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, or conflict.
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.