The Characters (Masterplots II: African American Literature, Revised Edition)
Jane Brown is the name taken by a ten-year-old slave girl, Ticey, when a white Union soldier tells her she should not let herself be abused by her white slavemasters. After the soldier leaves, Ticey/Jane tries to assert her independence, and she is beaten for it. This beating destroys her ability to conceive children, and so her only motherhood is caring for Big Laura’s child, Ned, after Big Laura is killed while helping other slaves escape to the North. Jane learns early to repress the instinct for rebellion that she felt when she was Ticey. When Jane decides to live with the horse-breaker Joe Pittman, she takes his name as well, but she never marries and remains “Miss” for all her life.
Miss Jane Pittman is presented by the editor as a character speaking in her own voice. Because of her great age and infirmity, as well as her unpolished language, Jane’s narrative seems unlikely. The rationale for its style is that the editor is an educated schoolteacher who has smoothed out the illiteracies and oral characteristics of the original recitation. Nevertheless, some of her speaking voice is suggested by such expressions as “It might ’a’ been July, I’m not too sure, but it was July or August. Burning up.”
Although Jane tells her own story in her own words, edited as they are, her character is expressed more fully by the relationships she forms with the people in her life. Apart from Big Laura, there are men whose significance for...
(The entire section is 677 words.)
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Characters Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Miss Jane Pittman
Miss Jane Pittman, a former slave and lifelong agricultural laborer and domestic. She is small but wiry, perhaps 110 years old at the time of the narrative. Miss Jane is a living repository of the American black experience in the Deep South. Jane has survived a long life of neglect, abuse, and oppression through a combination of endurance, tenacity, and necessary forbearance. She weathers the brutality and dehumanizing effects of institutionalized racism and the grief of personal loss with a wisdom and vitality that affects even her white social superiors. Her autobiography reflects her personality and attitude, and she shapes the novel with an eyewitness’ sense of historical immediacy. At the end of the novel, in a culmination of her life, she asserts her independence and freedom by staring down a white plantation owner as she leaves for town to lend her support to a civil rights protest.
Ned Douglass, Miss Jane’s adoptive son, a Spanish-American War veteran, schoolmaster, and community leader. In his late thirties at the time of his murder, Ned is tall and powerfully muscled, with intense eyes and a natural orator’s persuasive ability. As a small child, Ned is unofficially adopted by Jane, herself barely more than a child, after his mother and infant sister are murdered by nightriders shortly after emancipation. Ned is the child Jane can never have biologically. His departure to...
(The entire section is 1150 words.)
The chief character, Miss Jane Pittman, tells her own story and that of others. Through her long life, she gathers the acquaintance of many, and also reminisces about public figures, like Huey Long, Martin Luther King, Jr., and even Jackie Robinson. Her eyewitness clarity and authentic voice make the reader forget that Miss Jane Pittman is a fictional character and that the concept of an autobiography is merely a fictional device. This device complicates her character, producing a succession of Miss Janes as she grows through time, yet integrating them through the voice of the old woman. As the book begins, Ticey (Miss Jane before she re-christens herself) meets with soldiers from both sides of the Civil War, as they arrive in close succession on the plantation. From her exchanges with them it appears that she is never allowed to get enough sleep and is beaten if she catnaps during the day. When she changes her name, she is beaten for that too. Though young, she already displays bravery that later grows into an enduring courage.
With freedom comes other trials to test Jane's mettle. Led by Big Laura, a powerful matriarchal ex-slave, a small band of blacks travelling north from the plantation is massacred by a marauding band of Secesh, or Confederate soldiers, leaving Jane to go on with only Big Laura's little orphaned son Ned at her side. Minor characters encountered during their journey — a poor white-trash ferryman, a domineering black woman at the...
(The entire section is 1256 words.)
Miss Jane Pittman is the focus of the narrative, for she has witnessed one hundred years of life in Louisiana, from slavery to the civil rights movement. As a strong candid woman she relates the events of the novel. While she sees little good coming from the federal government or from the white race, as individuals she sees both their faults and their goodness. She acknowledges her own weaknesses as well, saying that disliking some people on first sight is "one of my worse habits, probably the worst I have, but I can't get rid of it." Most of all, Jane is a survivor.
Jane's instincts for survival are hard-earned. When she leaves the plantation where she was born, she is stubborn in her faith that the North is a sort of promised land. She is determined to take Ned there, even when told it will take her thirty years to get there. By the time Mr. Bone turns his plantation over to Colonel Dye, however, she has learned not to believe in rescue: "I would stay right here and do what I could for me and Ned. If I heard of a place where I could live better, where Ned could get a better learning, I would go there to live. Till then I would stay where I was." Jane realizes she can only depend on herself to make her life better.
But Jane also knows that individuals can make a difference in the lives of many. When Ned is threatened because of his work with the committee, she tells him to "do what you think's right," even if it meant leaving her. She also...
(The entire section is 450 words.)
The people in the quarters continually hope for a leader like Moses who will help them leave the plantation. By the time Jimmy Aaron is five or six years old, Jane and the others are already wondering if he is the "One." Jimmy's father is unknown and his mother left to find work in New Orleans shortly after his birth, so Jane and the other women of the quarters are his surrogate mothers. His love for reading and learning inspire the hope that he will be the "One." However, when he returns from schooling in New Orleans and asks the church members to begin demonstrating like Dr. Martin Luther King, they all but refuse. Jimmy is shot for his political activism, but his death causes passive people like Jane to take a stand, and so she walks past Robert Samson.
A woman from the plantation quarters who sells small items such as seeds and perfume around the parish. Since she has a car, she also runs errands for many of the older folk on the plantation. She takes young Jimmy with her on her runs when he is young, and she says she wishes he was her own son. When Jimmy organizes the demonstration at the courthouse in Bayonne, Olivia volunteers to drive everyone there and pay bus fare for those who cannot fit in her car.
A large woman known as Big Laura takes charge of the freed slaves who have...
(The entire section is 3191 words.)