Light in August: Chapters 7-8
Chapter Seven begins with Christmas at the age of eight at ‘home’ (with the McEacherns). A Presbyterian catechism lies on the table in front of him and McEachern accuses him of not trying to learn it even though he claims he did. He is given another hour to learn it properly.
When Christmas still does not know the catechism after an hour, he is taken to the stable by McEachern and told to remove his pants. He is beaten 10 times with a strap and given another hour to learn. Mrs McEachern looks towards the stable, but says nothing. This order and punishment is repeated twice more and when Christmas’s final hour of ‘learning’ is over he collapses once McEachern takes the book from him. Christmas recovers consciousness later in the afternoon and is in bed. McEachern comes to his room and makes the boy kneel and pray with him and asks for God’s forgiveness for both of them.
After McEachern leaves the farm, Mrs McEachern enters the room with a tray of food and Christmas refuses to eat it. She watches him walk over to the tray and turn the contents on the floor. Years later he remembers that when she left he ate the food off the floor with his hands ‘like a savage, like a dog’.
The narrative then shifts to Christmas at the age of 14. He is with four other boys his age and they are taking it in turns to have sex with an African American girl. When it is his ‘turn’ he enters the shed and kicks and beats her. The other boys pull him off her and he walks away alone ‘phantomlike’, brushing mechanically at his clothes. When he reaches home, McEachern is waiting and hits him with a strap (ostensibly for being late). Christmas’s body is like wood or stone as he disassociates himself from the violence and becomes ‘contemplative and remote with ecstasy and selfcrucifixion’.
At the age of 18, McEachern realizes Christmas’s heifer is missing, and finds a new suit in the barn. Christmas admits finally that he sold the heifer and says he has given the money to Mrs McEachern to look after (as he is unaware that his adoptive father has found his suit). McEachern accuses him of lying and ‘whoring’ and punches him twice. Christmas tells him never to hit him again.
Later, Mrs McEachern claims she bought the suit. Her husband does not believe her and forces her to kneel and pray. She has always been kind to Christmas, but is also clumsy, frustrated and fumbling. She enjoys keeping secrets and tries to involve Christmas in them; for example, she makes him secret meals (which McEachern would not care about anyway) and shows Christmas her hidden stash of coins. Christmas feels that he can depend on the man to react in a predictable ‘certain’ way, but she has ‘a woman’s affinity and instinct for secrecy’. He hates her soft kindness more than his ‘hard and ruthless justice’.
In Chapter Eight, Christmas leaves his room by climbing down a rope out of his window as he has done for the past year. He finds his suit and realises only then that McEachern must have already seen it. He changes in the dark and walks down the lane. He is expecting to meet a woman, but the road is empty and he blames Mrs McEachern for making him late. However, the woman (described as a small waitress) appears in her car shortly after.
The narrative returns to the time when he first met her at the age of 17. He and McEachern were visiting town and ate at the restaurant in which she worked. He returned alone six months later and decided never to go again after embarrassing himself. He had not had enough money for coffee and she paid for it.
A month later he returns, though. Bobbie (the waitress) is not there, but he tells the woman at the cigar counter that he owes her a nickel. The owner comes over and tells him to leave and take his money. He implies he is affronted that Christmas is trying to buy Bobbie for a nickel. He walks out to the sound of men laughing at him. He sees Bobbie in the street and they chat awkwardly. He tells her his name is Christmas, not McEachern.
The narrative cuts back abruptly to three or four years ago when a friend told him about menstruation and described it as ‘periodical filth’. Two Saturdays later he shot a sheep and puts his hands in the warm blood. After this, he accepted what the boy had told him but believed he would not experience a woman like this as he saw himself as buying immunity. When he and Bobbie meet on the following Monday and she explains awkwardly that she is ‘sick’ and menstruating, he walks away when he understands what she means, but meets her again the following week.
He meets her regularly and hides the rope (which he uses to escape the house) in the same place as Mrs McEachern stashes her money. He begins to steal it and gives it to Bobbie. Max, her boss and landlord, and Mame tell her she should not waste herself on him as he does not have much money.
They sleep together in her bed and he asks if she has noticed anything different about his hair and skin. She says she has wondered if he was a foreigner; he says it is more than that and asks her to guess what he is. When she cannot, he tells her he has ‘nigger blood’ in him. He then adds that he does not know (for certain), but believes this to be so. They carry on seeing each other perhaps two nights a week and when she does not appear at the appointed time he visits her home uninvited to find her. From outside, he believes she is in the house and is not alone and does not see her for two weeks. He hits her when he sees her again and it is implied (but not stated directly) that she is a prostitute. He begins to smoke and drink and speaks of her as ‘the waitress’ and, even in her presence, says that she is ‘his whore’.
Analysis – Chapters Seven and Eight
These chapters continue to develop Christmas’s background and upbringing and also offer insights into the origins of brutal behavior and misogyny. He is initially bashful in the company of Bobby, but as demonstrated in Chapter Seven, he is violent in his first sexual encounter (with an African-American girl). His misogyny is also made evident in his preference for McEachern’s brutality rather than Mrs McEachern’s secrets and kindness. He is seen to eschew femininity.