Light in August begins with Lena Grove thinking of how she is already in Mississippi after being on the road for not quite a month. She is further from Doane’s Mill than she has been since she was 12 years old.
The narrative cuts back to her childhood and the reader is told that she only came to Doane’s Mill after the death of her parents. She was their youngest living child and her brother, McKinley, took her to his home after their father died. He works in the mill, as did all the men in the village, and he is 20 years her senior. At this time, Lena’s sister-in-law was either pregnant or recovering from having a child and so she helped with the housework.
Lena lived there for eight years ‘before she opened the window for the first time’. She leaves the home by the window to meet her lover and falls pregnant. When her brother notices, he calls her a whore and she insists that he (Lucas Burch, the father of the unborn child) will send for her as he promised even though he departed six months previously. She decides to leave home with few possessions and walks for four weeks asking strangers for her lover’s whereabouts.
On this ‘hot still pinewiney silence of the August afternoon’ she passes a wagon and two men talking. The narrative shifts to the men as Armstid makes Winterbottom an offer on his cultivator and Winterbottom rejects it. Armstid drives on and sees Lena sitting in a ditch. She is given a lift and neither show they have looked at each other fully. He has already noticed her pregnancy and the absence of her wedding ring, but mentions neither. She tells him she has come from Alabama and is looking for Lucas Burch; she has been told he might be in Jefferson.
Armstid wonders what his wife, Martha, will think, but still asks Lena if she would like to stay at his home that night. On their arrival, Martha is described as ‘the grey woman with a cold, harsh, irascible face’ and the five children she bore in six years are now all adult. Armstid has told her who Lena is looking for and she asks Lena if her name is Burch yet. Lena admits it is not and she defends Burch for leaving after she told him she was pregnant as she believes he was already worrying about finding another job. Martha looks at her with ‘cold and impersonal contempt’ and asks if she believes he will still be in Jefferson, if he ever was there, when he hears she is in the same town.
In her bedroom, Martha breaks open her ‘small china of effigy of a rooster’ which holds her savings from selling eggs. She tells Armstid to give the money to Lena in the morning and instructs him to take her to Jefferson if that is what she wants. He says she will be able to get a ride from Varner’s Store.
The next morning he drives her to the store and begins to advise Lena not to build her hopes up about Burch, but knows she will not listen. As he predicts, Varner tells her there is a man in the mill at Jefferson called Bunch. Varner asks how she knows if there is also a man named Burch there, but she stays calm and carries on believing she will find him. Whilst she waits for a lift, the men at the store think she is considering the journey and finding Burch, but instead she is only wondering about buying sardines with the money Martha gave her. When she comes out of the store, she is given a ride in a wagon and the chapter ends with Jefferson in sight. The driver points out the smoke coming from a house that is on fire.
Chapter Two begins in Jefferson with Byron Bunch remembering a stranger coming to the planer shed three years ago. He looked ‘rootless’, but not like a ‘professional hobo’. The man’s name is Joe Christmas and is described as having a ‘dark, insufferable face’; the other men wonder if he is a foreigner. Even after six months working at the mill, he still did not talk to his fellow workers. Few people know then that he sells whiskey or that he lives in ‘a tumble down negro cabin’ at Miss Burden’s place.
Six months ago another stranger appeared and the foreman (Mooney) described him as ‘a worthless horse’. This man calls himself Joe Brown, but Byron does not believe this to be his real name. Brown is given a job alongside Christmas shovelling sawdust and it is made evident that Brown is work shy and irritating. Both men are seen out together on Saturdays nights: Brown is seen laughing and talking as he does at work and Christmas is as sullen as ever. After almost three years in the job, Christmas leaves work without warning. On the following Monday, Brown works alone quietly and Mooney tells Byron how he has been seen selling whiskey in town and has seen Brown and Christmas together in a car on the previous day. Brown stops coming in to work on the Tuesday, but picks up the money he is owed.
It is now no longer a secret that Brown sells bootleg whiskey and the people of the town are just waiting for him to be caught. No one knows for certain at this point if Christmas is involved, but it is presumed so. They also do not know if Miss Burden is aware of these activities, but they would not tell her anyway. She is seen as ‘a stranger, a foreigner whose people moved in from the North during Reconstruction’. Even though it is sixty years since her grandfather and (half) brother were killed by an ex-slave owner, the people of the town have not forgotten her perceived allegiances.
The narrative shifts to Byron and explains how he is past 30, slight and non-descript, and works six days a week at the mill. Hightower, the former minister, is the only person who can speak with any certainty about Byron as they sit together and talk at night. Only he knows that Byron rides 30 miles into the country every Saturday evening and leads the choir in a church on the Sunday.
When Lena appears at the mill one Saturday afternoon, Byron unexpectedly falls in love. Her face falls when she realizes he is Bunch (and not Burch). He helps her sit down and she reveals, without saying it, that she has been betrayed and deserted. They look at the fire in the distance, which Byron believes is Miss Burden’s home, and he explains how some will see it as a judgement against her as, ‘folks say she claims that niggers are the same as white folks’. He informs her of Joe Christmas and Joe Brown who live near Miss Burden and reluctantly tells her, after she urges him, that some claim they sell whiskey. She asks for a description of Brown and he tells her about how he likes to play jokes on people. She asks if he has a white scar by his mouth (which he does). Byron feels as though he could have bitten out his own tongue for discussing Brown as it is apparent that this is Lucas Burch.
Analysis - Chapters One and Two
In the present day strand of the narrative, the scene is set in Chapter One as Lena Grove travels to Jefferson on a hot August day to find Lucas Burch, her former lover and the father of her unborn baby. Several other main characters, such as Byron Bunch, Joe Christmas and Hightower are also introduced and the readers are given a little background to the ostracism suffered by Miss Burden. Her sympathy for African Americans has been noted by the people of the town as has her family’s history of being affiliated to the Yankees. She is judged by this history and by the long memory of the town folk.
Byron dominates Chapter Two as his routine life is outlined and then it is implied that Lena’s sudden appearance changes it for ever as he falls in love with her. There is a sense of poignancy given to this abrupt alteration to his outlook as her face falls when she realizes that he is not the man she has been looking for.
Light in August: Novel Summary