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Inert, worn dull by years of routine and six-day work
weeks, Byron Bunch lives in a detached and insulated world designed
around the avoidance of entanglement—personal, emotional, or otherwise. When
Lena arrives at the mill in Jefferson, her plight triggers an instinct
in Byron to reach out and to engage, finally, the life of another.
There is no doubt that Byron is a good man: he lives an honest,
upstanding life and directs the choir at a rural church each Sunday,
returning for the start of his shift the following morning. But
it is a sanitized, hollow goodness, achieved through inaction and
a regimented life free of any temptation or challenge. He has lived
a moral life by avoiding rather than engaging the world around him.
His growing attachment to Lena parallels a gradual awakening in
Byron as he attempts to turn from the man he once was—the man who
has protected himself too stringently from experiencing pain, sorrow,
Bunch’s friendship with Hightower not only providers a
much-needed source of inspiration and challenge to Byron but also
adds a new layer of moral and philosophical complexity to his life.
Byron turns to his friend for counsel and wisdom and in turn is
able to reveal his own desires and intentions through his dialogues
with the defrocked minister. Hightower casts doubt on the purity
of Byron’s sentiments in reaching out to selflessly help Lena and
questions his supposed disinterest or lack of ulterior motive in
improving her situation. Byron is forced to resolve his feelings
for Lena—confronting both public opinion and his own selfishness—to
conclude, in the end, that he is an honorable man who has chosen
to live a more fully engaged and fully present life. Byron’s willingness
to fight Joe Brown, to be beaten by the larger man, is the visceral
reawakening that he needs. It reveals finally his resolve to be
involved in the life of another and his willingness to risk personal
injury. Byron is determined to stand by Lena and deal with the conflicting
emotions and vulnerabilities that he experiences in loving another.
In the end, Byron may still have much to learn when it comes to
courting and caring for Lena, but he has at last found a freedom
and a purpose to his life hitherto avoided or ignored.
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