Light in August

Light in August Chapter 16 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Byron knocks on Hightower’s door, but gets no response. He finds Hightower sleeping in a deck chair in his small backyard, his hands folded peacefully over a book. Hightower wakes up and, slightly bewildered, greets Byron. Byron immediately tells Hightower that they have caught Christmas in Mottstown. Hightower accuses Byron of having helped Brown betray Christmas, dooming Christmas to death. He mocks Byron, calling him “the guardian of public weal and morality.” Then he begins to cry, saying he didn’t mean to insult him. Byron mentions Christmas’s grandmother, who was “lost for thirty years” but is now found.
Hightower’s highly emotional outburst suggests that he is in the midst of a kind of breakdown. His mocking of Byron suggests that the whole Christmas incident is perhaps reminding him of his own fall from grace many years before. He seems to believe it is absurd for Byron to be acting as the guardian of Jefferson’s morality. Byron is a deeply moral person, but he is also an outcast, and thus not someone bestowed with the authority to police the community’s norms.
Themes
Race, Gender, and Transgression Theme Icon
Freedom, Discipline, and Violence Theme Icon
Names and Identity Theme Icon
Strangers, Outcasts, and Belonging Theme Icon
Haunting and the Past Theme Icon
Waiting inside the house, Hightower listens to the gloomy music coming from church. He imagines the congregation walking into the church building, picturing exactly what they are doing. To him, the music contains the denial of pleasure that Protestantism demands, as well as the awful inescapability of history. He thinks about the people who will soon delight in “crucifying” Christmas. They cannot feel sympathy for Christmas because they do not feel it for themselves. He sees three people approach his gate, Byron and another man and woman. It is Mr. Hines and Mrs. Hines. Hightower thinks that they move mechanically, like puppets; Mr. Hines appears to be in a “coma.”
This passage contains important reflections on the impact of Protestantism on the community depicted in the novel. Hightower believes that Protestant culture means that people repress their own desire for pleasure, and that this energy instead comes out in cruelty and violence. His thesis is certainly supported by the events of the novel thus far.
Themes
Race, Gender, and Transgression Theme Icon
Freedom, Discipline, and Violence Theme Icon
Strangers, Outcasts, and Belonging Theme Icon
Haunting and the Past Theme Icon
Byron introduces them and encourages them to explain their situation. Mrs. Hines begins to, but Mr. Hines interrupts with another exclamation of “Bitchery and abomination!” Byron then explains that Christmas is their grandson, and that Mr. Hines took Christmas away as soon as he was born, so that their daughter (Milly) never knew if her son was alive or dead. Mr. Hines interrupts, talking about himself in the third person and recalling how the other children used to call Christmas “n_____.” Byron then explains that back in Mottstown, Mr. Hines had been encouraging the crowd to lynch Christmas. Mrs. Hines has been trying to stop this happening.
The fact that Mr. Hines wants his own grandson lynched simply because he believes he is black reveals the horrifying severity of racism at the time. Yet while it may seem exaggerated or unbelievable, Mr. Hines’s reaction actually represents a long history of similar behavior by white men. During slavery, white men regularly fathered (or grandfathered) black children who they then enslaved, tortured, and killed without remorse.
Themes
Race, Gender, and Transgression Theme Icon
Freedom, Discipline, and Violence Theme Icon
Names and Identity Theme Icon
Strangers, Outcasts, and Belonging Theme Icon
Haunting and the Past Theme Icon
Mrs. Hines adds that Mr. Hines has been getting into trouble for fighting ever since she has known him, and that she believes the devil is in him. Mr. Hines starts ranting again about how the man who got Milly pregnant claimed to be Mexican, but that he knew he was really black. The man worked in a circus that passed through Arkansas, where the Hineses lived at the time. Mr. Hines ended up shooting him dead and bringing Milly back home, claiming: “My wife has bore me a whore.” He smacked Milly and she fell to the floor. He tried to find a doctor who would give Milly an abortion, even beating up a doctor in another town in an attempt to force him to perform the procedure.
Again readers witness the triangulation of racism and sexism ruining the lives of the characters in the novel. Because Mr. Hines believes that Milly’s lover is black (the fact that he claims to be Mexican links him to Juana and the history of Joanna’s family), he becomes hysterical over the perceived act of racial and sexual transgression that he believes has taken place. This empties him of any sympathy or love for his daughter or grandchild.
Themes
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Freedom, Discipline, and Violence Theme Icon
Strangers, Outcasts, and Belonging Theme Icon
Haunting and the Past Theme Icon
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When it was time for Milly to give birth, Mr. Hines refused to call a doctor despite his wife’s pleas. When Mrs. Hines tried to go out for the doctor herself, Mr. Hines hit her with the barrel of his gun. Milly died in childbirth. When the baby was born, Mr. Hines lifted it up in the light and then disappeared. For a few months Mrs. Hines cared for the baby, who was named Joey, with no idea where her husband was. 
As soon as Milly became pregnant by a man Mr. Hines decided was black, he was effectively dead to her anyway. The fact that he allowed her to die in childbirth rather than fetching a doctor shows how racism completely overpowered any love he had for his daughter.
Themes
Race, Gender, and Transgression Theme Icon
Freedom, Discipline, and Violence Theme Icon
Strangers, Outcasts, and Belonging Theme Icon
Haunting and the Past Theme Icon
When Mr. Hines returned, he kidnapped the baby and disappeared again. He eventually came back the next month and told her he was working in Memphis, and Mrs. Hines desperately hoped one day he would take her there with him to see Joey. She even sewed clothes for Joey, hoping one day they would get him back. After five years, Mr. Hines moved the family to Mottstown, and told his wife that Joey was dead. Mrs. Hines asked if he meant Joey was dead to him, or if he was literally dead. Mr. Hines replied that Joey was dead in every sense of the word.
The tragedy of Mrs. Hines’s love for her grandchild is even more poignant due to the fact that Christmas grew up thinking he was unloved and alone in the world. In reality, he had a grandmother who loved him, yet who was separated from him due to the awful power of racism.
Themes
Race, Gender, and Transgression Theme Icon
Freedom, Discipline, and Violence Theme Icon
Strangers, Outcasts, and Belonging Theme Icon
Haunting and the Past Theme Icon
Mr. Hines then begins talking again in a half-crazed manner, speaking about God and the devil, describing himself (again in the third person) as God’s “chosen instrument.” He says that he took the baby to an orphanage and got a job there. The orphanage staff decided to call the baby Christmas; Mr. Hines believed God spoke to him and told him this name was sacrilegious. He says he put the word of God into the heads of the “innocent” white children in the orphanage, and watched as they started calling Christmas “n_____.” He mentions that the “fornications of a slut” (the dietician’s affair with Charley) unexpectedly became part of God’s plan for him.
Here it becomes clear that the janitor from the orphanage is Mr. Hines. The obsessive nature of Hines’s racism is revealed by the fact that he made the effort to get a job at the orphanage and watch Christmas for years—not out of a sense of love, but of hatred. In this sense, racism destroyed Hines’s life (as well as Christmas’s), because he did not care about anything else. His whole life became maniacally devoted to surveilling Christmas and making sure others came to believe he was black.
Themes
Race, Gender, and Transgression Theme Icon
Freedom, Discipline, and Violence Theme Icon
Names and Identity Theme Icon
Strangers, Outcasts, and Belonging Theme Icon
Haunting and the Past Theme Icon
When Christmas was finally taken away to be adopted, Hines heard the voice of God telling him that he had done his duty and could now go back to Mottstown. After a pause, Hightower asks what they want him to do. Slowly and timidly, Mrs. Hines asks if Christmas might be let out just for one day. Hightower becomes impatient and demands that she speak faster. Mrs. Hines continues that if she can just spend one day with Christmas, she will step aside and let him be punished. Hightower becomes incensed, asking if they want him to go plead guilty to the murder himself. 
This is one of the moments in the novel where the narrative most obviously resembles a religious parable. Christmas is like Christ about to be crucified, and Mrs. Hines is Mary, desperate to get a final moment with her (grand)son before the execution that she is powerless to stop.
Themes
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Freedom, Discipline, and Violence Theme Icon
Strangers, Outcasts, and Belonging Theme Icon
Haunting and the Past Theme Icon
Byron points out that the only evidence anyone has that Christmas is guilty is Brown’s statement. He suggests that Hightower could say that Christmas was with him that night, and that every time Brown saw Christmas going to Joanna’s house he was actually coming to see Hightower. Byron thinks that the community would be prepared to believe this story, rather than the more scandalous truth that Christmas was having an affair with Joanna and then killed her. Hightower is so furious that he begins to shake. He shouts that he refuses, standing up and demanding that they get out of his house. Byron and the Hineses leave. After they go, Hightower collapses onto his desk.
Again, Hightower is not acting in a particularly Christian or ministerial way. He selfishly remains fixated on himself and the consequences of helping Christmas and Mrs. Hines on his own life. The fact that the narrative becomes a sort of religious parable in this moment further confirms that Hightower is neglecting his moral duty as a supposed Christian.
Themes
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