Light in August: Chapters 9-11
Chapter Nine returns to the beginning of Chapter Eight as McEachern considers where Christmas has been wearing his new suit. He then spots him descending the rope and hears the car waiting for him. McEachern gets on his horse and rides to a schoolhouse where music is playing. He enters and calls Bobbie a ‘harlot’ and ‘Jezebel’ and strikes Christmas. He retaliates and hits McEachern with a chair and knocks him out. He tells everyone to stand back and says he told McEachern he would kill him. Bobbie screams at Christmas and leaves in her car and he returns home on the horse. He feels free at last of ‘honor and law’. At home, he sweeps past Mrs McEachern and tells her McEachern is at a dance. She follows him upstairs and watches him take her money. He tells her he did not ask for it as he was afraid she would give it to him.
He rides into town on the horse and by this point it is exhausted. He beats the horse with a stick and the more he does this, the slower it is. He gets off and beats its head until the stick breaks and walks away in ‘full stride’. He runs to Bobbie’s house and knocks repeatedly until Max answers. He enters Bobbie’s room and she is sitting on the bed (a stranger is present too). Max and the stranger ask if he has killed McEachern and he says he does not know. Max then asks why he has come to the house and Christmas replies ‘in a tone of fainting amazement’ that he has come for Bobbie and has been home for the money to get married. She reacts angrily and accuses him of getting her into ‘a jam’; she says she has always treated him like a white man. She calls him ‘a nigger son of a bitch’ and he fights with the two men. The stranger hits him again whilst he is on the floor to see if ‘his blood is black’.
In Chapter Ten, Christmas is still lying on the floor and the others have left. Mame (referred to as the blonde woman) puts a sheaf of banknotes in his pocket as he lies there. He leaves town and enters ‘the street which was to run for fifteen years’. He travels to various states in this time and sleeps with different women. He pays them when he has the money, and tells them he is a ‘negro’ when he does not. He is usually cursed for this, but is beaten sometimes. This does not have the same effect in the North; when a woman said ‘what of it’ he beat her for her lack of concern. For two years after this, he is ‘sick’ as he did not know white women would ‘take a man with a black skin’. In the North, he lives with African Americans and lives as man and wife with ‘a woman who resembled an ebony carving.’
He then moves on again: ‘He thought that it was loneliness which he was trying to escape and not himself.’ The ‘street’ runs on until the age of 33 when he arrives at Jefferson and comes across Miss Burden’s house. He walks up to it and climbs in the kitchen window. The chapter ends with him eating field peas cooked with molasses, which remind him of his childhood. Miss Burden enters (although her name is not given) and says ‘if it is just food you want, you will find that’.
Chapter Eleven begins with a description of how Christmas perceives Miss Burden. In the candle light, she looks to be not much more than 30. She tells him later that she is 40 and he understands this may mean 41 or 49. After living in Jefferson for a year, he discovers she has an African-American lawyer and that she visits and advises African-American schools and colleges in the South. He understands he ‘won’t be bothered here’.
He goes to her bedroom at night and although she appears to resist him, she leaves the door to the kitchen unlocked and leaves food out for him. He thinks the dishes are ‘set out for the nigger’ and watches his hand pick up a dish and hurl it. He is working at the planing mill at this time and does not eat again until his pay day on Saturday: he does not visit her house for three days and eats at a restaurant when he is paid.
After six months, he has worn a path from his cabin to the mill and has no contact with her. In September, he is surprised to find her in his cabin. Her head is bare and sees her hair in the light for the first time. She tells him about herself and he thinks how she is like ‘all the rest of them’; ‘when they finally come to surrender completely, it’s going to be in words.’ Her story goes back to the 1860s and she talks about her grandfather, father and half-brother. Her grandfather and half-brother were killed by an ex-slave holder and the town think of her family as Yankees and carpetbaggers. Her father buried his son and father near the home and hid the graves. He also buried his first wife there when she died. She then explains how her mother (Joanna) was sent for him from New Hampshire. Christmas tells her (and has apparently told her before) that he knows nothing about his parents except that one was ‘part nigger’. She asks how he knows this and he says he does not and if he is not, he has ‘wasted a lot of time’.
Analysis – Chapters Nine, Ten, Eleven
When Christmas strikes back at McEachern, by hitting him with a chair in Chapter Nine, he feels that he is free of ‘honor and law’. He has broken from the law of this adoptive father and has liberated himself, for the short term, from authority.
It is made evident throughout the course of this novel, however, that Christmas is never free from the belief that he is African American in a racist white-dominated world. He leaves his home and travels the country and is unable to feel as though he belongs anywhere. This is referred to in Chapter Ten when the readers are told that he has mistakenly been thinking he is escaping loneliness and not himself. His sense of identity is made rotten with the combined beliefs that he is of mixed race and that this is unacceptable. He has internalized the racist ideologies with which he has been surrounded since he was a young boy.