Joe Christmas has five major relationships with women (Miss Atkins, Mrs. McEachern, Bobbie, Joanna Burden, and Mrs. Hines) in the novel. The first is with the Miss Atkins, the dietician, who tries to bribe the young Christmas because she thinks he spied her having sex with the intern. When the five year old Christmas thought he was going to be in trouble for sneaking to eat Miss Atkins' toothpaste, he is instead rewarded with an offered bribe. He does not understand. Mrs. Atkins is later instrumental in getting him removed from the orphanage, by revealing that Christmas is part black and needs to go to a black orphanage.
Her actions begin a cycle that is repeated with subsequent women in his life. They are unpredictable; they reward when they should punish,they are instrumental in his leaving or being on the run, and they often play the "race card."
We see this pattern, for instance, repeated with Bobbie, the prostitute/waitress. The teenage Joe Christmas falls in love (lust) with Bobbie and plans to elope with her. After Christmas gets into a fight with Mr. McEachern and probably kills him, Bobbie is furious that this incident will expose her and ruin her prostituting business. She turns on him, yelling racial epithets, leaving him for dead, badly beaten by Max, her pimp, and a few others. This incident sends the traumatized Christmas on the road again.
The more mature and cynical Christmas meets Miss Burden. Miss Burden is as flawed and alienated a woman as Christmas is a man. A product of a Northern abolitionist family, Joanna Burden has lived an isolated life in the small Southern town of Jefferson, helping Negroes find scholarships. A love/hate relationship develops between the two of them. Mrs. Burden offers Christmas the closest he has had to a home, but she also is a controlling individual who is obsessed and strangely attracted to the fact that Christmas is (or may be) partially black. Their relationship ends tragically, with Mrs. Burden's death and Christmas once more on the road again.
Christmas desperately seeks to define himself apart from the racial constructs of Depression Era Mississippi. He also seeks independence from the women who he thinks are trying to make him soft, manipulate, or hurt him. Each relationship represents a maturing Christmas, as he becomes a more broken, cynical, coarse and hardened man, who is unable to love a woman or to find a woman who is able to love him.