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After a time, McEachern notices that Joe’s suit has been
worn and realizes that his son is sneaking out at night. One night,
he watches as Joe slithers down the rope outside his window and
is picked up by a car. Hitching his team, McEachern is guided almost
instinctively to the schoolhouse, where a dance is being held. He
bursts in on the scene, calling Bobbie a harlot, and begins beating
his son, who smashes a chair over his father’s head, killing him.
Joe rides his father’s horse back to the house, where
he takes all the money his mother had been saving, hidden in a tin
beneath a floor plank. Eventually abandoning the fatigued horse,
Joe runs to Max and Mame’s house, where Bobbie is packed and ready
to return to Memphis. Another man, a stranger, is present as well.
The men ask Joe whether he thinks he has actually killed his foster
father. Bobbie curses him for getting her into a potentially compromising situation
and threatening Max and Mame’s prostitution business. Joe takes
his mother’s money out and gives it to Bobbie as his proposal of
marriage. She throws the offering back at him and calls him a “nigger
son of a bitch.” The men set on him, beating him until Mame finally
As Joe lies semiconscious on the floor, the group moves
about him, discussing whether they should take the money that he
tried to give Bobbie. Mame puts some of her own money in Joe’s pocket,
and the group pulls off in the car, leaving him behind. Badly beaten,
Joe eventually regains full consciousness and manages to get out
onto the street and out of town.
For the next fifteen years, Joe wanders, hitching rides
and working in oil towns and wheat fields as a laborer, miner, and
prospector. Finally, he enlists in the army and then deserts. He
patronizes prostitutes, eventually making a habit of telling them
afterward of his black ancestry in an attempt not to pay. For a
short time, he settles down among blacks and lives with a dark-skinned
woman for a while. Eventually his wanderings bring him to Jefferson,
where he presses a local boy for details about Miss Burden’s property.
Waiting until nightfall, he slips into the kitchen through an open
window and, famished, eats some leftover field peas. When he hears
Miss Burden approach, he does not flee. When she appears, she tells
him calmly that he is free to finish his meal.
Though they are lovers, Joe and Miss Burden have a strange
and distant relationship. They talk little. She leaves food on the
kitchen table for him but rarely visits him when he comes in to
eat. During the day, Joe never ventures beyond the kitchen, though
at night he sneaks up to Miss Burden’s bedroom, where she waits
for him. Joe, however, is repulsed and threatened by her strength,
fortitude, and independence, which he views as overly masculine
qualities. When she sets out a full meal for him, Joe enters the
house and smashes the dishes against the wall, as he did with his
After getting a job at the mill, Joe continues to live
in the cabin but neither enters the main house nor sees Miss Burden
for months. One September evening, he returns to the cabin to find
her seated on his cot. She tells him her life story, going on for
hours. She tells of the various generations buried on the property,
including her grandfather and brother, who were killed by a local
man, Colonel Sartoris, over a disagreement concerning black voting
rites. When Miss Burden finishes and it is Joe’s turn to speak,
all he is able to reveal is that one of his anonymous parents was
Though there is no genetic or biological connection linking
the two men, McEachern inadvertently makes Joe over in his own image: detached,
emotionally frigid, and prone to violence. McEachern plays the role
of avenging angel, using beatings and violence to impose his extreme,
self-righteous brand of moral certitude and divine justice on those
around him. Supposedly pious and upstanding, in reality he has virtually
no compassion. Like the other characters, he is a multifaceted,
contradictory presence, self-deluded in believing that he is “just
and rocklike” but blind to his less redeeming qualities—his cruelty,
fanaticism, and sanctimonious contempt for mankind. Closed, aloof,
unyielding, and intractable, he earns his foster son’s respect through
his displays of unshakable inner strength and extremeness of resolve.
In reality, however, this respect masks a deep, unrecognized hate
that bursts forth in Joe only in the final, fatal blow the night
at the dance.
Faulkner references the nature-vs.-nurture debate—the
question of whether behavior stems from genetically determined factors
or environmental influences—in his examination of Joe’s childhood
at the McEacherns. Joe’s murderous, sociopathic impulses can be traced,
if indirectly, to the world of violence and retribution in which
he was raised. McEachern’s sense of a moral code of behavior, guided
by Christian justice and values, is little more than cruelty and
corporal punishment. It clearly rubs off on his son: shortly after killing
McEachern, Joe lunges at Max and his colleague “with something of
the exaltation of his adopted father.” In a way, he has replaced
the dead man, stepping into his role of angry and brutal avenger.
Yet Faulkner does not seat his characters in a tidy world
of moral absolutes, and we cannot label Joe’s upbringing as the
sole cause of his vagrancy and criminal activity. Joe himself also
plays an active role in seeking his own demise and self-destruction.
The presence of Mrs. McEachern, a manipulative but essentially kind
foil to her mean-spirited husband, complicates the notion that Joe
is exclusively a neglected and abused victim lashing out at the
world that spurned him. Joe views his foster mother’s love—a potential
source of the comfort and acceptance that he has never known—as
an oppressive burden, an emotional obligation he can never return
or acknowledge. Nor is Mr. McEachern an extreme or absolute portrait
of the abusive, impossible-to-please parent. When Joe works hard,
his father rewards his diligence by giving Joe his own calf. Moreover,
as Joe grows up, McEachern gradually cuts a wider berth around his
swiftly physically maturing son. In short, though Joe’s world has
undoubtedly influenced and debased him, he is still a figure at
war with himself, staging, over the course of his life, an inner struggle
that is never fully resolved. He feels obligated to punish himself
and to avoid the abstract and unspoken source of guilt he feels,
meting out his own brand of angry justice, much like his foster father,
along the way.
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