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...
(The entire section is 5,010 words.)