Joe and Miss Burden have officially become lovers, though still only intimate after nightfall. They go about their separate workdays and then meet at night. At one point, their increasingly all-consuming sex rituals take the form of games and then making love outside on the grounds. With the coming of the fall, their relationship enters a new phase, and their passion cools. Joe still works at the mill and begins storing and selling liquor at the Burden property. He goes to Memphis once a week on business, where he also patronizes prostitutes.
Soon, Miss Burden tells Joe that she wants a child. He objects, but four months later she announces that she is pregnant. Fall turns to winter, and the two lovers no longer see each other. One night, a note left on his cot requests Joe’s presence in the house. Miss Burden proposes that he take over her job advising the staff and students of black colleges. Joe thinks she is mad or affected by the pregnancy. He cannot get her out of his mind.
In the meantime, Joe Brown has come to stay with Christmas in the cabin. One night, Brown chides Christmas about his affair with Miss Burden, and Christmas repeatedly strikes him, chasing him off. Beckoned by another note, Christmas enters the house and heads directly up the stairs to Miss Burden’s bedroom. He enters to find her seated at a table wearing spectacles. She offers to send him to a black college and then have him learn the legal trade in her black lawyer’s office in Memphis, all in preparation for taking over her affairs. Joe is outraged by the suggestion and repeatedly strikes her.
Still, Miss Burden summons Joe again on yet another evening. He mounts the stairs, carrying his razor, to find that Miss Burden is praying. She attempts to coax him back to God and asks him to kneel with her, but he refuses. From beneath her shawl, Miss Burden reveals a cap-and-ball revolver; a moment later, she fires. The action suddenly skips ahead to find Joe, stunned and inattentive, waving down a car, driven by a frightened young man and his girlfriend. Only after he gets out miles down the road does Joe realize he has the revolver in his hand. After examining the pistol, he realizes that it failed to fire when Miss Burden pointed it at him. It contains two bullets, meaning that she intended to kill him and then herself.
People begin to gather near the burning Burden home. The sheriff has the body of Miss Burden, covered in a sheet, removed from the scene. The town’s new fire truck arrives, but there is no source of water and thus little that can be done to put out the fire. The cabin on the property shows signs of recent occupation, and the sheriff cross-examines a black man from the neighborhood, assuming that someone from the all-black area is the killer. The sheriff beats the man with a belt until he confesses that two white men had been the cabin’s most recent occupants. They are soon identified as the two Joes, Brown and Christmas.
The sheriff then leaves, leading a noisy caravan back to town, pausing only as a wagon stops to let off Lena Grove. He breaks the seal on the letter Miss Burden left at the bank to be opened after her death and then wires her lawyer in Memphis and her nephew in New Hampshire. The nephew responds with an offer of a $1,000 reward. Before long, Joe Brown appears before the officials in town to try to claim the reward, labeling Christmas the killer. The young man who drove Christmas from the crime scene in his wagon corroborates this story, telling the sheriff what had happened that night. A search party sets off with two bloodhounds but cannot turn up the fugitive.
Byron and Hightower, meanwhile, discuss Lena’s fate. Byron wants to move her out of Mrs. Beard’s boardinghouse, but Hightower argues convincingly that the boardinghouse is probably the best place for a young girl in the advanced stages of pregnancy. Byron rebukes himself for accidentally revealing Joe Brown’s identity to Lena but believes that Lena probably already knew the scoundrel’s checkered past.
Lena announces that she wants to go to the cabin where Brown has been living and wait for him. Byron plans to tell Brown that Lena is there, believing that the news will prompt Brown to run. Byron is not quite sure what to do, however, as he thinks that Brown might decide to marry Lena if he gets the reward money. Hightower, who disapproves of Byron’s plan, hears word that the dogs are hot on Christmas’s trail and that capture is imminent. Byron arrives at Hightower’s house to tell him that he has installed Lena in the cabin and that he is living in a tent close by. Hightower again voices his strong disapproval of Byron’s actions but still offers his help to his friend.
Joe Christmas and Miss Burden are bound by a variety of similarities, but rather than unite and stabilize the pair, these similarities ultimately divide and upend them. Like Hightower and Byron, they are outsiders, living on the fringes of a society that spurns or ignores them. Both are seen as foreigners: Joe as an enigmatic racial presence, Miss Burden as a transplanted Yankee whose liberal family politics scandalized the town and resulted in the murder of her brother and grandfather. In addition, Faulkner represents both characters as fractured and divided, two beings whose fruitless search for wholeness and self-unity brings them tragically together.
Whereas Joe’s personal schism is seen through the lens of race and biracialism, Miss Burden’s split is expressed in terms of gender. At first a distinction is made between their platonic, daytime relationship and their sexual life that plays out only under the cover of darkness. “It was as though there were two people,” Faulkner writes of Miss Burden. Later, over the course of a few paragraphs, the double presence that Miss Burden embodies is expressed in terms of “a dual personality: the one the woman . . . the other the mantrained muscles and the mantrained habit of thinking born of heritage and environment with which he had to fight up to the final instant.” In this brief passage, Faulkner characterizes not only the historical and personal legacy with which his characters struggle—the same environmental factors that also forged and influenced Joe’s behaviors—but also the self-generated and willful desire for power, supremacy, and control that would divide the lovers to the end.
Ultimately, it is Miss Burden’s impulse and desire for control—and greater clarity—in their relationship that prompts Joe’s violent retaliation against any attempt to cage or collar him. Fundamentally, Miss Burden does not understand her relationship to Joe, why she is drawn to him or why she feels a growing dependence on their intimacy. Like Joe, for Miss Burden the bond between them is as unsettling, confusing, and personally threatening as it is desirable and difficult to resist. As a result, she struggles to find ways to make it more defined or tangible, claiming at first that she is pregnant, then offering to put him in charge of her affairs. Later, she proposes that he attend a black college and then be trained by her lawyer in Memphis, with the intent of him ultimately assuming responsibility for her legal matters.
These attempts that Miss Burden makes to codify their relationship, to nurture and connect emotionally with Joe, provoke his ire and set off a chain reaction ending in Miss Burden’s death and the burning of her house. Joe feels doubly threatened by her, as she displays both feminine intimacy (which he resents, as he did with Mrs. McEachern) and a masculine impulse to master and rule. Miss Burden is a complex and unresolved presence that Joe, in the end, feels he must eliminate rather than attempt to understand. As attraction turns to contempt and eventual hatred, Joe derives pleasure from the fact that he has corrupted Miss Burden and that he uses sex to humiliate and control her. Miss Burden’s guilt at her physical and eventual spiritual submission fuels her impulse to counsel and improve Joe, much as she does with the constituents of the black colleges she advises. Ultimately, Joe sees Miss Burden’s actions as a form of patronage and unintended condescension that he cannot abide.