Reverend Hightower muses on his past and the lives of his father and grandfather. His grandfather was a slave-owning lawyer who understood neither his son’s abolitionist stance nor his desire, from his teen years, to preach to rural congregations. When Hightower’s father was married, his grandfather ceded the house and property to his son. Hightower’s father went off to fight in the Civil War, but he did not empathize with the South’s cause and never fired a gun during the entire four years of his service. Instead, he learned to be a medic and became a doctor at the end of the conflict. Hightower’s grandfather was killed during a raid on Jefferson during the war; Hightower remembers, as a boy, looking at his grandfather’s gray Confederate uniform with its mysterious blue patch.
Hightower was raised in the presence of these phantoms of the past—his father, mother, grandfather, and the slave woman his grandfather had owned until the war. Hightower entered the seminary and later married, intent on being given a church in Jefferson. Eventually, this goal did come to pass. Hightower then muses on his wife’s indiscretions and his own fall from grace, wondering whether he used his wife as means of gaining a foothold in the town of Jefferson. As his thoughts race ahead, Hightower sees the faces of those who constitute his world and sees the “other” face of Christmas, the goodness in it, that had lain hidden from the world for so long. Hightower feels he is dying as he imagines he hears the thundering cavalry charge of his grandfather’s company sweeping by.
A furniture dealer tells his wife of an incident that occurred during a recent trip to Mississippi. He recalls how he met Byron, Lena, and the baby, who are in search of a ride to no specific destination—just farther down the road. When they stop for the night, the couple asks to sleep in the bed of the truck. Around the campfire, the man learns that the baby is not Byron’s and that the couple is searching for another, unnamed man. When it comes time to go to sleep, Lena climbs into the truck. When Byron tries to climb in beside her, she spurns his advances and sends him off by the fire. Instead, Byron disappears and does not return the next morning. Calmly, Lena packs up and continues along with the driver. Eventually, Byron appears beside the road, and the truck slows to pick him up. Riding side by side, two wanderers, not necessarily searching for anyone or anything, travel deeper and deeper into Tennessee. Lena muses that she has been farther in the past two months than in her entire life up to that point.
In a symbolic gesture of acceptance and return, Hightower assists Lena when she goes into labor. By this simple act, he is finally able to reach out beyond his parochial, self-contained world and “minister” to a member of the community in need. Despite the beatings and the scorn visited on him, despite the struggle for self-acceptance, he finally reclaims the dignity and pride that eluded him and is finally able to make peace with his troubled past. Through Hightower’s subsequent musings on and recollections of his family history, Faulkner widens the scope of his inquiry to take in the powerful historical forces that have gripped and shaped the South. In a novel whose main characters are haunted and dogged by their personal pasts, the pressure and influence of a commonly shared historical past is often overlooked. Faulkner thus gives the inherent schism that divides Hightower—and the other characters—yet another dimension and source.
Just as there is no one definable cause of Joe Christmas’s troubled existence, nor is there one for Hightower’s troubles; instead, a complex combination of influences emerges. The South’s historical past, fraught with division and bloodshed, is only one of many spheres shaping the unstable present with which the characters are saddled. Hightower’s inherently divided self can be traced in part to his forebears—in particular his father, who fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War despite being strongly opposed to Southern principles and never firing his gun in battle. Hightower views this basic dichotomy as “proof enough that [his father] was two separate and complete people, one of whom dwelled by serene rules in a world where reality did not exist.” Hightower thus finds familial and historical sources to explain—at least in part—his own duality, disunity, and emotional unrest. He is emblematic of the individual who is framed and contextualized by society while at the same time outside its influence—the individual who consciously and unconsciously absorbs and deflects the historical and social forces surrounding him.
The novel’s final chapter marks another departure. With Miss Burden and Christmas dead, and Reverend Hightower sliding slowly into the grip of his own death, Jefferson is vacated. The focus shifts again to the wanderings of Lena. As is fitting for the novel’s cyclical nature—its inherent structure of repetition and variation—she is once again on the road, only this time joined by her newborn and Byron. Perhaps the most notable aspect of the novel’s conclusion, though, is that it is narrated by a new presence, a nameless furniture dealer who has picked up the ragtag hitchhiking family in its quest to get to Tennessee. This gesture—this addition of yet another character essentially tangential to the narrative—is Faulkner’s final commentary on the chorus of voices that have collectively formulated the backdrop of his characters’ lives and personal struggles. What remains in the end are those who turn from experience and those who actively seek it. Rather than resist a rootless, itinerant, and still-to-be-defined life, Lena welcomes her wandering, her ongoing search for her place in the world despite the suffering and challenges she may meet along the way. Rather than fight this fate, as Joe Christmas did, she embraces it, heading into the unknown future with a new life and a new love in tow.