The novel’s protagonist, also known as Joe Hines or Joe McEachern. In his first appearance in the novel, Joe is a young man in his early thirties, dressed in creased serge trousers, a soiled white shirt and tie, and a stiff-brimmed straw hat. A wanderer, he has a rootless, overly independent quality to him that others frequently misinterpret as ruthlessness, loneliness, or pride. Biracial, he is often mistaken for—and “passes” for—a white man. Silent, unfriendly, and brooding, his face consistently projects a cold and quiet look of contempt. Complex, conflicted, and multifaceted, Joe overtly sabotages the little happiness that he is able to find for himself and consistently waylays any of his own attempts to find a place of belonging. Ultimately, this
A pregnant teenager from Alabama. Orphaned at twelve, Lena comes to Jefferson on foot and by hitching rides on wagons along the way from her home outside Doane’s Mills. Inexperienced in the ways of the world, she is determined to find the man, Lucas Burch, who made her pregnant and left her behind with the promise he would eventually send for her. “Young, pleasantfaced, candid, friendly, and alert,” Lena is an easygoing presence who seems unconcerned about her unsettled status in life.
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A defrocked minister in Jefferson. Tall, overweight, with skin the color of “flour sacking,” Hightower was once the minister of one of the town’s major churches. He sought the post because his grandfather, a Confederate cavalryman, was gunned down in Jefferson while stealing chickens. Described as a “fifty-year-old outcast,” he was forced to step down after his promiscuous wife died in a fall from a hotel window in Memphis. Refusing to leave Jefferson, Hightower lives as a recluse, displaying his toughness and tenacity in withstanding the gossip, meddling, coercion, and eventual beatings he suffers at the hands of the town residents who had hoped to drive him off.
A mill worker in Jefferson and the man who is initially misidentified to Lena as Lucas Burch, the father of her baby. In his thirties, hardworking, and devout, Bunch leads a quietly regimented life—working six days a week and then directing the choir of a rural church—that has continued uninterrupted in the same routine for years. His life drastically shifts, however, when he meets the young, pregnant Lena, whose vulnerability and plight trigger his natural instinct to protect and selflessly help others.
A gambler, bootlegger, and con artist. Young and tall, with a distinctive white scar beside his mouth, Joe Brown first appears in dirty overalls in search of work at the mill. Lazy, yet alert to any situation he can turn to his advantage, Joe moves in a confident swagger but has the tendency to jerk his head to the side and to look periodically over his shoulder. A known liar and exaggerator, his shady past and questionable dealings make him an object of mockery and even contempt in the eyes of those who can see through his veneer of self-satisfaction and confidence.
A reclusive lifelong resident of Jefferson. Born and raised in the house where she still lives on the outskirts of town, Miss Burden is still considered a northerner, as her family relocated to the South after Reconstruction. Her grandfather and brother, who supported voting rights for blacks, were killed by a local man, Colonel Sartoris, in an infamous incident that town residents still recount. Subject to rumors and said to have had sexual relations with black men, Miss Burden corresponds with and advises the faculties, trustees, and students of various black colleges in the South, occasionally traveling to the campuses to meet with them in person.
Joe Christmas’s foster father. Mr. McEachern is a thick-bodied man with a closely cropped brown beard and cold, light-colored eyes. Stern and devout, his religiosity borders on fanaticism and far outweighs the limited reserves of kindness and sympathy that he is able to muster. Blinded by his extreme faith and belief in divine retribution, he displays a marked contempt for humanity and the folly and sin of others. He upholds that hard labor, self-sacrifice, self-denial, and personal suffering are the hallmarks of a life lived in an upstanding and staunchly moral manner. However, he is prone to violence, and his unyielding and authoritarian presence compromises his essential humanity and ultimately provokes the homicidal rage of his foster son.
Joe Christmas’s foster mother. Mrs. McEachern is a timid, hunched woman with a weather-beaten face that makes her look considerably older than her husband. A silent, cringing, somewhat invisible presence in the family, she tries to earn her son’s love and respect by countering her husband’s violence with excessive doting and kindness. She also attempts to forge a closer bond with her adopted son by creating and indulging in secrets that only the two of them share.
Joe Christmas’s biological grandfather. Uncle Doc is an unkempt, angry, and spiteful man whose violence and extreme behavior have landed him in jail more than once. Infamous for his crazed ravings, he uses his religious fundamentalism to justify his implicit belief in white superiority. His extreme, unyielding sense of right and propriety pollutes his better intentions, causing him to punish and betray those who are closest to him. He shuffles around in a near-catatonic state that is interrupted only by his boisterous attempts to incite the residents of first Mottstown and then Jefferson to lynch his grandson.
Joe Christmas’s biological grandmother. Short, obese, and round-faced, Mrs. Hines is a shadow figure whom few in town recognize, even though she has lived there for years. She is eccentric and emotional, and her tenuous grasp on reality is compromised when the grandson she thought was dead is charged with the murder of Miss Burden. Mrs. Hines’s passivity and deference to her husband have led to a series of tragedies—mistakes she desires to make up for only when it is too late.
The dietician at the orphanage. Insecure and spiteful, she allows her paranoia and fear stoke her racist attitudes and vengeful nature. In order to exorcise the guilt she feels at her own sexual indiscretions, she alerts the matron to young Joe Christmas’s biracial background, thus speeding his adoption and removal from the orphanage.
A prostitute passing for a waitress at the diner in Jefferson. Crude and earthy, with large hands, Bobbie brings her Memphis street smarts to Max and Mame’s seedy restaurant, where she seduces Joe Christmas and takes advantage of his inexperience and naïveté.