Light in August: Chapters 20-21
Chapter Twenty begins by detailing Hightower’s upbringing. His father was a minister and was aged 50 when his son was born. He never owned slaves, although his father did. He also fought in the Civil War, but did not have a musket. He wore a frock coat rather than a uniform and Hightower found this at the age of eight. It was covered in patches including the blue of the United States.
Hightower thinks of the phantoms in his life, such as his father, mother and ‘an old negro woman’. The latter used to be a slave of his grandfather and she came to their home after his death. She told young Hightower about him and how he killed men. This held no horror for him (as did the thought that his father might have done). Hightower joined the church as a shelter and became friendly with the daughter of one of the ministers at the seminary. They would leave notes for each other in the hollow of a tree. One evening, she spoke suddenly (and savagely) about them marrying (as she wanted to escape the seminary). He told her of his desire to work in Jefferson and she outlined ‘a campaign of abasement and plotting’ to get him there, which he agreed to.
Hightower looks back at himself when he first came to the town and ‘seems’ to see that others perceived him as ‘a figure antic as a showman, a little wild’. He also recognizes his own selfishness in using his wife as ‘a means toward’ moving to Jefferson. He does not want to think of his guilt in her downfall, but ‘the sandclutched wheel of thinking turns on’. He feels as though he is dying and ‘it seems to him’ he still hears ‘the wild bugles and the clashing sabres and the dying thunder of hooves’.
Chapter Twenty One
The final chapter (Chapter Twenty One) begins with a furniture repairer and dealer telling his wife about two passengers he picked up in Mississippi: a young woman (Lena) with a baby in her arms and a fellow (Byron). The woman sits up front with him (the driver) and the fellow sits in the back. They camp over night and it eventually comes out that the woman is looking for a man. When the driver appears to be asleep, he hears the man attempting to get in the truck with the woman, but she tells him off. The next morning Byron has disappeared, but she remains calm. They drive off eventually and find Byron around the bend in the road. He stops the truck and gets in. The novel concludes with the driver telling his wife that he thinks the woman was not really looking for someone, she was simply enjoying the travelling.
Analysis - Chapters Twenty and Twenty One
As the novel draws to an end, the readers are given an insight into Hightower’s upbringing and inner thoughts as he dwells on the distant past. He is driven by thoughts of phantoms in his life and their influence on him and knows he bears responsibility for his wife’s ‘downfall’. His desire to live in Jefferson has been central to his life for years and this is perhaps the most obvious sign that he is controlled by thoughts of his and his family’s history.
In Chapter Twenty One, Byron and Lena are moving away from Jefferson. Because of the calm exuded by Lena (who is seen to enjoy travelling), it is possible to see the novel questioning Hightower’s desire to stay rooted in the same malignant spot.
The events of this final chapter are related second-hand by a character who barely knows Lena and Byron. He guesses correctly at their situation, however, and offers a passer-by’s glimpse of their new life. No closure is given as the couple travel onwards.