Written by: Published by: The novel is set in the American South in the 1930s, during the time of Prohibition and Jim Crow laws that legalised racial segregation in the South. It begins with the journey of Lena Grove, a young pregnant white woman from Doane’s Mill, Alabama, who is trying to find Lucas Burch, the father of her unborn child. He has been fired from his job at Doane’s Mill and moved to Mississippi, promising to send word to her when he has a new job. Not hearing from Burch and harassed by her older brother for her illegitimate pregnancy, Lena walks and hitchhikes to Jefferson, Mississippi, a town in Faulkner’s fictional Yoknapatawpha County. There she expects to find Lucas working at another mill, ready to marry her.
The novel then switches to the second plot strand, the story of Lucas Burch/Joe Brown’s partner Joe Christmas. Christmas is an orphan who ran away from his adoptive family after getting into an argument with and killing his strict Methodist adopted father. Although he has light skin, Christmas suspects that he is of African American ancestry and wanders between black and white societies, constantly struggling with his identity. Christmas comes to Jefferson three years prior to the central events of the novel and gets a job at the mill where Byron, and later Joe Brown, works. The job at the mill is a cover for Christmas’ bootlegging operation, which is illegal under Prohibition. He has a sexual relationship with Joanna Burden, an older woman. Though their relationship is passionate at first, Joanna begins menopause and turns to religion. At the end of her relationship with Christmas, Joanna tries to force him at gunpoint to kneel and pray. Joanna is murdered soon after: her throat is slit and she is nearly decapitated.
The novel leaves readers uncertain whether Joe Christmas or Joe Brown is the murderer.