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Free Barron's Booknotes-Light in August by William Faulkner-Free Notes
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Chapter 19 recounts Christmas's escape from custody, his pursuit by Percy Grimm, and his death and mutilation. It also introduces Gavin Stephens, who gives his interpretation of Christmas's behavior.

Faulkner begins this chapter with the town's speculation about Christmas's motivations during the events leading to his death. But he doesn't return to Christmas's point of view. So, like the town, you won't know for sure why Christmas acts as he does. But, unlike the town, you know what his thoughts and feelings had been before. In forming your opinion about Christmas's final hours, you will have to find your evidence both in the pattern of his whole life and in his mental state during the days after the murder.

The townspeople believe that Christmas, who had escaped, allowed himself to be cornered and killed, and they speculate about why. Gavin Stephens, the Harvard-educated district attorney, is talking to a visiting friend. First, he gives his opinion of Mrs. Hines's motivations. According to Stephens, she had lived without hope for thirty years. But the birth of Lena's child gave her a new feeling of hope, including the hope that she could save Christmas. If Stephens is right, then Hightower was not the only person restored to new life and hope by the birth of Lena's baby.

Stephens continues by explaining that Mrs. Hines visited Christmas in jail. He speculates that she encouraged him to take refuge with Hightower and that his escape from custody was a result of her suggestion. Stephens then explains Christmas's subsequent and seemingly contradictory actions as a conflict between his black and his white blood. In thinking about Stephens's explanation, remember that no one is certain that Christmas has black blood. Don't hesitate to be skeptical about Stephens's rather mechanical interpretation of Christmas.

Faulkner now goes back in time to the events immediately before Christmas's escape. Percy Grimm, a captain in the Mississippi National Guard, is trying to organize a group of American Legionnaires who will patrol Jefferson in order to prevent a lynching.

Grimm had always been unhappy that he had been born too late to serve in World War I.


When you read of Grimm's unshakable enthusiasm for the war he missed, keep in mind that many of the American writers of Faulkner's generation had been deeply disillusioned by that war. Though Faulkner himself had tried to fight in it, he later wrote Soldiers' Pay, a novel that reflects the common disillusionment.

When Grimm joined the National Guard, he felt that he had found his vocation. Faulkner says that Grimm's life then opened up before him like a "corridor." Remember that Faulkner had already associated Christmas with the orphanage corridor. So the association of Grimm with a corridor is the first hint of some similarity between him and Christmas.

The Legion commander doesn't like Grimm's idea. But Grimm, who believes that the uniformed white American is superior to all other men, convinces many of the Legionnaires to join him, and the sheriff reluctantly deputizes Grimm. Note the contrast between Grimm and the Jefferson sheriff. Grimm disdains the sheriff for taking time off to go home and eat. The sheriff seems a pragmatist, calm and commonsensical, a man with ordinary human appetites. Grimm, on the other hand, is described as "prophetlike"; he doesn't even go home to sleep. Is the religious imagery another link between Grimm and Christmas?

Grimm hears gunshots and senses immediately that Christmas has escaped. Without knowing where Joe has fled, he sets off in pursuit. Grimm's every move seems right, and Faulkner compares him to a chess piece moved by a seemingly infallible player. Are you reminded of the seemingly infallible certainty with which McEachern pursued Joe and Hines pursued his daughter, Milly?

Christmas enters Hightower's house, and Grimm follows with three other men behind him. They find Hightower with his face bleeding from Christmas's blows. Offering the alibi that he had previously refused to give Christmas, Hightower says that Christmas was with him the night of the murder. But Grimm shoots Christmas five times, then castrates him and yells, "Now you'll let white women alone." What do you think of Grimm's self-image as a patriot and opponent of lynching? Has this final act revealed his true racist motives, motives of which he himself may have been unaware? It may be significant that the killer of Christmas is a lone individual rather than a lynch mob from the community.


When Faulkner was eleven years old, Nelse Patton, a black man in Oxford, was accused of decapitating a white woman. Some people think that this murder was the source for Christmas's decapitation of Joanna Burden. But unlike Christmas, Patton died at the hands of the community. A mob urged on by a local politician took him from the jail. The jailers did little to stop the crowd, which shot Patton to death, then mutilated him horribly.

As Christmas's blood rushes from his body, he seems to become a permanent part of the memories of all the onlookers. In addition to trying to explain Joe's behavior in these last minutes of his life, you also have the perplexing problem of interpreting this description of his death. Is this passage a continuation of the analogy to Christ? Does it suggest that Christmas's metaphorical crucifixion gains a meaning and a value from its impact on the onlookers and the community? But, if so, why doesn't Faulkner tell what the impact on the community is?

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