Light in August

Joanna’s House Symbol Analysis

Joanna’s House Symbol Icon

The major symbol in Light in August is the house where Joanna Burden lives alone in Jefferson. Joanna is descended from multiple generations of Northern abolitionists who have lived in Jefferson for a long time, and yet who were treated as “strangers” and “enemies” due to their sympathy for black people. This remains true for Joanna even though she was born in Jefferson and has never lived anywhere else. The house where Joanna was born and continues to live thus represents her status as an outsider in her own hometown. Moreover, it also significant due to the scandal of Joanna living there alone. As an unmarried “spinster,” Joanna is automatically outcast from mainstream Jefferson society, yet is also treated with suspicion due to the fact that she lives by herself. As a young, unnamed black boy explains, she is safe in the house because the local black people look after her—a further source of scandal.

The social transgression denoted by the house is intensified when Joe Christmas (and later Joe Brown) moves into the cabin on Joanna’s property. Christmas and Joanna’s unconventional and scandalous romantic relationship is symbolized by the fact that Christmas lives on the property but not in the house. The ways he enters the house become significant and highly charged—first only through the kitchen (which places Christmas in the symbolic role of a black servant or slave), and then according to particular instructions Joanna sets out for him. In a way, Christmas’s crossing the threshold of entering the house is a kind of sexual metaphor, and Joanna’s specification of how he does this highlights the level of control she has over their relationship, which according to the strict gender codes of the time is deemed unnatural.

The novel indicates that this transgression is doomed to result in a chaotic climax. This takes place when Christmas brutally murders Joanna inside the house and then sets the house on fire. The fire burns for a long time, attracting crowds, and the glow from the flames is one of the meanings of the “light in August” mentioned in the book’s title. The destruction of the house via fire represents the desire to purge the evidence of transgressions. However, as the book makes clear, such purging is never really possible because the past is never really gone, but rather lingers with a haunting presence.

Joanna’s House Quotes in Light in August

The Light in August quotes below all refer to the symbol of Joanna’s House. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Race, Gender, and Transgression Theme Icon
). Note: all page numbers and citation info for the quotes below refer to the Vintage edition of Light in August published in 1990.
Chapter 2 Quotes

She has lived in the house since she was born, yet she is still a stranger, a foreigner whose people moved in from the North during Reconstruction.

Related Characters: Joanna Burden
Related Symbols: Joanna’s House
Page Number: 46
Explanation and Analysis:
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Chapter 13 Quotes

He was not yet thinking of himself as having been frustrated by a human agent. It was the fire. It seemed to him that the fire had been selfborn for that end and purpose. It seemed to him that that by and because of which he had had ancestors long enough to come himself to be, had allied itself with crime.

Related Characters: The Sheriff
Related Symbols: Joanna’s House
Page Number: 290
Explanation and Analysis:
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Joanna’s House Symbol Timeline in Light in August

The timeline below shows where the symbol Joanna’s House appears in Light in August. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 1
Race, Gender, and Transgression Theme Icon
Freedom, Discipline, and Violence Theme Icon
Strangers, Outcasts, and Belonging Theme Icon
...she must be having twins. They arrive in Jefferson, and the driver points to a house burning in the distance. (full context)
Chapter 2
Names and Identity Theme Icon
Strangers, Outcasts, and Belonging Theme Icon
...falls in love. It is Saturday afternoon, and Byron is alone at the mill. The house in the distance is still burning. Lena Grove approaches, and he can see the disappointment... (full context)
Race, Gender, and Transgression Theme Icon
Freedom, Discipline, and Violence Theme Icon
Names and Identity Theme Icon
Strangers, Outcasts, and Belonging Theme Icon
Byron helps make Lena more comfortable, and they discuss the burning house in the distance. Byron explains that Joanna lives there by herself, and that she is... (full context)
Chapter 4
Race, Gender, and Transgression Theme Icon
Freedom, Discipline, and Violence Theme Icon
Strangers, Outcasts, and Belonging Theme Icon
Haunting and the Past Theme Icon
That same Sunday night, Byron tells Hightower about meeting Lena. They then discuss the burning house. Byron tells Hightower that Joe Brown and Joe Christmas lived in a cabin on the... (full context)
Race, Gender, and Transgression Theme Icon
Names and Identity Theme Icon
Strangers, Outcasts, and Belonging Theme Icon
Haunting and the Past Theme Icon
...about Lena confronting Brown in the crowd of people who had gathered to watch Joanna’s house burn. (full context)
Race, Gender, and Transgression Theme Icon
Freedom, Discipline, and Violence Theme Icon
Strangers, Outcasts, and Belonging Theme Icon
...life of “hard work and celibacy.” He explains that he took Lena to the boarding house, and when they got there, she asked about the things local men were saying about... (full context)
Race, Gender, and Transgression Theme Icon
Freedom, Discipline, and Violence Theme Icon
Names and Identity Theme Icon
Strangers, Outcasts, and Belonging Theme Icon
...in town. He asked if she could stay one or two nights at the boarding house while she waited. Byron at first offered his room, but Mrs. Beard said she could... (full context)
Race, Gender, and Transgression Theme Icon
Freedom, Discipline, and Violence Theme Icon
Strangers, Outcasts, and Belonging Theme Icon
...is part black. He continues to explain that the man who originally discovered that Joanna’s house was burning saw that Brown—who was drunk—hadn’t even noticed. The man then went inside the... (full context)
Race, Gender, and Transgression Theme Icon
Freedom, Discipline, and Violence Theme Icon
Strangers, Outcasts, and Belonging Theme Icon
Haunting and the Past Theme Icon
...added that Christmas was “mad” and had previously threatened to kill him. After setting Joanna’s house on fire, Christmas told Brown: “I’ve done it.” (full context)
Chapter 5
Race, Gender, and Transgression Theme Icon
Freedom, Discipline, and Violence Theme Icon
Strangers, Outcasts, and Belonging Theme Icon
...me?” He stays outside until the clock strikes midnight, then sets off for the burning house. (full context)
Chapter 10
Race, Gender, and Transgression Theme Icon
Names and Identity Theme Icon
Strangers, Outcasts, and Belonging Theme Icon
Haunting and the Past Theme Icon
...Mississippi, to a town whose name he doesn’t care to know. He sees a big house, old and rather dilapidated, and decides to go there to ask for some food. Before... (full context)
Race, Gender, and Transgression Theme Icon
Freedom, Discipline, and Violence Theme Icon
Strangers, Outcasts, and Belonging Theme Icon
Haunting and the Past Theme Icon
Christmas takes a nap in some shrubbery 100 yards away from the house, and at 10 pm he finally approaches it. He is surprised to find that the... (full context)
Chapter 11
Race, Gender, and Transgression Theme Icon
Freedom, Discipline, and Violence Theme Icon
Strangers, Outcasts, and Belonging Theme Icon
Haunting and the Past Theme Icon
Christmas only ever enters the house during the day to eat food Joanna prepares for him in the kitchen. At night,... (full context)
Race, Gender, and Transgression Theme Icon
Freedom, Discipline, and Violence Theme Icon
Haunting and the Past Theme Icon
...so. He goes to leave, carrying his only possession—a razor—but finds himself walking toward Joanna’s house instead. (full context)
Race, Gender, and Transgression Theme Icon
Freedom, Discipline, and Violence Theme Icon
Strangers, Outcasts, and Belonging Theme Icon
Haunting and the Past Theme Icon
Christmas finds the main door of the house locked. The kitchen door remains unlocked, which he feels is an “insult.” He looks at... (full context)
Race, Gender, and Transgression Theme Icon
Strangers, Outcasts, and Belonging Theme Icon
Haunting and the Past Theme Icon
...properly for the first time, explaining that she is 41 and was born in the house where she still lives. She has never left Jefferson for more than six months, and... (full context)
Chapter 12
Race, Gender, and Transgression Theme Icon
Freedom, Discipline, and Violence Theme Icon
Strangers, Outcasts, and Belonging Theme Icon
...of secrecy and “intrigue,” and she leave notes for Christmas instructing him to enter the house only at certain times or through certain ways. Sometimes she insists that they have sex... (full context)
Race, Gender, and Transgression Theme Icon
...putting it off. One day he finds a note from Joanna summoning him to the house that night. Without intending to, he prepares himself like a “bridegroom” and goes to join... (full context)
Race, Gender, and Transgression Theme Icon
Strangers, Outcasts, and Belonging Theme Icon
...says: “See you in the morning,” mentally daring Brown to watch him go into Joanna’s house. (full context)
Race, Gender, and Transgression Theme Icon
Freedom, Discipline, and Violence Theme Icon
Strangers, Outcasts, and Belonging Theme Icon
Haunting and the Past Theme Icon
...and makes a “gleeful,” snarky comment of realization about Christmas’ late night trips to the house. Christmas immediately hits him, and Brown protests, alarmed. Christmas hits him again and Brown flees,... (full context)
Race, Gender, and Transgression Theme Icon
Freedom, Discipline, and Violence Theme Icon
Haunting and the Past Theme Icon
...before he goes to see her. One day Christmas goes to see her in the house and finds her praying. He is disturbed and tells her to stop, but she ignores... (full context)
Chapter 13
Race, Gender, and Transgression Theme Icon
Freedom, Discipline, and Violence Theme Icon
Strangers, Outcasts, and Belonging Theme Icon
Haunting and the Past Theme Icon
As soon as Joanna’s house is discovered to be on fire, people gather from all around to watch it burn.... (full context)
Chapter 14
Freedom, Discipline, and Violence Theme Icon
Strangers, Outcasts, and Belonging Theme Icon
...not eaten since Friday. He has lost track of the days since he fled Joanna’s house. At one point he knocked on the door of a cabin and asked the woman... (full context)
Chapter 16
Race, Gender, and Transgression Theme Icon
...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... (full context)