(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Joe Christmas is the illegitimate son of a dark-skinned circus trouper who was thought to be of African American descent and a white girl named Milly Hines. Joe’s grandfather, old Doc Hines, kills the circus man, lets Milly die in childbirth, and puts Joe—at Christmas time, hence his last name—into an orphanage, where the children learn to call him “Nigger.” Doc Hines then arranges to have Joe adopted by a religious and heartless farmer named McEachern, whose cruelties to Joe are met with a matching stubbornness that turns the boy into an almost subhuman being.

One day in town, McEachern takes Joe to a disreputable restaurant, where he talks to the waitress, Bobbie Allen. McEachern tells the adolescent Joe never to patronize the place alone. Joe goes back, however, to meet Bobbie at night, and the two become lovers. Night after night, while the McEacherns are asleep, Joe creeps out of the house and hurries to meet Bobbie in town.

One night, McEachern follows Joe to a country dance and orders him home. Joe knocks McEachern unconscious, whispers to Bobbie that he will meet her soon, and races to return home before McEachern can. There he gathers up all the money he can lay his hands on before he leaves to go into town. At the house where Bobbie is staying, he encounters the restaurant proprietor, his wife, and another man. The two men beat Joe, take his money, and leave for Memphis with the two women.

Joe moves on. Sometimes he works, but more often he simply lives off the money that women give him. He has sex with many women and nearly always tells them that he is black. Eventually, he arrives in Jefferson, a small town in Mississippi, where he gets work shoveling sawdust in a lumber mill. He finds lodging in a long-deserted cabin near the country home of Miss Joanna Burden, a spinster of Yankee origin who has few associates in Jefferson because of her zeal for bettering the lot of African Americans. She feeds Joe and plans to send him to a school for African Americans. Miss Burden and Joe become lovers, and they carry on their affair for three years. Her reactions to him range from sheer animalism to evangelism, as she tries to make Joe repent his sins and become a Christian.

A young man who calls himself Joe Brown arrives to begin working at the sawmill, and Joe Christmas invites Brown to share his cabin with him. The two begin to sell bootleg whiskey. After a while, Joe tells Brown that he is African American, and before long, Brown discovers the relationship between Joe and Miss Burden. When the two men’s bootlegging business prospers, they buy a car and give up their jobs at the lumber mill.

One night, Joe goes to Miss Burden’s room half determined to kill her. She attempts to shoot him with an antiquated pistol that does not fire, and Joe cuts her throat with his razor and runs out of...

(The entire section is 1169 words.)


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Light in August, one of William Faulkner’s great novels, centers on Joe Christmas, whom the critic Alfred Kazin called “the most solitary character in American fiction.” His father, a swarthy man who may have been Mexican or black, is murdered by Christmas’ fanatical white grandfather, Doc Hines, who abandons the baby at an orphanage. Christmas grows to manhood in Mississippi, where race necessarily defines who he is. Unsure of his racial identity and divided within himself, Christmas discovers that he belongs neither to the white world nor the black. His tortured figure is always halved, clothed symbolically in dark pants and white shirt, seen alternately in light and shadow. Arrogant and proud, he learns to answer every insult with violence.

Christmas is discovered by Joanna Burden in her kitchen, where he has come to steal food, and he becomes her lover. Daughter of a Yankee abolitionist and a philanthropist and supporter of African American colleges, Joanna quickly slides into a terrifying corruption, consumed by sexual desire for Christmas in the autumn of her life. She finds her Puritan and Calvinist identity perverted into cruelty like that of mad Doc Hines and Christmas’ harsh adoptive father. Eventually she urges Christmas to study law at a black college so that he can take over her work. By doing so, Joanna tries to make him admit that he is a black man. When he refuses to pray with her, she draws a pistol, and he is forced to kill her.

Hunted down for Joanna’s murder, Christmas attempts to escape a white mob by fleeing to the home of the Reverend Gail Hightower, a failed Presbyterian minister who has been expelled by his congregation. Hightower has been rendered ineffectual by guilt and grief since the death of his wife, but he redeems himself by attempting to save Christmas from his attackers, even though this act brings about his own death.

Christmas in turn is shot and castrated by white supremacist Percy Grimm, but he dies “with peaceful and unfathomable and unbearable eyes,” a sacrifice to the unreasoning hatred between men. Christmas’ name and initials, his birthdate, his dual nature, and his acceptance of death suggest that he may represent a Christlike figure, offering himself in atonement for the sins of others.