Joe Christmas is the illegitimate son of Milly Hines and a circus worker who described himself as Mexican. He's left at an orphanage where his biological grandfather, Doc Hines (who believes the circus worker was black), works as a janitor. Eventually Joe is adopted by a fervently religious man, Simon McEachern, who changes his name to Joe McEachern. McEachern is stern and physically abusive. In his teens, Joe assaults a young black woman, dates a prostitute, and attacks his adoptive father. Joe travels and eventually settles in Jefferson where he is involved with Joanna Burden. He kills her, runs, is arrested, and is eventually killed and castrated.
At age 12 Lena became an orphan and went to live with her brother who was 20 years her senior and his family. At 20, she began slipping out the window to see Joe Brown, then known as Lucas Burch. When she became pregnant, Brown left and Lena's brother "called her whore." Near her due date, Lena sets out on foot to find Brown. Lena is a placid woman, determined to find and marry the child's father. The book ends with her still pursuing him—this time in the company of Byron Bunch, who wants to marry her himself.
Joe Brown is a man avoiding responsibility. He changed his name to hide from Lena. He quit his job to be a bootlegger, and when confronted with the fire and death of Miss Burden, he tells the sheriff that Joe Christmas is black. When confronted by his newborn child, he climbs out a window and abandons her again, ultimately hopping a train.
Joanna Burden was raised by a religious man who taught her that her duty and her "curse" was to "raise up" black men and women. She is ostracized by the folks in Jefferson, and her dealings are almost solely with black men and women. She lives alone in her large house, retains a black lawyer in Memphis, and she spends her days advising trustees, faculty, and graduates of black colleges. For 3 years, she is intimately and secretly involved with Joe Christmas. After claiming that she is pregnant by Joe, she starts trying to plan for his future. She wants to send him to college and eventually hand her business dealings over to him. When he resists, she tries to shoot him (saving a second bullet for herself), and Joe kills her.
Byron works at the mill in Jefferson, Mississippi. Both Joe Christmas and Joe Brown work there briefly. Byron encounters the very pregnant Lena Grove, who is seeking Lucas Burch. Instead, she finds Byron Bunch, who inadvertently reveals that Lucas is there under the name of Joe Brown. He takes on the role of protecting Lena, eventually offering to marry her, a proposal she refuses. He also seeks the help of his friend, Reverend Hightower, to save Joe Christmas. At the close of the novel, he is traveling with Lena, still offering marriage, and helping her look for Joe Brown.
Reverend Gail Hightower
Hightower is a man who lives surrounded by "phantoms"—memories of his family, wife, and the people of Jefferson. He is living alone at the time of the novel, no longer a minister and widowed as a result of his unfaithful wife's murder or suicide. He's a friend of Byron Bunch, delivers Lena's baby, and attempts to stop the murder of the fugitive Joe Christmas.