Much of Reverend Hightower’s characterization centers around his quirky if not obsessive fixation on his grandfather’s Confederate cavalry unit. Though the dust and thundering charge of the unit have long dispelled, the hoofbeats and clamor still echo in Hightower’s memory. They serve as a powerful reminder of humans’ uneasy relationship with the past—its burden and ubiquitous presence. Through the figure of Hightower, the past becomes a living entity that is never escaped or left behind. Nor are its hard-won lessons always heeded, as violence and racial divide grip Jefferson and its environs almost as profoundly as in the days of the Civil War. Hightower’s life stands as a grim reminder of the fact that, for many, there is no fresh start, no hope for a new direction or change. His wife’s erratic behavior and subsequent suicide trigger a process of gradual decline, as Hightower bears the guilt and stigma of the scandal. He punishes himself—and the community at large at the same time—by refusing to admit total defeat in leaving town after he has been stripped of his duties.
In light of personal setback and unexpected disappointment, Hightower’s life stands as a testament to the recovery and reassertion of dignity and personal pride. Pride takes on a double meaning in Hightower’s tangled stream-of-consciousness musings. He attempts to reclaim the pride of self, his self-respect and self-esteem, while resisting vanity, a proud resistance against the vicious gossip and rumors that course through the community. In his musings and ruminations, Hightower stands as the moral or philosophical center of the novel. In the midst of the tragedy and ill circumstances that have marked his life, he is able to salvage greater strength, self-awareness, and wisdom. Along the way, he is also able to confront and lay to rest the family ghosts and the legacy of the painful past that haunts him still.