Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
In a novel steeped in religious imagery—including hints of crucifixion and the wooden cross on which it occurred—Joe Christmas’s killing of the sheep is a brief but telling addition to this set of Christian symbols. Like many adolescents, Christmas finds the onset of his sexual urges and increasing curiosity and knowledge unsettling. When he is first acquainted with the workings of a woman’s menstrual cycle, he is sickened and repulsed by the knowledge. The only catharsis he can find is in the bloody sacrifice of a farmer’s sheep grazing in a field. The irrational and impulsive act—and almost ritualistic spilling of blood—foreshadows the two additional killings that come to haunt Joe and ultimately seal his fate. In addition, the sheep is indirectly established as a double for Christmas, the sacrificial lamb who heads willingly to the slaughter in the ways that he actively seeks his own death and destruction. The sheep’s brutal killing also anticipates the shooting and castration that awaits Joe in Reverend Hightower’s kitchen.
The fateful day on which Lena arrives in Jefferson is marked also by the killing of Miss Burden and the burning of her home. Up until that point, Byron Bunch had docilely pursued his ritualized and deliberately uncomplicated existence. Meeting Lena at the mill, though, as he later recounts to Hightower, he is so distracted and unsettled by her presence that he never consciously sees the plume of smoke rising on the horizon “in plain sight like it was put there to warn me.” Later, the omniscient narrator states that, when Byron realizes Lucas Burch and Joe Brown are one and the same, “[i]t seemed to him that fate, circumstance, had set a warning in the sky all day long in that pillar of yellow smoke, and he too stupid to read it.”
But Byron’s impression of the smoke as an ill omen of ill will is another example of misinterpretation in the novel. The smoke serves not as a harbinger of bad times to come but marks, rather, the ending or the passing away of an existing order. The fire at the Burden house serves as a ritualistic cleansing, releasing the tragedy and violence that has marked Jefferson that August and paving the way for Lena’s life-bearing presence and the new sense of commitment and obligation it triggers in Byron.
In its overt identification as a symbolic entity, the generalized notion of the street emerges as a powerful metaphor of the ongoing search for self-acceptance and belonging that Lena and Joe Christmas undertake in the novel. The image first appears after Christmas kills his stepfather and is then abandoned by Bobbie Allen and her cohorts. Stepping off the porch of the abandoned house, Joe “entered the street which was to run for fifteen years.” In the fruitless wanderings that ensue, the street typifies Joe’s restless, self-defeating search for personal meaning. The street also takes on dimensions of a tempting release and escape from his self-imprisoning consciousness. But it is a mirage and a lure that delivers neither the resolution nor the answers that Christmas seeks. Lena’s “street”—her personal journey—leads to new hope and possibility, whereas Joe’s draws him headlong into additional suffering, bitterness, and eventually death.