Lucas Beauchamp, Joe Christmas, and the Color of Humanity
Laurel Longe, Wayne State College, Nebraska

Lucas Beauchamp, found in Intruder in the Dust and Go Down, Moses, is one of William Faulkner’s most psychologically well-rounded characters. He is endowed with both vices and virtues; his life is dotted with failures and successes; he is a character who is able to push the boundaries that the white South has enforced upon him without falling to a tragic ending. Living in a society which believes one drop of black blood makes a person less than human and implies criminal tendencies, a society in which men like Joe Christmas are hunted and killed for fear of racial mixing, Lucas is a character who contradicts all that we have come to expect from a typical tragic character of mixed blood, such as Joe Christmas or Charles Bon. By contrasting the Lucas Beauchamp we find in the “The Fire and the Hearth” section of Go Down, Moses to a model tragic figure such as Joe Christmas from Light in August, one can measure Lucas’ success by his own merit, not by his white ancestry.

Environment is key to understanding Faulkner’s characters. Daniel J. Singal argues Faulkner’s intentions of creating Lucas Beauchamp as a “model transitional identity,” a bridge from Jim Crowism to the end of segregation (268).  Segregation produces a structure of society that feels threatened by that which cannot be arranged into the roles of hierarchy. Andre Bleikasten states, “To divide is to pass judgment, to name the categories of good and evil, to assign them to fixed locations, and to draw between them boundaries not to be crossed” (326). Jefferson society divides its citizens into categories of black and white. Each individual knows where he or she stands; each knows at a glance which category every other citizen belongs to, and treats others accordingly. Any deviation from this structure is a threat to the society (326). In Light in August, Joe Christmas poses such a threat to Jefferson society because he is able to cross the boundaries. He looks white, but allegedly has black blood.

He never acted like either a nigger or a white man. That was it. That was what made the folks so mad. For him to be a murderer and all dressed up and walking the town like he dared them to touch him, when he ought to have been skulking and hiding in the woods, muddy and dirty and running. It was like he never even knew he was a murderer, let alone a nigger too. (350)

The threat that Joe Christmas poses is not as an alleged rapist and murderer, but as a black man who is able to walk among whites, walk into white stores, use white facilities, without being recognized as black. He lives among them undetected and for that, he must be destroyed before he destroys the structure of their world. He is hunted, castrated, and murdered as though he is less than a man. Joe Christmas pushes the boundaries set for him and is sentenced to death.

Singal sees a similarity between Lucas and Joe Christmas—both are “something that should never be.” Lucas’ aristocratic heritage and Christmas’ black blood/white appearance challenge the Southern white ideal self-image (267). Lucas is a black sharecropper, a descendant of slaves who were taken advantage of by their white master, L.Q.C. McCaslin. Lucas fits the pattern of a black man in the South no more than Joe Christmas does. He avoids addressing white men, including Roth, the plantation owner, and the county judge by “sir”; he refuses to knock at the back door of the main house, and he enters into several debates with Roth involving the purchase of the divining machine and the sale of Roth’s mule. Lucas refuses to conform to the boundaries set for him by years of white domination. Faulkner’s habit of repeating events (i.e., the fates of Joe Christmas and Charles Ban) prepares us for a tragic ending that never occurs. Keeping the horror of Christmas’ fate in mind, we might ask ourselves why Lucas is so successful. Charles H. Nilon offers some insight: “His quality is defined by what he does rather than by what he is” (12). Whereas emphasis is placed upon the mixed blood of Joe Christmas and the search for his identity, Lucas Beauchamp’s actions and words are foremost in his character.

To understand Lucas Beauchamp’s prosperity, we must dissect the many layers of “The Fire and the Hearth.” On the surface, we find Lucas hiding his still and discovering a gold coin, which leads to his obsession with buried treasure. Flashbacks reveal episodes with Cass and Zack Edmonds. Throughout the story, Lucas’ ability to know when to push his boundaries and when to back away, his insistence upon human dignity, and his ability to read people aid in his achievements. By contrast, Joe Christmas lacks the ability to back away, he does not assert his humanity or even believe that he deserves kindness, and his misunderstanding as a child of the dietician’s behavior leads him to mistrust others and his own impression of others as he grows older.

Faulkner employs Lucas and forces him to push racial confines in an effort to encourage the same behavior in other black people (Singal 269). Lucas does not “go around to the back, the kitchen door. He had done that only one time since the present Edmonds was born; he would never do it again as long as he lived” (GDM 44). Lucas manages to avoid addressing white men as “sir.” When he asks Isaac McCaslin for his inheritance as a young man, he walks “side by side to the bank” with Isaac and then stands “side by side” in front of the teller (106). He refuses to walk behind his white cousin, and he demands to take full responsibility for his money. These seemingly small gestures are Lucas’ way of attaining equality. While his commitment to racial progress may not be conscious, his commitment to human dignity is.

Lucas’ entanglement with the divining machine illustrates his talent for persuasion. First, he convinces the owners of the machine to send it to Jefferson without a down payment. Then, when he sees the salesman squatting in the shade on his heels, Lucas knows how to place him and how to deal with him. He gains the upper hand, thinking, “He mought talk like a city man and he mought even think he is one. But I know now where he was born at” (78-79). Lucas persuades the man to let him use the machine with the payment of a stolen mule, and despite Roth’s frustration and refusal to advance him three hundred dollars for the machine, he still gives Lucas until sunup to return it. Not only does Lucas convince the salesman to let him use it one more night despite the stolen mule, he tricks the salesman into renting it from him for several nights. Lucas’ quiet, unwavering stance makes him a shrewd businessman.

Many critics claim that Lucas Beauchamp’s behavior is a direct result of having L.Q.C. McCaslin, an ambitious plantation owner and businessman, for a grandfather.  Walter Taylor claims that Lucas’ pride stems from his white ancestor (139). Charles Nilon says that Lucas’ actions are the result of his desire to be like his grandfather and that he “wants to possess the land; he wants money” (2 1,17). And Cleanth Brooks writes, “Lucas has a real lust for power . . . like Thomas Sutpen and old Carothers” (253). I strongly disagree with all of them. Lucas does not have a lust for power, but for recognition of his humanity. Ambition is not a characteristic that is decisively “white.” White blood makes Lucas no more an entrepreneur than black blood makes Joe Christmas a murderer. These men are shaped more by their environment than their biological makeup. The desire to acquire wealth, to want something better than what we are allotted and are told we should be happy with, is not a characteristic that can be assigned to a particular race. Lucas has more money in the bank than what he himself admits he can spend in his lifetime, but his goal is not to acquire things. His search for, gold is, as Singal states, “as much sacred as economic (270). The land has taken something away from Lucas; he is trying to take it back. His history one in which slavery has only seemed to end; one of the themes of Go Down, Moses is that sharecropping and slavery have little difference between them. Sharecroppers are still under the control of the plantation owner, are told when and where to work fields that do not belong to them, and are forced to get supplies and food from the plantation-owned commissary. Their lives are tabulated in the ledgers as though they, too, are mere products on the shelves. Lucas is aware of the way in which old McCaslin took advantage of his grandmother and great-grandmother. He sees how history repeats itself through his grandparents, parents, himself, his children. Just as Isaac believes the soil is tainted, so does Lucas, but he sees a way to gain something back from the land and becomes obsessed with it.

Lucas does have pride in his family, but it does not stem from a desire to be white or act white. His goal is respect, to be treated as an honorable man. This is best illustrated in his memory of Roth’s birth, when he risks his life crossing the river to get a doctor for Zack’s wife: “[H]e had entered [the river] not for his own sake but for that of old Carothers McCaslin who had sired him and Zack Edmonds both.. .“ (45). Lucas risks his life not because he feels it is his duty as a black servant to do all he can for his white master, but as a member of the McCaslin family helping another member of the family. When he returns, Zack’s wife is dead and his own wife, Molly, is living in the house as the wet nurse. For six months, he resents the arrangement and duty of his black wife. He is reminded of how L.Q.C. McCaslin placed his grandmother and his great-grandmother in the main house where they were subject to his sexual whims. Finally, he goes to the main house and demands Zack give his wife back, but he also demands to be treated as a human being. He says, “I’m a nigger,” stating what Zack believes. Then, “I’m a man,” what he wants Zack to understand (46). He then explains their mutual relation, essentially stating, “I’m a McCaslin,” a fact that Zack cannot deny. Lucas is trying to make Zack understand his need to be treated with human dignity, using phrases Zack already knows. I’m a nigger; I’m a McCaslin. To deny my manhood is to deny the manhood of your own relation and therefore yourself.

However, this confrontation is not enough. Lucas is still tormented with the idea that Zack and Molly may have had an affair. When he discovers Roth at Molly’s breast in his own home, he yells, “What’s ourn? What’s mine?” (49).1 He is not referring only to children. Zack has entered upon sacred ground and thrust his mastery into their home where Lucas has kept the symbol of his marriage, the fire, burning since the day he married Molly. He asks what is his and only his? What cannot be touched by a white man who can order a black man’s wife into his home and tell her to suckle his child? When Molly offers to take the white child back, Lucas says, “No! I went to Zack Edmonds’ house and asked him for my wife. Let him come to my house and ask me for his son” (50). Once again, Lucas demands equality. Zack must place himself in the same situation and ask the a similar favor. But Zack does not come, enraging Lucas more. He wants to confront him, but waits for daylight. Cleanth Brooks says that Lucas’ honor is illustrated by the fact that he refuses to confront Zack in darkness (251). Forgoing the bestial stereotype of blacks acting as preying animals, Faulkner places the conflict in broad daylight where Lucas does not crouch and hide but stands over Zack, erect and proud, saying, “I am a McCaslin too. . . You thought that because I am a nigger I wouldn’t even mind” (52). Lucas reaffirms his manhood and tells Zack that he will not permit him to take his wife. In the physical and verbal struggle that follows, Lucas nearly kills Zack. Both are saved by a misfire. Later, Lucas looks at the bullet, musing, “. . .the dull little cylinder. . . large enough to contain two lives” (57). Lucas knows he would have been lynched if Zack had been killed. He could have fired again; he could have slit Zack’s throat with his razor while he had the chance, but Lucas knows when to push his limits and when to pull back. Zack, too, seems to gain insight through this episode. As a white man, he has the power to kill Lucas or throw him off his land, but he does neither. Lucas has convinced him of his humanity.

Singal seems to think that Lucas’ violent reaction to Molly’s presence in the main house is unfounded, claiming that Lucas “has lost contact with reality” (271). True, Lucas’ actions are dangerous and impulsive, especially when we consider that there is no affair between Zack and Molly, but Lucas does not know this. He does, however, know the history of the McCaslin plantation and where he stands as a black man. History repeats itself, folds in on top of itself. Lucas may be wrong in his speculations, but his fears are understandable.

Lucas Beauchamp’s affirmation of his identity and his ability to back away from fatal conflict are in pronounced contrast to Joe Christmas’ inability to pursue either of Lucas’ strongest points. The main theme of Light in August and the primary concern of Joe is his identity, or lack thereof. Whereas Lucas confronts Zack with “I am,” Joe can only offer a feeble “I don’t know,” to those who ask. The true race of Joe’s father is never revealed. While Milly, Joe’s mother, believes her lover is Mexican, the circus manager says he was “a part nigger instead of Mexican” ( LIA 377). Doc Hines murders the man before anyone can discover the truth.

Lucas uses his ancestry to attain human dignity. He knows where he came from and uses this as evidence that he should be treated with equality. Joe uses his speculative past not to create an unarguable bond with members of both races, but to create further distance. Thadious M. Davis states “He seeks the greatest, possible reaction from that audience; for a white audience he uses the shock value of blackness appearing surreptitiously in their midst, for a black audience, he asserts the superiority of his whiteness” (149). He tells white prostitutes that he is a Negro and is “beaten unconscious by other patrons” (LIA 224); he tricks men in saloons into calling him a "nigger" to start a brawl. He also goes to black people’s cabins, demanding food or clothing, and frightening them. He does not strive for dignity, as Lucas does, but pushes other people from him. He goes on a rampage of self-­destruction.

When Joanna Burden asks him how he knows he has black blood, he hesitates, then answers, “I don’t know it. . . If I’m not, damned if I haven’t wasted a lot of time” (254). Indeed, he has wasted time, trying to decide upon the life of either a black man or a white man when he could have chosen humanity, as Lucas does. Joe leads a life of violence, turning his frustration of not knowing who he is into anger at himself.

This inward turmoil begins in the orphanage. After being called “nigger” by children on the playground and by the dietitian, he asks a black custodian, “‘How come you are a nigger?” and the nigger sa[ys] ‘Who told you I am a nigger, you little white trash bastard?’ and he says ‘I ain't a nigger’ and the nigger says ‘You are worse than that. You don’t know what you are. And more than that, you won't never know. You’ll live and you’ll die and you won't never know”’ (383-384). The custodian’s words seem brutal directed at a child, but their strength comes from the absolute truth that they tell. Also, Joe’s first encounter with race is confusing; he does not look like the custodian, who even refers to him as white trash, yet several people insist Joe is a “nigger.” This may be the reason for his question “Why?”  Joe seems to feel that “nigger” must refer to something other than appearance; after all, his skin is white. Faulkner has carefully designed his novel so that we are never sure whether or not Joe Christmas has black ancestry. Joe and other characters constantly speculate about his background. The purpose of this is to stress the ineffectuality of knowing. As Cleanth Brooks puts it, “Joe would have become what he became whether he had an infusion of Negro blood or not” (50). This is best demonstrated by his inability to back away for his own safety once he has pushed his boundaries to their limits.            

Whereas Lucas pushes and then retreats, rebelling and yet ensuring his own survival at the same time, Joe expresses his anger to its fullest extent and then runs away, accomplishing little. We see this in Joe at a very young age when McEachern orders him to study his catechism, punishing him with severe blows each time the boy does not comply. In this instance, the boy is calm, not angry, but the event becomes a seed that grows into hostility as Joe grows older. Certainly, McEachern is irrational in his strict punishment, but Joe is pushing, and even when he nearly collapses from the beatings, Joe does not back away and comply in order to protect himself. Later, when he fights with a group of boys over a black girl, they yell,

    "Will you quit now? We got you. Promise to quit now."


    "Quit, Joe! You cant fight all of us. Don’t nobody want to fight you, anyway."

    "No." (157)

No one, including Joe, is certain of what he is fighting for, and when he is obviously outnumbered by boys who do not even want to fight, he still refuses to stop. Again, Joe carries anger to its extremities at the dance with Bobbie when he attacks McEachern. He attacks and runs, and through his wanderings, he invites more battles with prostitutes and drunken men. Finally, in his confrontation with Joanna Burden on the night of her murder, we find a scene comparable to that between Lucas and Zack. Each takes place in a bedroom in which both Lucas and Joe are struggling for identity with a razor. However, it is Lucas who pulls the trigger and is saved by a misfire with one round left in the chamber. He chooses to save himself and his family from further pain by pulling back, He has already thrown away his razor; he lets his words finish the battle. Joe is like the opposite side of the coin: What would have happened had Lucas not thrown away his razor and had fired again? Joe’s reaction to the same situation is, ironically, the answer to the riddle. Joe could have taken the gun from Joanna and simply left as he had been planning to do that morning. Yet he disarms her and then slashes her throat. Arguably, he acts in self-defense; she did try to murder him. But again, he lets his emotions take him too far. Joe’s reality is Lucas’ fantasy of what would happen to him had he killed Zack: Joe is hunted, captured, mutilated, and slain.

So what possesses Joe always to propel himself beyond the limits? Cleanth Brooks states “Christmas... yearns only for a vindication of his identity and integrity—a vindication made the more difficult by his not knowing precisely what he would vindicate” (66). Joe is a self-terrorizing terrorist, for the cause is overshadowed by the fight. He does not know for whom or what he is fighting, only that he must fight. Even if he knew the truth about his parentage, his self-destructiveness would find another incentive for battle. Joe lacks the strong sense of identity and self-discipline that provides Lucas with his integrity.

And yet, despite Lucas Beauchamp’ s pride and his steps toward equality, he still feels helpless to prevent harm to his family. He has taken impressive steps towards declaring his rights as a human being. He has walked where other black men would die if they crossed such borders, but he realizes it is still not enough. His distress is heard in the words, “How to God can a black man ask a white man to please not lay down with his black wife? And even if he could ask it, how to God can the white man promise he won’t?” (58). His questions underscore the lack of equality between black and white men. In other words, he is asking at what level, at what time, will a black man be able to ask a white man to act honorably, and a white man be able to honor or comply with a black man’s wishes?

Despite Lucas Beauchamp’s disillusionment, his pride remains intact, as we can see from his escapades with Roth and the divining machine. Lucas also teaches that pride to his son, Henry. Like Lucas and Zack, Henry and Roth play together as children. They eat together and sleep under the same blanket. Molly is the only mother Roth has ever known and Henry is like his brother. Yet, when he is seven, “the curse of the old fathers, the old ancestral pride. . . stemmed from wrong and shame, descend[s] to him” (107). Roth no longer wants to sleep in Lucas’ cabin. He walks home quickly, forcing Henry to walk behind him, and will not let Henry sleep in the same bed with him. He stops playing with Henry for a month, then tries to resume their friendship by announcing he will eat dinner with Lucas and his family. But Roth has created a separation between races that Lucas and his family will not let him take back. When dinner is ready, Roth finds that he is to eat alone at the table. He is being served. “‘Are you ashamed to eat when I eat?’ he crie[s]. . . ‘I ain’t ashamed of nobody,’ [Henry] say[s] peacefully, ‘Not even me.”’ (110). Using the same dignified and quiet tone of his father, Henry tells Roth that once he has drawn a line, he can no longer cross it. Lucas has taken steps to efface the barriers of race, but in this instance knows that the best way to teach Roth the impact of his actions is to force the barriers he has created upon him. Roth does not allow Henry to cross that barrier; he must not either. Tragically, he cannot gain his heritage without losing his foster family.

This strong sense of pride fostered within the family is absent from Joe Christmas. Whereas Lucas has taught his son that he is deserving of kindness and dignity (and it can be assumed that Lucas also received the same lessons as a boy), Joe is first confronted with uncaring people in the orphanage and then strict Calvinist adoptive parents, none of whom have any biological or nurturing connections with him. Joe has no one to tell him, “You are one of us. You deserve to be treated as a decent human being.” His first experience with race comes not from looking in the mirror or at family members, but through the children’s name-calling at the orphanage. His self-image is negative from the very beginning, without positive reinforcement from parents.

Joe learns from a very early age to suspect kindness. When he is caught hiding in the dietitian’s room eating toothpaste as she meets her lover, he expects punishment. Instead, he is bribed with money to keep her secret—a secret he is too young to understand. His ignorance and refusal to accept the money anger her and she lashes out at him with more force and repercussions than if she had merely spanked him for stealing toothpaste, as he expected. This event not only shapes all his future relations with women, but also shapes his mistrust of all people. He discovers he cannot read people, as Lucas can. He believes that everyone must have ulterior motives. For this reason, he trusts McEachern over his foster mother, despite McEachern’s violence, for he responds to Joe with a series of punishments. Joe commits a wrong; McEachern punishes him. This is what Joe expects, and he trusts that it will happen. The mother, on the other hand, tries to win Joe’s favor with secret kindness, reminding him of the superficial generosity of the dietician. Throughout his life, Joe will not be able to accept the benevolence of others, no matter how small. When a white prostitute responds to Joe’s confession of his color with indifference rather than disgust, he reacts violently. Her response to his ancestry, though it may not be considered kindness, exactly, is her way of treating him as a human being. Hyatt H. Waggoner states, “To be able to accept kindness is implicitly to acknowledge one’s self in need of it. . .“ (105). Joe has never had a strong foundation of mentors to assure him that he is indeed deserving of humanity. Therefore, he cannot learn to accept what has been repeatedly ingrained in him to avoid. He has been taught, and has taught himself, that he deserves nothing more, and should expect nothing more, than hard work and punishment. Yet basic human survival requires him to build a defense against the pain of rejection. Joe steals food, money, and shelter, rapes, and takes whatever he feels is necessary. When Joe Christmas takes, “it is for fear that something might be freely given” (Bleikasten 293). The scared little boy who refuses a bribe of a silver dollar still lives in fear that he might learn to trust someone—that that trust will be violently swept away, and that he will once again be sent away from the orphanage. He is stealing from Joanna Burden when she walks in on him and says, “If it is just food you want, you will find that” (LIA 231). She is giving him permission to eat. Then, when he tries to rape her, she submits to this also. At first, he is enraged, but then he begins to trust her—and she pulls a gun on him. Joe has been brought up among harsh words and hands that have taught him to mistrust others and himself. He feels that he is undeserving of basic human kindness, and in pushing others away, he is further isolating himself. His inability to connect and to form an identity from which he can build self-esteem and dignity sends him into a spiral of destruction. Joe is never able to create distance between himself and his problems, but seems to repeat scenes of self-mutilation over and over again. He fights with friends, runs, fights with McEachern, runs, fights numerous men in numerous saloons and whorehouses, and runs. He runs in circles, encountering the same anger and lack of humanity each time he slows for breath. He is constantly running away, but never running to anything (Bleikasten 336).

After Joanna’s murder, he escapes into the woods, where amid his fatigue and hunger, a sense of peace seems to grow within him. Coming upon Mottstown, he says, “I have been further in these seven days than in all the thirty years. But I never got outside that circle. I have never broken out of the ring of what I have already done and cannot ever undo” (339). Here, Christmas recognizes his own cycle of pushing too far. He at last is falling over the edge. He walks to town and allows himself to be captured, and then later, ensures his own fatal pursuit by escaping through a crowd in front of the jail. When Percy Grimm kills and castrates him, his blood rushes “like a released breath” (LIA 465). Joe’s expression of peace at the time of his death signals that he has finally accepted an identity: the scapegoat. Jefferson society will not allow him to be human; it demands that he be either white or black. And since he cannot choose, since he is lacking in self-imposed dignity, an ability to trust others and create bonds, and an ability to push his boundaries and then back away, he cannot attain the humanity that Lucas Beauchamp has. Society insists that he must be black or white and he is neither. His existence threatens the structure of society and so he must be sacrificed for the sake of the town. Andre Bleikasten writes, “Were [Joe Christmas] able to merge or transcend [the categorical structure of Jefferson], he could achieve a self beyond race truly his own. (317). This is precisely what Lucas Beauchamp has done: transcended race.

Lucas’ history—the way in which his McCaslin blood is obtained, the loss and retrieval of his wife, the rite of passage that both he and his son Henry take with Zack and Roth—is interspersed with his hunt for gold, giving meaning to his obsession with taking something of his own from the land. His preoccupation with treasure nearly leads to a divorce from Molly, who fears the curse of McCaslin soil, saying “God say, ‘What’s rendered to My earth, it belong to Me unto I resurrect it. And let him or her touch it, and beware'" (99). It is not until the county judge is about to divorce them that Lucas steps in and promises to give up the search for gold. Again, he pushes as far as he can go, but pulls back to save himself. As they are about to get into the car to go home, Lucas tells Roth to wait, leaving him shouting, “‘You’ve bankrupted your waiting. You’ve already spent—’ But Lucas ha[s] gone on. And Edmonds wait[s]” (125). Lucas returns, walking with an air of dignity, carrying a bag of candy for his wife. He asserts his humanity and puts off the orders of a white man to honor his spouse.

Throughout the text of “The Fire and the Hearth,” we see Lucas Beaucbamp as an individual, not as someone trying vainly to be someone else. His pride in his heritage is a tool used to convince Zack and Roth of his rights as a human being. By forcing the issue of human dignity, Lucas is blending the racial lines, rather than crossing them. He makes no separation. Lucas is not one or the other, as the character of Joe Christmas portrays. His behavior is not white or black, but distinctly human. And unlike those heroes to whom he is compared, like Thomas Sutpen or L.Q.C McCaslin, he does not destroy himself for the sake of power and money. True, his vices take him close to the edge of destruction, but he knows when to back away and has the sense to value his life and family over revenge or buried treasure. What is more, he does so calmly, not grudgingly, but with the same quiet dignity that has marked his existence. Lucas Beauchamp may be a larger-than-life hero, but unlike Joe Christmas, he is not tragic.


1 ‘Earlier editions of Go Down, Moses state “Whar ‘s ourn? Whar ‘s mine?” (emphasis mine).

Works Cited

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