Joe Christmas: Victim of Women and Absolutism.
Joe Christmas is a very complex character, perhaps one of the most complex literary figures of this century. Much of his complexity is derived from his early relationships with women. Indeed, Joe's life is shaped very much by the women he encounters as a young boy; the dietician and Mrs. McEachern, and the impact these women have on him is evident most clearly in the two major relationships he has later on in his life: with Bobbie the waitress and Joanna Burden. Although Joe is a man of a truly conflicted nature, living between the absolutes of white and black, it is the women in his life who continually force him to confront and claim one of these absolutes, which he is ultimately unable to do. .
Joe's first and perhaps most traumatic encounter with women occurred at a very early age, while he is still in the orphanage. While hiding in a closet and eating toothpaste, he mistakenly eavesdrops on the dietician having a romantic interlude with another staff member of the orphanage. Joe, a young child, has no idea what is really happening. He is discovered when the toothpaste makes him physically ill and he vomits. From the onset, the physical sensations of sickness and guilt and anxiety are linked to female sexuality. Once he is caught, Joe expects and needs to be punished. The dietician however, is unconcerned with the toothpaste and instead worries that Joe will tell about her interlude with the male attendant. When she initially offers Joe money, instead of yelling at him, he is shocked and confused,.
"He was waiting to get whipped and then be released. Her voice went on again, urgent, tense, fast: "A whole dollar. See? How much could you buy? Some to eat every day for a week. And next month maybe I"ll give you another one." -Pg.125.
She denies him the security of punishment following sin. His guilt cannot be absolved until he is punished and the confusion and anxiety that stems from this incident will be what he connects with women for the rest of his life.