lena grove, a pregnant teen, has headed to mississippi in search of the father of her baby. She hitchhikes to the small town of Jefferson, which is home to a brushing plant. One of the mill workers, Joe Christmas, is a brooding and racially ambiguous man who suddenly showed up at the mill one day looking for work. After getting a job, he was soon joined at the mill by another man named Joe Brown. the two formed a partnership, made and sold liquor illegally, and eventually quit their jobs.
Another of the mill workers, Byron Bunch, is intrigued and disturbed when Lena Grove suddenly appears at the mill one day. he tells the disgraced former minister of the town, the Reverend Gail Hightower, about his efforts to care for the girl. Soon, Lena realizes that the man she’s looking for, the father of her baby, Lucas Burch, is actually Joe Brown. Upon Lena’s arrival in town, Brown is being held in the town jail after the murder of a local woman, the charging of Joanna, and the burning down of his house. Joe Christmas, Miss Charge’s one-time lover, is the prime suspect.
Then the narrative shifts to explore various of the characters’ pasts. As a young minister, Gail Hightower secures a church in Jefferson to fuel his obsession with his grandfather, a Confederate trooper who was killed in the city during the Civil War. Hightower’s young wife is unfaithful and is dealing with mental health issues. She finally dies when she falls from the window of a Memphis hotel room where she is staying with another man. A scandal ensues and Jefferson’s parishioners fire Hightower, who is forced to resign.
as a child, joe christmas is left on the steps of an orphanage. When the center’s dietitian mistakenly believes that Ella Joe has heard her having sex with a young doctor in her room, she worries that she will lose her job. To eliminate this risk, she threatens to expose young Joe’s biracial background and thus transfer him to an orphanage for black children. She discusses the plan with the orphanage’s janitor, who kidnaps Joe and takes him to Little Rock, where he is found and returned, only to be adopted two weeks later by a stern religious man, Mr. Mceachern and his wife.
Joe’s new foster father subjects him to regular beatings. As Joe grows older and enters puberty, he eventually crosses paths with Bobbie, a prostitute who works as a waitress in a nearby town. when mr. Mceachern surprises his son at a dance with Bobbie, a fight breaks out, and Joe kills his adoptive father by smashing a chair over her head. Abandoned by Bobbie and her henchmen, Joe embraces a life on the run and wanders for over fifteen years, until he finally reaches Jefferson.
In Jefferson, Joe Christmas stays at the cabin on Joanna Ballast’s estate, and the two quickly become lovers. their relationship is marked by passion, violence, and long periods of ignoring each other. Miss Carga wants a child and she claims to be pregnant, but Joe is adamantly against the idea. After a while, Joe Brown comes to live with Joe Christmas in her cabin. Miss Carga tries to help Joe Christmas financially, but her meddling only angers her. one night, he savagely attacks and kills her with a knife after she attempts to fire a pistol at him in an apparent murder-suicide attempt.
miss load’s nephew in new hampshire is offering a $1,000 reward for the capture of his aunt’s killer. Search parties with bloodhounds comb the countryside for the fugitive Joe Christmas, who eludes capture for days, running to the point of starvation and exhaustion. Lena, meanwhile, moves into the cabin the two Joes had shared to prepare for the birth of her baby; Byron’s group stays in a nearby tent.
joe christmas is arrested on the streets of mottstown. His biological maternal grandfather, Uncle Dochines, pushes through the crowd to curse Joe and call for his death. When Jefferson officials arrive to take charge of the prisoner, Mrs. Hines also makes his way through the crowd, hoping to see the face of her grandson who was told by her husband that he died when he was a child. the hinenese then take the train to jefferson together.
Byron and the Hineses arrive at the Hightower house and reveal that Joe Christmas’s father was a circus worker who tried to elope with the Hineses’ daughter before Uncle Doc shot and killed him. Eventually, Uncle Doc placed the baby in the Memphis orphanage where he worked as a janitor. byron wants hightower to lie and claim that joe christmas was with him at his house the night joanna load was murdered. hightower gets angry and asks them to leave.
lena goes into labor, but when byron arrives with the doctor, hightower has already given birth. helping in the delivery is mrs. Hines, who mistakenly believes that Lena is her long-dead Ella Milly’s daughter, and that the newborn is her grandson, Joe Christmas. Byron arranges for Joe Brown to be sent to Lena’s cabin; Upon arriving, Brown is shocked to see Lena holding her newborn child, and he climbs out the back window and flees. Byron sees Brown escaping and tries to stop him, but the much larger man knocks Byron out and escapes on a passing train. Joe Christmas, meanwhile, escapes his captors as well, as they lead him through the town square. Before long, a bounty hunter named Percy Grimm tracks him down, shoots, kills, and castrates him in the Hightower kitchen. Later, the aging Tall Tower reflects on his past and prepares for his own death.
After a road trip, a local furniture mover near Jefferson tells his wife how he brought a curious couple: a woman with a newborn child accompanied by a man who was not the child’s father. The couple, Lena and Byron, halfheartedly searched for the baby’s biological father as the man led them further into Tennessee.