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Free Barron's Booknotes-Light in August by William Faulkner-Free Notes
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In this chapter we flash back to Joe Christmas's earliest memories of life in an orphanage. Faulkner describes a childhood incident that led to the discovery of Joe's possible black ancestry and to his adoption by Simon McEachern.


The words that begin this chapter ("Memory believes before knowing remembers") recall those that introduced Chapter 2 ("Byron Bunch knows this"). Such expressions seem to be cues indicating that Faulkner is starting to use the "heightened voice" of a character's deeper perceptions and feelings. Faulkner may be suggesting that he will go deeper into Christmas's inner mind than he did into Byron's in Chapter 2, beyond mere "knowing" into "memory." Christmas, Faulkner seems to be saying, does not necessarily even know that he has these memories, but they are part of him nonetheless.

Christmas's memories take him back to a corridor, the first of many long, narrow passageways you'll see him in. He is five years old. The corridor is in an orphanage. As he has already done many times before, Christmas is sneaking into the dietitian's room to sample some of her toothpaste. He likes the feminine colors and smells of the room. In fact they remind him of the sweet, sticky, pink toothpaste he enjoys.

But the dietitian comes back to her room before Christmas has finished eating. A young intern is with her. He talks her into making love, though she is afraid. The child doesn't know what the couple is doing and isn't even curious about them. But he knows that he must stay hidden among the dietitian's soft clothes in order to avoid being caught with the toothpaste. So, as the couple makes love, he eats more and more until he starts to feel sick. He sweats profusely, and then, after realizing that something is about to happen to him, he vomits. The dietitian hears him and wrongly accuses him of spying on her. She calls him a nigger.

This innocent child doesn't yet resemble the adult Christmas you've been introduced to. But Christmas's memories may have turned to the first event that helped produce the man who is about to commit murder. In Christmas's flight from Freedman Town, you have seen his revulsion from the soft, warm, and feminine. And now his memory has taken him back to an experience that combines all three of those qualities.

It's also an experience in which he waits passively for something to happen to him. Perhaps his memory has selected this experience because he's having that same fatalistic feeling as he walks toward Joanna Burden's house thirty-one years later.

The memories continue. The dietitian is desperately worried that the boy will tell on her. She doesn't realize that the innocent boy has nothing to tell. The only reason that he follows her around is that he expects her to punish him for eating the toothpaste and he wants to get the punishment over with. But by now the dietitian is almost insane with fear and anger.

She goes to the janitor, a mysterious man who arrived at the orphanage one month after Christmas had been left on the door step. Day after day, whenever the children are playing, the janitor sits staring at Christmas. The dietitian asks him if he knows Christmas's origins. She has noticed that the other children call Joe "nigger." The janitor sounds crazy. He calls Christmas a sign given by the Lord to condemn sin and fornication, and he rants against women, but he implies that Christmas is indeed black.

That night the janitor goes to the dietitian's room. Calling her "Jezebel" and "womanfilth," he asks what will happen when she tells the matron that Christmas is black. He is afraid that Christmas will be sent to the black orphanage.


In the Old Testament, Jezebel was a woman who urged the Israelites to turn to the idol-worshipping religion of Baal. Elijah prophesied that she would be killed, and his prophecy came true. By extension the term has come to refer to any shameless, impudent, or sexually unrestrained woman.

That night Christmas feels himself being carried away. He knows that the man carrying him is someone with whom he has a special bond, but he doesn't understand what that bond is. The man takes him to another orphanage, but three days later the police come to take Christmas back. Once more he seems to be passively experiencing a fate beyond his control.

By the time Christmas is returned to the original orphanage, the dietitian has told the matron about his mixed racial identity. The matron decides not to reveal this news and immediately seeks out someone to adopt Christmas. The man she finds is full of severe talk about hard work and the fear of God. He calls the name Christmas sacrilegious and insists that Christmas take his name, McEachern.

Along with the janitor, Simon McEachern is the second person in Christmas's life with a harsh religious outlook. Could there be any connection between Christmas's experiences with these two men and his complaint that Joanna shouldn't have prayed over him? You won't know for sure until later.

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