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Joe Christmas is born to Milly, the white daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Hines.
Mr. Hines, a janitor at an orphanage, tells Mrs. Hines that the baby died. In fact, Mr. Hines took Joe to the orphanage where he works.
When Joe is five years old, he sees Miss Atkins the dietician having sex with a doctor at the orphanage. The dietician seeks revenge on Joe, convinced he's going to tell the headmistress of the orphanage.
The janitor wakes up Joe in the middle of the night and removes him from the orphanage. They go on the run together. Three days later, the pair gets caught by the police and Joe is returned to the orphanage.
The dietician, still convinced that Joe's going to tell on her, convinces a strict Christian man named McEachern to adopt Joe.
Joe moves in with the McEacherns, where Mr. McEachern attempts to raise Joe as a proper Christian but Joe consistently rebels.
When he is fourteen years old, Joe's friends kidnap a young black woman for all of the boys to rape in a barn. Everyone rapes the girl except for Joe, who beats and kicks her instead. Joe's friends intervene, pulling him off of the girl. He lashes out at his friends and fights them instead.
McEachern gives Joe a young pig to take care of as his own, in order to teach him trust and responsibility.
McEachern takes Joe into town with him when he goes on business. One day, they eat at a local diner where Joe becomes interested in a waitress named Bobbie Allen.
Joe returns to the diner on his own; he begins a relationship with the waitress and learns that she's a prostitute. At first he is jealous that she sees other men, but eventually he learns to deal with it.
Joe sells a pig and uses the money to buy a suit in order to attend a dance with Bobbie Allen.
Joe sneaks away to the dance and McEachern follows him. McEachern shows up at the dance furious with Joe. Joe hits him over the head with a chair; McEachern collapses and possibly dies.
Joe drifts from town to town, sleeping with white women and black women alike, living his life alternately as a white man and a black man.
One day he arrives in Jefferson and takes up work at the planing mill.
Joe moves into Miss Burden's cabin after noticing that it's uninhabited.
Joe begins an affair with Miss Burden.
Joe begins selling whiskey illegally to local townsfolk. He takes Joe Brown as his partner in the illegal business and Joe Brown moves into the cabin with him.
Miss Burden begins to pray over Joe and this enrages him. He develops to plot to kill her.
Joe kills Miss Burden, nearly decapitating her.
Percy Grimm shoots Joe Christmas, killing him. He then castrates him.