Light in August: Chapters 16-17
Chapter Sixteen begins with Byron visiting Hightower to tell him that Christmas has been caught. He also informs him that Christmas’s grandmother (Mrs Hines) has now found him. There is a shift of focus as Hightower listens to ‘the sound of Protestant music’ and links this with a history of violence.
The narrative moves forward as Byron then brings Mr and Mrs Hines to Hightower’s home. She falters at first, but then tells Hightower why she has come to see him. Hines interrupts suddenly and says ‘bitchery and abomination’. Byron continues the story and explains that Christmas is their daughter’s child and Hines took him away soon after he was born. Mrs Hines did not know what happened to the baby; she did not even know if he was still alive. Hines cuts in and explains in the third person how the children used to holler ‘nigger’ at the boy and he was set to guard and watch him (so he is evidently the janitor at the orphanage). Byron then tells Hightower that her husband wants their grandson to be lynched, so she has to watch his movements.
Mrs Hines then takes over and speaks in a ‘dead voice’. Her husband has been like this for 50 years. He was always fighting, even before she married him. On the night their daughter, Milly, was born he was locked up for it. He used to say he had to fight as he is smaller than other men; she told him it was because the devil was in him and he would pay a price for it one day.
She outlines the story of Christmas’s conception. Milly had sexual relations with a man from the circus who she said was Mexican, but Hines knows ‘somehow’ - and never explained how he knows - that the man had ‘nigger blood’. Hines found Milly with the man and shot him dead. She explains their return that night and tells how Hines hit Milly and said he was not fooled that the man was Mexican. He also claimed the devil had come for his toll and that ‘my wife has bore me a whore’.
At the trial, the circus owner said the man ‘really was part nigger instead of Mexican’ as her husband had also claimed (and was not punished). Hines wanted to find a doctor (it is implied for an abortion) but never did. When he began to show an interest in the due date of birth, Mrs Hines believed he had seen God’s will at last.
When the time came for the birth of the baby, she asked Hines to fetch the doctor. She waited and waited and then saw that he was still sitting outside with a shotgun on his lap. He called his wife a ‘whore’s dam’ and hit her with the gun when she tried to leave for the doctor. He stood and watched Milly die as she gave birth and held her baby up to see ‘if the devil or the Lord would win’.
He left Mrs Hines and his job for two months, but two days before Christmas she returned from the yard to find the baby had been taken. He left her a letter on her pillow saying they were moving. She presumed the baby would be in the new home, but when she reached it she realized this was not the case. He told her he was an instrument of God’s will and leaves again to work in Memphis. For five years he told her nothing about Joey (Christmas), but believed he had hidden him somewhere. He then tells her they are moving again and she hopes they are going to Memphis, but they came to Mottstown instead. He still refused to tell her of the boy’s whereabouts.
Hines rejoins the conversation and says he saw God’s will working with the other children, who he says are without sin, as they called the boy ‘nigger’. He also describes the altercation with the dietitian.
Byron prompts Mrs Hines to tell Hightower what she wants from him. She would like just one day of normality for Christmas. She wants Hightower to give him an alibi. He says he will not do it and thinks that if he does, Brown will not receive the reward and will leave town. This will leave Byron and Lena together. He screams at them to leave his house.
In Chapter Seventeen, we are told that these events (of Chapter Sixteen) occurred on Friday, and Lena’s child was born the next day. Byron visits Hightower at dawn. He enters the house and goes to his bedroom to wake him. He tells him the baby is due and Mrs Hines is with Lena. He is going for the doctor and wants Hightower to go to Lena.
Byron calls for the same doctor who was too late when Hightower helped deliver a baby, and is too late this time as well. When Byron and the doctor arrive, Mrs Hines is holding the baby and has clearly regressed as she calls him Joey and tells the doctor he can see Milly now.
The narrative moves back to describe Byron being told the baby is due. He thinks of the reasons why he did not engage a doctor sooner. He recognizes that he did not fully take it in that Lena was having a baby and that she was not a virgin. With the ‘despair of adolescence’, he also realizes he will have to tell Brown.
After the birth, Hightower walks home and feels a glow of pride for what he has done. He even hopes the baby will be named after him, but then thinks Byron ‘will take the part of me’. He falls asleep for a while then returns to the cabin to find Lena alone with the baby.
She tells him Hines left and Mrs Hines went to find him when she awoke. He notices that she has freshened up and asks if she was expecting Byron to visit. She does not answer and he asks her to send him away from her and describes him as a ‘manchild’. She says this is not for her to do and she has already turned his marriage proposal down. She has not seen Byron since the morning. Byron asked if she would like to see Burch (Brown) and she said she would. She cries and says she will never see Byron again and Hightower thinks, ‘thank God’.
He leaves the cabin and walks past the mill. He has his belief that Byron has left his job corroborated and thinks that he has left without saying goodbye. The chapter ends with the suggestion that there is one more thing reserved for Hightower.
Analysis - Chapters Sixteen and Seventeen
The horrific details of Christmas’s conception and birth are given in Chapter Sixteen and are crucial for our understanding of the violence he has been born into. There are also hints that he bears the traits of his grandfather in his violence and intolerance and his appearance at Mottstown (where his grandparents live) is both coincidental and uncanny. It is as though he cannot escape the heritage he has been born with - whether true or supposed - and his arrest at Mottstown implies that he is trapped by the circle of hate created by Hines and the wider (prejudiced) community.