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.