier refers to him as the ‘nigger lawyer’). They wire him with the news and replies come back with the news that her nephew is offering a $1,000 reward to find the murderer.
Brown appears in town at 9 pm and tells the sheriff he is claiming the reward. After their talk, the sheriff calls for bloodhounds and they are brought on the Sunday morning train. A boy comes to the sheriff to tell of a man, who was holding a gun, stopping his car. The boy’s father asks if he will be given the reward.
The dogs are taken to the cabin and to the place the man (Christmas) got out of the car. They find the gun, which is an old Civil War one. One of the caps has been snapped off, but it never went off.
The narrative switches to Byron entering Hightower’s house. He tells Hightower he is thinking of moving Lena as she needs a home rather than a boarding house. Hightower says he cannot take her in and Byron says he would not want to get him involved anyway. It transpires that Lena wants to stay in the cabin and wait for Brown. Byron has only told her he is helping the sheriff.
Hightower sees that Byron thinks she will be safe there and that when Brown discovers her presence, he will run away again. Hightower accuses Byron of coming between man and wife and advises him to leave Jefferson. He also says he (Byron) is being helped by the devil.
The narrative cuts away again to describe Hightower’s dishevelled appearance as he walks home. In a shop, the proprietor tells him they have found the ‘nigger’s trail’. Hightower corrects him and says ‘Negro?’ and has to hold on to the counter. Without explanation, we are told Hightower thinks, ‘I won’t! I won’t! I have bought immunity.’ He is then told the man has not been caught yet and Hightower cannot remember if he has paid or not. He walks out thinking he has paid the price and now he just wants peace.
Byron visits him that night and tells him he has cleaned out the cabin and Lena is there now. Byron is staying near by in a tent and has taken on a ‘nigger woman’ to help her as a white woman will gossip about her not being married. Hightower tells him again to leave ‘this terrible place’, and that he should turn his face and not look back. When alone, Hightower remembers how he used to be afraid of the dark and then went on to hate it. He selects a work by Tennyson, which brings him some peace.
Analysis - Chapters Twelve and Thirteen
Chapter Twelve reveals the three phases of the relationship between Christmas and Miss Burden from his perspective. In turn, this exposes his misogyny further and his inability to form attachments. She is described as manic and becomes infused with religious zeal as she enters menopause and it is possible to argue that even though the readers’ view of her is shaded by Christmas, she is given no balance by the third-person narrator. Her characterization is entrenched in a sexist appraisal of women and the narrative does not attempt to counter this.
In the discussion between Hightower and Byron in Chapter Thirteen, it is possible to see the influence of Christian biased judgements that have seeped into Miss Burden when Hightower warns Byron that he is being driven by the devil. A parallel may also be drawn between Hightower and Christmas in this chapter as Hightower believes incorrectly that he has bought immunity from reality.