Light in August: Chapters 18-19
Byron is in town, in Chapter Eighteen, as the Grand Jury convenes. He visits his former lodging house and then the sheriff. He tells him about Lena and Brown and says that Brown should be allowed to see her. The sheriff asks about Byron’s plans and he replies he is thinking of leaving for Memphis. The Sheriff goes on to explain that he thinks Christmas might plead guilty to the murder to ‘save his neck’ and so Brown will not be needed as a witness. He agrees to Brown being allowed to visit Lena under the supervision of the deputy.
At 4 pm, Byron is near the cabin and hides in shrubbery when he sees Brown being taken in to see Lena. Byron gets on his mule and does not look back. After a while, though, he turns in the saddle and sees how far he has travelled and looks towards the cabin. He notices the deputy sitting on the front step and spots a man running out from the rear. Byron thinks there is one more thing he can do for this man (Brown): catch him and whip him.
The narrative shifts back to the deputy taking Brown to the cabin. Brown is told only he is being taken to a place ‘where if you are going to get any reward, you’ll get it’. He is put in the car without any handcuffs and only one person to supervise him. Brown thinks he is being tricked into running away and so will not receive the money he believes is owed to him.
As they approach the cabin, the deputy tells him the reward is inside. Shock, astonishment, outrage, and then downright terror pass over Brown’s face when he sees Lena inside. She watches him calmly as he claims to have sent her messages. She asks him to look at their son and alludes to marriage when she says a preacher has been to see her. He says that is fine, and hints this will happen when ‘this business’ is over. She says she knows she can depend on him and then watches him as he tiptoes to the window and leaves by it in a single motion, ‘like a long snake’. She sighs when he leaves and says aloud, ‘Now I got to get up again’.
When Brown emerges from the wood on to the railroad he is panting like a ‘fleeing animal’. He spots an African-American woman and asks her to take a message to the sheriff for a dollar. She refuses as she knows a man who did just this and he never came back again. A man appears and he agrees to take the note. Brown writes that he wants the ‘barer’ to be given the reward (and expects the man to bring it to him).
Byron encounters this man half a mile away and asks if he has seen Brown. He is told of his whereabouts and thinks he and Brown are like chess pieces being moved without reason by an Opponent. When Byron finds him, he tells him to get up. Byron knows he will be beaten, but does not care. Brown fights even more savagely than usual because Byron gave him the chance to stand up. The fight lasts two minutes and Byron is left bleeding on the ground. He recovers a little and sees Brown run towards an approaching train and jump on it. As he considers visiting Lena, a wagon stops and the driver tells him that Christmas has been killed.
In Chapter Nineteen, we are told that people at supper that Monday night wonder not so much how Christmas managed to escape, but why he took refuge in a place he was sure to be found (at Hightower’s house). It is seen as passive suicide.
The District Attorney (Gavin Stevens) believed Christmas’s grandmother influenced him into going to Hightower’s as she wanted him to die ‘decent’. With the birth of Lena’s baby, Mrs Hines found the means to stand alone from her husband. Stevens does not know what she told Christmas, but he thinks he believed her and she gave him hope. Christmas struck Hightower with a pistol and crouched behind a table. He then ‘let them shoot him to death, with that loaded and unfired pistol in his hand’.
The narrative changes tack and describes a young man named Percy Grimm who is a captain in the state national guard. He is bitter that he was too young to fight in World War I, but his life opened up with the new civilian-military act. When Christmas is brought back to Jefferson, Grimm forms a platoon to make sure government rules are followed (and to wear his uniform). The sheriff tells him to leave his gun at home, but when he disobeys he is made a special deputy.
The events leading up to Christmas’s death are then detailed. He escapes as he is being led across the square (without handcuffs) by the deputy. Grimm tells the others to sound the fire alarm and commandeers a bicycle to pursue him. He chases after him with, ‘blind obedience to whatever Player moved him on the board’. When he sees Christmas enter Hightower’s house, he follows along with three men who came by car. They find Hightower bleeding from a wound and ask where Christmas is. He tells them Christmas was with him on the night of the murder and swears to God this is true. Grimm is outraged and flings Hightower aside. ‘The Player’ moves Grimm to the kitchen and he empties his magazine into the table (behind which is Christmas). ‘The Player was not done yet’ and the other men come in and find Grimm stooped over Christmas with a knife. One of the men vomits and Grimm says, ‘now you’ll let the white women alone, even in hell’. (The implication is that he has castrated him). The chapter ends with the sound of the fire alarm mounting towards its crescendo.
Analysis - Chapters Eighteen and Nineteen
Chapter Eighteen highlights Brown’s cowardice. As Byron might have hoped to presume, Brown flees from Lena when he is confronted with her and their son. This behavior is contrasted with Byron’s attempts at nobility as he decides to ‘whip’ Brown for his lack of courage despite knowing Brown would win in the fight.
In both of these chapters, Byron, Brown and Grimm are described as being moved like chess pieces as though they have no autonomy. It is as though their actions are pre-arranged and inevitable and are at the mercy of higher power (the Player or Opponent).