After a time, McEachern notices that Joe’s suit has been worn and realizes that his son is sneaking out at night. One night, he watches as Joe slithers down the rope outside his window and is picked up by a car. Hitching his team, McEachern is guided almost instinctively to the schoolhouse, where a dance is being held. He bursts in on the scene, calling Bobbie a harlot, and begins beating his son, who smashes a chair over his father’s head, killing him.
Joe rides his father’s horse back to the house, where he takes all the money his mother had been saving, hidden in a tin beneath a floor plank. Eventually abandoning the fatigued horse, Joe runs to Max and Mame’s house, where Bobbie is packed and ready to return to Memphis. Another man, a stranger, is present as well. The men ask Joe whether he thinks he has actually killed his foster father. Bobbie curses him for getting her into a potentially compromising situation and threatening Max and Mame’s prostitution business. Joe takes his mother’s money out and gives it to Bobbie as his proposal of marriage. She throws the offering back at him and calls him a “nigger son of a bitch.” The men set on him, beating him until Mame finally stops them.
As Joe lies semiconscious on the floor, the group moves about him, discussing whether they should take the money that he tried to give Bobbie. Mame puts some of her own money in Joe’s pocket, and the group pulls off in the car, leaving him behind. Badly beaten, Joe eventually regains full consciousness and manages to get out onto the street and out of town.
For the next fifteen years, Joe wanders, hitching rides and working in oil towns and wheat fields as a laborer, miner, and prospector. Finally, he enlists in the army and then deserts. He patronizes prostitutes, eventually making a habit of telling them afterward of his black ancestry in an attempt not to pay. For a short time, he settles down among blacks and lives with a dark-skinned woman for a while. Eventually his wanderings bring him to Jefferson, where he presses a local boy for details about Miss Burden’s property. Waiting until nightfall, he slips into the kitchen through an open window and, famished, eats some leftover field peas. When he hears Miss Burden approach, he does not flee. When she appears, she tells him calmly that he is free to finish his meal.
Though they are lovers, Joe and Miss Burden have a strange and distant relationship. They talk little. She leaves food on the kitchen table for him but rarely visits him when he comes in to eat. During the day, Joe never ventures beyond the kitchen, though at night he sneaks up to Miss Burden’s bedroom, where she waits for him. Joe, however, is repulsed and threatened by her strength, fortitude, and independence, which he views as overly masculine qualities. When she sets out a full meal for him, Joe enters the house and smashes the dishes against the wall, as he did with his foster mother.
After getting a job at the mill, Joe continues to live in the cabin but neither enters the main house nor sees Miss Burden for months. One September evening, he returns to the cabin to find her seated on his cot. She tells him her life story, going on for hours. She tells of the various generations buried on the property, including her grandfather and brother, who were killed by a local man, Colonel Sartoris, over a disagreement concerning black voting rites. When Miss Burden finishes and it is Joe’s turn to speak, all he is able to reveal is that one of his anonymous parents was part black.
Though there is no genetic or biological connection linking the two men, McEachern inadvertently makes Joe over in his own image: detached, emotionally frigid, and prone to violence. McEachern plays the role of avenging angel, using beatings and violence to impose his extreme, self-righteous brand of moral certitude and divine justice on those around him. Supposedly pious and upstanding, in reality he has virtually no compassion. Like the other characters, he is a multifaceted, contradictory presence, self-deluded in believing that he is “just and rocklike” but blind to his less redeeming qualities—his cruelty, fanaticism, and sanctimonious contempt for mankind. Closed, aloof, unyielding, and intractable, he earns his foster son’s respect through his displays of unshakable inner strength and extremeness of resolve. In reality, however, this respect masks a deep, unrecognized hate that bursts forth in Joe only in the final, fatal blow the night at the dance.
Faulkner references the nature-vs.-nurture debate—the question of whether behavior stems from genetically determined factors or environmental influences—in his examination of Joe’s childhood at the McEacherns. Joe’s murderous, sociopathic impulses can be traced, if indirectly, to the world of violence and retribution in which he was raised. McEachern’s sense of a moral code of behavior, guided by Christian justice and values, is little more than cruelty and corporal punishment. It clearly rubs off on his son: shortly after killing McEachern, Joe lunges at Max and his colleague “with something of the exaltation of his adopted father.” In a way, he has replaced the dead man, stepping into his role of angry and brutal avenger.
Yet Faulkner does not seat his characters in a tidy world of moral absolutes, and we cannot label Joe’s upbringing as the sole cause of his vagrancy and criminal activity. Joe himself also plays an active role in seeking his own demise and self-destruction. The presence of Mrs. McEachern, a manipulative but essentially kind foil to her mean-spirited husband, complicates the notion that Joe is exclusively a neglected and abused victim lashing out at the world that spurned him. Joe views his foster mother’s love—a potential source of the comfort and acceptance that he has never known—as an oppressive burden, an emotional obligation he can never return or acknowledge. Nor is Mr. McEachern an extreme or absolute portrait of the abusive, impossible-to-please parent. When Joe works hard, his father rewards his diligence by giving Joe his own calf. Moreover, as Joe grows up, McEachern gradually cuts a wider berth around his swiftly physically maturing son. In short, though Joe’s world has undoubtedly influenced and debased him, he is still a figure at war with himself, staging, over the course of his life, an inner struggle that is never fully resolved. He feels obligated to punish himself and to avoid the abstract and unspoken source of guilt he feels, meting out his own brand of angry justice, much like his foster father, along the way.