Light in August: Chapters 5-6
The narrative shifts to Brown and Christmas in their shared cabin. This is evidently prior to the discovery of the fire, but the day is not specified. Brown is described as entering the room drunk. He stumbles and laughs and Christmas strikes him until he stops laughing. He also covers Brown’s nose and mouth to stop him from calling him ‘nigger’ and considers reaching for his razor, but thinks, ‘this is not the right one’. Over the sound of Brown snoring, Christmas suddenly says aloud: ‘It’s because she started praying over me.’
He leaves the cabin barefoot and in his underclothes and goes to her house. (The name of ‘her’ is not specified, but it is clearly a reference to Miss Burden’s home). The readers are told that he used to enter her home anytime two years ago; sometimes she would be awake, sometimes not. He thinks she lied to him about her age and perhaps he believes he has been fooled. He remembers how ‘once’ a woman used to sew buttons on his clothes and he would tear them off. He is still outside and removes his underwear. A car passes and a woman shrieks - he shouts ‘white bastards’. He then goes to sleep in the rundown stable.
He returns to the cabin after two hours sleep. He dresses and shaves in the spring. After breakfast he thinks, ‘maybe it is no longer now waiting to be done’ and carries on reading his magazine. He then freezes and thinks again that ‘she ought not to have started praying over me’. He digs up containers of whiskey, empties them and goes into town at 7 pm to eat.
Without realizing he is doing so, Christmas walks into the African-American part of town (called Freedom Town) and runs out into the white area. He then appears to return to Freedom Town and walks towards a group of African Americans. Most of the group walk round him, but two men stop and face him. They think he is white and ask what he is looking for. When they walk away, he notices that he has been holding his unopened razor and says ‘bitches’ and ‘sons of bitches’ loudly and then wonders what is the matter with him. By 11 pm he is sitting outside ‘her’ house and is not thinking at all. He rises and moves towards it.
Chapter Six begins with a fragmented, disjointed voice, which appears to be Christmas reflecting on his thoughts as a child: ‘Memory believes before knowing remembers. Believes longer than recollects, longer than knowing even wonders.’ This chapter examines an unspecified ‘he’ (although we learn later that this is Christmas) as a five year old in an orphanage. It is a memory of this child wanting some toothpaste which belongs to the dietitian. He enters her room, but has to hide behind a curtain when she enters. She is with a man and it is obvious that they are having sex, although the child does not understand this at the time. Whilst hiding, he eats the toothpaste, vomits and then surrenders himself. The dietitian calls him a little rat and accuses him of spying. She then calls him a ‘little nigger bastard’. She is 27 and described as stupid enough to think the child knew what he had witnessed and that he may tell the adults.
Three days later he expects her to punish him, but she gives him a dollar and says there will be more. When he says he does not want any more, she says, ‘Tell, then! You little nigger bastard’. Four days later she is calmer, but ‘completely mad’ and talks to the janitor who she notes was only there for a month when the boy appeared five years ago. This man’s eyes are clear ‘and quite mad too’. She says how she has seen him sitting watching the other children call the boy ‘nigger’ and claims he came here just to do that. He says he did not tell the other children about the boy; he just waited ‘for the Lord to show his will’. She decides to tell the matron about the boy being African American as he will then have to be sent to another orphanage and tells the janitor this.
At breakfast, the janitor and child are noted as missing. The narrative shifts back to the previous evening to describe the man taking the boy away. The boy is found three days later at another orphanage and is returned. Two weeks before Christmas a stranger comes for the child and the readers are told for the first time that the boy is called Joseph. The stranger is told by the matron that Joseph was left there five years on Christmas Eve and that if the child’s parentage is so important to him he should not adopt one. He has been in correspondence with the dietitian (so she is behind his removal). The man is called Mr McEachern and on the journey to the boy’s new home he tells him that the two abominations are sloth and idle thinking. Joe remembers later that McEachern told the matron that Christmas was a ‘heathenish’ name and would be changing it to his own. The child was not bothered at the time: ‘There was no need to bother about that yet. There was plenty of time.’
Analysis – Chapters Five and Six
Chapters Five and Six are the first to focus on Christmas more fully. He has been introduced previously by Byron and with Brown’s declaration that he is guilty of murder and is a ‘nigger’. In Chapter Six, the readers are given an introductory insight into Christmas’s early childhood and the beginning of an explanation as to why he has no sense of belonging in society as an adult. This is embellished in later chapters, as with the brutal treatment meted out by McEachern. Here, however, the belief that he is of mixed race is used as an insult and punishment.