Chapter four is a classic example of Faulkner’s narrative method. Faulkner involves the use of indirection and circumlocution. He will often approach his subject from an oblique position. He then withholds important information. This creates an air of tension.
If we carefully study the method where Faulkner progressively unfolds his story of the house burning and the relationship between Joe Christmas and Joanna Burden, we will then understand Faulkner’s narrative approach to much of his fiction. He saves the most important information until the end of the chapter. First Byron tells of the house. Then he tells of the arrival of Lena and the manner in which he inadvertently revealed her lover’s identity. Little by little, we learn that Joe Christmas and Joe Brown lived behind Joanna’s house. Only later do we learn that Joe Christmas and Joanna had lived for about two years as man and wife without being married.
The disclosure that two unmarried people have lived together out of wedlock is shocking enough to a small southern town of that period. A final shock and the horror comes at the end of the chapter when Byron reveals that Joe Christmas has some Negro blood in him. In southern terms of the day he is considered a negro. Thus the shock of Joe and Joanna living out of matrimony is replaced by the dreadful recognition that a Negro man has slept with a white woman. In terms of southern mores of that time, this is more horrible than any other possible sin. Because of this, the murder, itself, will become less important than the sexual act, and will ultimately culminate in the horrible castration at the end of the novel.
When Hightower hears that Joe Christmas has part Negro blood, he says: “Poor man. Poor Mankind.” It is as though he draws a parallel the plight of Joe Christmas with that of all mankind.
This chapter offers the first hint that perhaps Hightower will be drawn back into life. This is hinted through Lena’s investigation as to whether Hightower is still minister enough to marry someone.
This chapter also shows Joe Brown and Joe Christmas in some type of business and personal relationship. This relationship is another connection between Joe Christmas and Lena Grove, since Joe Brown is involved with each.