novel’s protagonist, also known as Joe Hines or Joe McEachern. In
his first appearance in the novel, Joe is a young man in his early
thirties, dressed in creased serge trousers, a soiled white shirt
and tie, and a stiff-brimmed straw hat. A wanderer, he has a rootless, overly
independent quality to him that others frequently misinterpret as
ruthlessness, loneliness, or pride. Biracial, he is often mistaken
for—and “passes” for—a white man. Silent, unfriendly, and brooding,
his face consistently projects a cold and quiet look of contempt.
Complex, conflicted, and multifaceted, Joe overtly sabotages the
little happiness that he is able to find for himself and consistently
waylays any of his own attempts to find a place of belonging. Ultimately, this
in-depth analysis of Joe Christmas.
pregnant teenager from Alabama. Orphaned at twelve, Lena comes to
Jefferson on foot and by hitching rides on wagons along the way
from her home outside Doane’s Mills. Inexperienced in the ways of
the world, she is determined to find the man, Lucas Burch, who made
her pregnant and left her behind with the promise he would eventually
send for her. “Young, pleasantfaced, candid, friendly, and alert,”
Lena is an easygoing presence who seems unconcerned about her unsettled
status in life.
in-depth analysis of Lena Grove.
Reverend Gail Hightower
A defrocked minister in Jefferson. Tall, overweight,
with skin the color of “flour sacking,” Hightower was once the minister
of one of the town’s major churches. He sought the post because
his grandfather, a Confederate cavalryman, was gunned down in Jefferson
while stealing chickens. Described as a “fifty-year-old outcast,”
he was forced to step down after his promiscuous wife died in a
fall from a hotel window in Memphis. Refusing to leave Jefferson, Hightower
lives as a recluse, displaying his toughness and tenacity in withstanding
the gossip, meddling, coercion, and eventual beatings he suffers
at the hands of the town residents who had hoped to drive him off.
in-depth analysis of Reverend Gail Hightower.
mill worker in Jefferson and the man who is initially misidentified
to Lena as Lucas Burch, the father of her baby. In his thirties,
hardworking, and devout, Bunch leads a quietly regimented life—working
six days a week and then directing the choir of a rural church—that
has continued uninterrupted in the same routine for years. His life
drastically shifts, however, when he meets the young, pregnant Lena, whose
vulnerability and plight trigger his natural instinct to protect
and selflessly help others.
in-depth analysis of Byron Bunch.
Joe Brown (a.k.a. Lucas Burch)
A gambler, bootlegger, and con artist. Young and
tall, with a distinctive white scar beside his mouth, Joe Brown
first appears in dirty overalls in search of work at the mill. Lazy,
yet alert to any situation he can turn to his advantage, Joe moves
in a confident swagger but has the tendency to jerk his head to
the side and to look periodically over his shoulder. A known liar
and exaggerator, his shady past and questionable dealings make him
an object of mockery and even contempt in the eyes of those who can
see through his veneer of self-satisfaction and confidence.
reclusive lifelong resident of Jefferson. Born and raised in the
house where she still lives on the outskirts of town, Miss Burden
is still considered a northerner, as her family relocated to the
South after Reconstruction. Her grandfather and brother, who supported
voting rights for blacks, were killed by a local man, Colonel Sartoris,
in an infamous incident that town residents still recount. Subject
to rumors and said to have had sexual relations with black men,
Miss Burden corresponds with and advises the faculties, trustees, and
students of various black colleges in the South, occasionally traveling
to the campuses to meet with them in person.
Joe Christmas’s foster father. Mr. McEachern is a
thick-bodied man with a closely cropped brown beard and cold, light-colored
eyes. Stern and devout, his religiosity borders on fanaticism and
far outweighs the limited reserves of kindness and sympathy that
he is able to muster. Blinded by his extreme faith and belief in
divine retribution, he displays a marked contempt for humanity and
the folly and sin of others. He upholds that hard labor, self-sacrifice,
self-denial, and personal suffering are the hallmarks of a life
lived in an upstanding and staunchly moral manner. However, he is
prone to violence, and his unyielding and authoritarian presence
compromises his essential humanity and ultimately provokes the homicidal
rage of his foster son.
Christmas’s foster mother. Mrs. McEachern is a timid, hunched woman
with a weather-beaten face that makes her look considerably older
than her husband. A silent, cringing, somewhat invisible presence
in the family, she tries to earn her son’s love and respect by countering
her husband’s violence with excessive doting and kindness. She also
attempts to forge a closer bond with her adopted son by creating and
indulging in secrets that only the two of them share.
Mr. Hines (a.k.a. Uncle Doc)
Joe Christmas’s biological grandfather. Uncle Doc
is an unkempt, angry, and spiteful man whose violence and extreme
behavior have landed him in jail more than once. Infamous for his
crazed ravings, he uses his religious fundamentalism to justify
his implicit belief in white superiority. His extreme, unyielding
sense of right and propriety pollutes his better intentions, causing
him to punish and betray those who are closest to him. He shuffles around
in a near-catatonic state that is interrupted only by his boisterous
attempts to incite the residents of first Mottstown and then Jefferson
to lynch his grandson.
Christmas’s biological grandmother. Short, obese, and round-faced,
Mrs. Hines is a shadow figure whom few in town recognize, even though
she has lived there for years. She is eccentric and emotional, and
her tenuous grasp on reality is compromised when the grandson she
thought was dead is charged with the murder of Miss Burden. Mrs.
Hines’s passivity and deference to her husband have led to a series
of tragedies—mistakes she desires to make up for only when it is
dietician at the orphanage. Insecure and spiteful, she allows her
paranoia and fear stoke her racist attitudes and vengeful nature.
In order to exorcise the guilt she feels at her own sexual indiscretions,
she alerts the matron to young Joe Christmas’s biracial background,
thus speeding his adoption and removal from the orphanage.
prostitute passing for a waitress at the diner in Jefferson. Crude
and earthy, with large hands, Bobbie brings her Memphis street smarts
to Max and Mame’s seedy restaurant, where she seduces Joe Christmas
and takes advantage of his inexperience and naïveté.