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CHAPTER SUMMARY AND NOTES
This chapter describes two crucial incidents in Joe's life with the McEacherns. In the first, he defies his foster father and endures the punishment. In the second, he is about to have his first sexual experience but resorts to violence instead.
Joe Christmas remembers the day when, he believes, he became a man....
He is eight years old. Simon McEachern is standing over him and accusing him of not even trying to learn his catechism (lessons in religious doctrine). McEachern says that he will give Joe a second hour. Exactly on the dot of the hour, he asks again if Joe has learned the lesson. When Joe say's he hasn't, McEachern takes him to the stable to beat him. Joe puts the book he has been studying on the ground. McEachern scolds Joe for believing that a stable floor is a proper place for the word of God. What do you think of this remark? Faulkner may be making an ironic comment about McEachern's attitude to religion, since, of course, Jesus was born in a manger.
McEachern beats Joe again after the third hour. After the fourth hour, Joe collapses and in the late afternoon, awakens in his bedroom. McEachern orders Joe to kneel with him in prayer. Then he gives Joe the book yet one more time.
You will want to remember this incident when you read of Christmas's relationship with Joanna Burden. You already know that she made the mistake of praying over him. But even before you learn more about Joanna, you can ask yourself whether Christmas is right in believing that this day was the moment he became a man. You could argue that standing up to McEachern is Joe's first act of self-assertion, and a dramatic change from the passivity of his childhood. But you could also argue that the change is not as great as it first seems. Joe's self-assertion has a passive and fatalistic quality. He defies McEachern by accepting a punishment that both of them regard as inevitable. Perhaps Joe's interaction with McEachern forms him into the man he is to be henceforth. But is that a manhood he should be proud of? Note that Joe seems to be developing the same hard, stubborn personality as that of the adoptive father he is defying.
Lying in bed after McEachern leaves, Joe realizes that he has not eaten all day. You might expect him to be glad when Mrs. McEachern brings food. But he just smashes the dishes on the floor. Only after the old woman has left, does he get down on the floor and gobble up the remains.
Christmas's hostility to women's attempts at kindness has begun. This incident with Mrs. McEachern might also remind you of Christmas's angry refusal of Byron Bunch's kind offer of lunch when the two first met. Because Light in August makes many of its points by comparing and contrasting different characters, compare Christmas's rejection of generosity to Lena's ready acceptance of Armstid's offer of a place to stay, food, and even money.
Christmas is now fourteen years old. He and four friends are taking turns having sex with a black girl. But when his turn comes, he doesn't approach her sexually. He feels revolted, as he did when he ate the toothpaste, and he kicks and beats her. Then the fight turns into a free-for-all between him and his friends. When he gets home, he knows he will be beaten, not because he has done anything, but because McEachern always beats him regardless of what he's done.
You have already noticed the possible religious significance of Christmas's name. In this chapter Faulkner uses a variety of religious terms to describe Christmas. He describes him as being like a monk, like a Catholic choir boy, and like a hermit. Faulkner seems to be underlining the calm pleasure the boy takes in suffering. Is he giving Christmas a certain grandeur with these comparisons? Or is he instead subtly criticizing some aspects of religion? Christmas seems to experience the exalted suffering of monks and hermits without their higher purpose.
Christmas is now eighteen years old. McEachern notices that a cow he had given Christmas is missing. Joe admits to having sold the cow. McEachern asks if he has given the money to his adoptive mother for safekeeping. Saying yes, Joe tells McEachern what appears to be his first lie. McEachern confronts Joe with a suit that Joe has bought with the money from the cow. Then he punches Joe in the face. Remember that you have already seen the grown-up Christmas hitting people in the face. Did he learn this habit from the upright Christian, McEachern?
The chapter ends by further exploring Joe's relationship with his adoptive mother. Lying in bed, he remembers that when he first arrived, she wanted to carry him into the house but he wouldn't let her. He enjoyed it when she washed his feet and put him to bed, but he also felt uncomfortable because he kept waiting for the punishment that he expected. He prefers what he calls the "hard" justice of men to the "soft kindness" of women. The latter, he thinks, is aimed at trying to get him to cry.
Joe seems to be feeling some sympathy for his adoptive mother. He is not yet as "hard" as he will come to be. Some see his rejection of Mrs. McEachern as a necessary assertion of autonomy (independence), whereas others see it as a denial of basic human feelings of love. Perhaps Christmas faces a tragic choice in which he can only achieve autonomy from his mother by denying himself her love. You may have felt a similar confusion about your own parents at one time or another.