Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1169
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 house. Later in the evening, Miss Burden’s house is discovered to be on fire. When some townspeople enter the burning home and start to go upstairs to look for Miss Burden, Brown tries to stop them, but they brush him aside. They find Miss Burden’s body in the bedroom and carry it outside before the house burns to the ground.
Through a letter that Miss Burden had earlier written and deposited at the Jefferson bank, the authorities learn of her New Hampshire relatives, whom they notify. Almost at once, word comes back from the relatives offering a thousand-dollar reward for the capture of her murderer. Brown tries to tell the story as he knows it, putting the blame on Joe Christmas, so that he can collect the money. Few believe his story, but he is held in custody until Joe Christmas can be found.
Joe Christmas remains at large for several days, but at last, with the help of bloodhounds, he is found. Meanwhile, old Doc Hines has learned of his grandson’s crime, and he has come with his wife to Jefferson. He urges the white people to lynch Joe, but his rantings go unheeded.
On the way to face indictment by the grand jury in the courthouse, Joe, handcuffed but not manacled to the deputy, manages to escape. He runs to a cabin and finds a gun. Some volunteer guards from the American Legion give chase and finally find him in the kitchen of the Reverend Gail Hightower, a former Presbyterian minister. Hightower is an outcast because people believe that his obsession with the gallant death of his grandfather in the Civil War drove his wife into dementia. Joe has gone to Hightower at the suggestion of his grandmother, Mrs. Hines, who had a conference with Joe in his cell just before his escape. She had been advised of this possible way of escape by Byron Bunch, Hightower’s only friend in Jefferson. The Legionnaires shoot Joe, and then their leader mutilates him with a knife.
Brown now claims his reward. A deputy then takes him out to the cabin where he had lived with Joe Christmas. On entering the cabin, he sees Mrs. Hines holding a newborn baby. In the bed is a young woman, Lena Grove, with whom Brown had sex in a town in Alabama. Lena had started out to find Brown when she learned she was going to have a baby. Traveling most of the way on foot, she had arrived in Jefferson on the day of the murder and the fire. Directed to the sawmill, she had at once seen that Byron Bunch, to whom she had been sent, was not the same man as Lucas Burch, which is Brown’s real name. Byron, a kindly soul, has fallen in love with her. Having identified Brown from Byron’s description, Lena is sure that, in spite of his new name, Brown is the father of her child. She has given birth to the baby in Brown’s cabin, where Byron has made her as comfortable as he could, with the aid of Mrs. Hines.
On learning about the baby, Brown jumps from a back window and escapes. Byron, torn between his desire to marry Lena and the wish to see her baby’s rightful father take responsibility, tracks Brown to the railroad grade outside town and fights with him. Brown escapes aboard a freight train.
Three weeks later, Lena and Byron take to the road with the baby, Lena still searching for Brown. A truck driver gives them a lift as they make their way toward Tennessee. Byron is patient, but one night, he tries to get Lena to have sex with him. When she refuses, he leaves the little camp where the truck is parked. The next morning, however, he is waiting at the bend of the road; the truck stops for him, and he climbs up onto it.