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Free Barron's Booknotes-Light in August by William Faulkner-Free Notes
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CHAPTER SUMMARY AND NOTES

CHAPTER 20

Chapter 20 recounts Hightower's family background. You learn about his father and about the grandfather with whom Hightower is so preoccupied. At the end of the chapter, Hightower seems to have new insight into himself.

As twilight nears, Hightower is sitting by his study window as he usually does at this hour. He is remembering his life. He was an only child, born when his father was fifty. His mother had already been an invalid for twenty years. Hightower had often thought that his mother had become sick because she had not had enough to eat when his father had been away during the Civil War. His father was against slavery, and he refused not only to own slaves but also to eat food prepared by slaves. As a result, Hightower's mother had to depend for food on what she could grow herself in her garden.

You learn more about Hightower's family in this chapter. Is his father another mistreater of women? Later, you may find the father a rather sympathetic figure. But here, a bit like McEachern and perhaps like Hightower himself, he seems to care more about his absolute principles than about the welfare of a human being close to him.

Hightower's father was a minister. He joined the Confederate Army as a chaplain, not as a soldier. But Hightower's Episcopalian grandfather seems to have had an almost opposite personality from that of Hightower's Presbyterian father. The grandfather was fond of whiskey, cigars, and horse racing, never went to church, owned two slaves, had a coarse and lively sense of humor, and killed Union soldiers with gusto. The two men seem to have gotten along fairly well nonetheless. How do these two men compare to Joanna Burden's father and grandfather, or to Joe Christmas's grandfather and adoptive father? You may find Hightower's ancestors quite decent by comparison. Some readers think that Hightower's family represents Faulkner's view of the old, bygone South.


When Hightower's father came home from the Civil War, he became a doctor, a profession he learned during the war. Hightower remembers growing up with three phantoms and a ghost. The phantoms were his father, from whom he felt distant, his invalid mother, and Cinthy. Cinthy had been his grandfather's slave. She came to live with Hightower's father after both the grandfather and her own husband had been killed in the war.

The "ghost" was Hightower's grandfather. Hightower was fascinated by Cinthy's tales about his grandfather's heroic exploits in the Confederate Army. Remembering these tales, Hightower thinks that his own life ended with his grandfather's death, a death that had taken place even before Hightower had been born. Why was Hightower so willing to live in his memories of his grandfather rather than in the ongoing world around him? Even Joe Christmas didn't decisively withdraw from love and life until after a series of harsh experiences.

Hightower entered the seminary, intent on gaining a ministry in Jefferson, the town where his grandfather died. But he also saw the church as a shelter from "the harsh gale of living." Note that at this time he sought shelter not by isolating himself but by participating actively in a community institution. Hightower remembers that he had seen his future in the image of a vase. Compare this use of the vase or urn image to the way Faulkner uses it when discussing Lena and Christmas.

In the seminary Hightower met his future wife, then the daughter of a teacher. They had been courting for two years before Hightower ever saw her for who she was. Faulkner says that Hightower never saw her face but only a face he had created or learned from books about love. Faces will again be important later in this chapter. One night this woman spoke of marriage and of her desire to escape from the seminary. Hightower had not known until then of her desperate discontent. She planned a campaign to convince the church to send Hightower to Jefferson for his ministry. Hightower seemed somewhat disillusioned by the notion that he could not simply tell the church elders his honest reasons for wanting Jefferson.

After graduation Hightower got married. He seemed disappointed again to find that his marriage was rather passionless. Most of Hightower's disappointments seem to have come from his wife. Hightower's disappointing experiences with women are much milder than Joe Christmas's, but they nonetheless seem to show that his grandfather's memory was not his only formative influence.

Hightower remembers that, on the train to Jefferson with his new bride, he talked excitedly of his grandfather's death. His grandfather had been killed during a courageous raid behind Union lines. However, the grandfather wasn't killed by enemy bullets but rather by someone defending a henhouse when the hungry Confederate soldiers decided to take a few chickens. This passage also contains a hint that the house Hightower later bought in Jefferson was the one from which his grandfather had been shot.

Hightower seems to be reevaluating his life. He blames himself for ignoring the needs of his congregation and of his wife. He regards himself as his wife's murderer. He thinks that God cannot be blamed for everything. Compare this thought to Hines's and McEachern's feeling that they are instruments of God's will.

Hightower sees faces around him. They reflect him back to himself, and through that reflection he sees his grandfather more critically for what seems to be the first time. He also recognizes that he had been glad to be persecuted by the Jefferson townspeople, presumably because that persecution justified his withdrawal. He begins to make excuses for his behavior, then comes to a sudden insight. This insight isn't completely clear, but Hightower seems to be implicating his cherished grandfather in his wife's death. The idea seems to be that if he has let his own life be taken over by the memory of his grandfather, and if his wife died as a result of his absorption in that memory, then that remembered grandfather is a murderer too.

The wheel of faces that Hightower sees turns into a halo. He recognizes Joe Christmas's face in it. Then he sees that Christmas's face is blended with the face of Percy Grimm. Hightower feels that he is dying. Then, as he has heard every night at this hour, he hears once more the horses of his grandfather's cavalry galloping outside his window.

Helping Lena Grove changed Hightower's feelings about life, and his trying to help Joe seemed to indicate that he was no longer withdrawing from his obligations to other people. Does this final reverie imply that Hightower has come to some new and permanent insights about himself? If so, why does the reverie end with Hightower's imagining his grandfather's cavalry charge once more? Some readers think that Hightower has attained greater insight than the novel's other characters. But other readers think that Hightower remains mired in obsession or that, after attaining insight, he retreats into the obsession again.

NOTE:

For many years, readers assumed that Hightower dies here. But in an interview in the 1950s, Faulkner said that Hightower does not die. Most readers now agree that the novel gives you no way of knowing if Hightower dies, just as it gives you no way of knowing if Joe Christmas is part black. As you might imagine, the question of whether Hightower dies is not as important as the question of whether he achieves insight.

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