Bloodline, Ernest J. Gaines


Bloodline Ernest J. Gaines

American novelist and short story writer.

The following entry presents criticism on Gaines's short story collection Bloodline, published in 1968. See also Ernest J. Gaines Literary Criticism (Volume 3), and Volumes 18, 86, 181.

Published in 1968, Bloodline is Gaines's only collection of short fiction. The book has received considerable attention for its masterful use of viewpoint and narrative voice and for its careful structuring of individual stories around a central theme. Although two of the collection's stories—“A Long Day in November” and “The Sky Is Gray”—are more frequently lauded and anthologized than the others, critics have noted that Bloodline's primary accomplishment is the way in which the five stories create a unified artistic whole. In fact, the book has been described by some as an episodic novel, though Gaines has resisted this interpretation. Whatever its designation, Bloodline has been recognized as a powerful evocation of the struggles of blacks in the rural South in the century following the Civil War.

Plot and Major Characters

The opening story, “A Long Day in November,” chronicles a dispute between Eddie and his wife, Amy. Narrated by the couple's six-year-old son, Sonny, the argument concerns Eddie's car, which Amy feels is preventing her husband from fulfilling his responsibilities as a husband and father. In the end, Eddie accepts the advice of the community's “hoo-doo woman” and burns his car to demonstrate his commitment to his family. “The Sky Is Gray” also follows the events of a single day and is told from the perspective of a child—although the narrator, eight-year-old James, is older than Sonny and has far greater responsibilities. In the course of the story, James, who is suffering from a toothache, must travel with his mother from their rural black community to a dentist in the mostly white town of Bayonne. The journey allows James to observe the segregated culture of the South and the stirrings of black dissent, as personified by a young man in the dentist's office. The narrator and protagonist of “Three Man” is Proctor Lewis, a young black man who is imprisoned after stabbing another man in a fight. His cellmates are Munford Bazille, an older man who has plenty of experience with jails and violence, and Hattie, a homosexual. Initially, Proctor plans to gain his release through the intervention of a wealthy white man, Roger Medlow—a common practice in the South at that time. But Proctor reconsiders when Munford counsels him that he should instead take responsibility for his own actions and serve his time in prison. After much soul searching, Proctor chooses jail rather than being obligated to Medlow.

The title story, “Bloodline,” centers on the conflict between an elderly white plantation owner named Frank Laurent, and his nephew, Copper Laurent, who is the son of Frank's brother and a black woman. Though the story is set in the post-slavery era, many vestiges of the system remain, which Copper vigorously opposes. Copper also maintains that he should inherit the plantation on Frank's death, an idea that Frank opposes because of Copper's mixed racial makeup. The central event in “Just Like a Tree,” the final story in the collection, is a going-away party for Aunt Fe, the beloved African American matriarch of the Duvall Plantation. The old woman is being taken from her lifelong home by her niece, who fears the family may be harmed by the violent retaliations taking place in the area as a result of civil rights activities. Unlike the other stories in Bloodline, which utilize a single first-person narrator, “Just Like a Tree” is told from multiple perspectives—members of the black community, the white woman who owns the plantation, and an African American visitor from the North. Throughout the story, Aunt Fe is opposed to leaving the plantation, and at its conclusion she dies before she leaves her home.

Major Themes

Manhood is the central motif in the stories comprising Bloodline. Most of the male characters in the collection are concerned with defining and proving themselves as men; but for Gaines, this means more than exhibiting stereotypical masculine behavior or asserting dominance over women. Instead it means accepting responsibility and its consequences and working toward the betterment of something outside of oneself. Interpreted in this way, it can be argued that the women in the collection are often more “manly” than the men, so the subjects of gender roles and family relations are also major thematic concerns in Bloodline. Intergenerational relations is another recurring theme in the collection, as the stories explore how the younger and older generations interact. The stories also consider the legacy of slavery and the unjust social structure of the American South, especially in the decades leading to the 1960s. In turn, the changes wrought in the South by the Civil Rights movement figure prominently in the stories, particularly “Just Like a Tree.” On a more figurative level, the book considers the balance between the use of the head (logic) versus the use of the heart (emotion).

Critical Reception

Bloodline attracted little critical attention when it was first published. Yet after the success of Gaines's novel, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1971), the collection received renewed interest. Critics voiced near universal praise for the author's control of narrative voices and skillful use of first-person point of view. Moreover, they commended his skillful and authentic use of rural Southern black speech patterns. Critics have also elucidated the unifying elements in the collection, such as the progressively older narrators and characters in each of the stories as well as the fact that the stories take place on the same day in and around Bayonne, Louisiana. Many commentators have discussed Gaines's treatment of manhood and responsibility in the stories comprising Bloodline as a unifying theme. The collection's sense of place and history also gets ample attention from commentators. Commenting on Gaines's fictional rendering of rural Louisiana, William Burke summed up the book as “a symbolic story of the South—and America—from the experiences and point of view of its black citizenry.”

Principal Works

Bloodline (short stories) 1968

Catherine Carmier (novel) 1964

Of Love and Dust (novel) 1967

The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (novel) 1971

*A Long Day in November (juvenilia) 1971

In My Father's House (novel) 1978

A Gathering of Old Men (novel) 1983

A Lesson before Dying (novel) 1993

*Adapted for young readers from the story of the same title originally published in Bloodline.


Granville Hicks (review date 17 August 1968)

Hicks, Granville. “Sounds of Soul.” Saturday Review (17 August 1968): 19-20.

[In the following review of Bloodline, Hicks praises the author's characterization and his ear for common speech while finding fault with some of the conclusions to the stories.]

Ernest J. Gaines, author of two novels, Catherine Carmier and Of Love and Dust, has now published a collection of short stories, Bloodline. All five of the stories concern Negroes in the South—probably in Gaines's native Louisiana. In the first story, “A Long Day in November,” a five-year-old boy presents a domestic comedy that is no comedy to him. In “The Sky Is Gray” it is...

(The entire section is 1267 words.)

Ernest J. Gaines with Forrest Ingram and Barbara Steinberg (interview date 1973)

SOURCE: Gaines, Ernest J., and Forrest Ingram and Barbara Steinberg. “On the Verge: An Interview with Ernest J. Gaines.” In Conversations with Ernest Gaines, edited by John Lowe, pp. 39-55. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1995.

[In the following excerpt from an interview originally published in New Orleans Review in 1973, Gaines discusses the major theme and characters in the stories in Bloodline, the literary influences that helped shape them, and his conception of the collection as a unified work.]

[Ingram and Steinberg]: Do you think you'll continue writing about Louisiana and the South?

[Gaines]: Till I get it...

(The entire section is 3448 words.)

Walter R. McDonald (essay date summer 1975)

SOURCE: McDonald, Walter R. “‘You Not A Bum, You a Man’: Ernest J. Gaines's Bloodline.Negro American Literature Forum 9, no. 2 (summer 1975): 47-9.

[In the following essay, McDonald explores the theme of manhood in Bloodline and compares the collection to works by William Faulkner and John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath.]

Born on a Louisiana plantation in 1933, Ernest J. Gaines lives now in San Francisco but returns to his boyhood home yearly. He has turned the materials of his own life and the history and folklore of the changing Louisiana plantation system into three novels—Catherine Carmier (1964); Of Love and Dust (1967);...

(The entire section is 2473 words.)

Frank W. Shelton (essay date December 1975)

SOURCE: Shelton, Frank W. “Ambiguous Manhood in Ernest J. Gaines's Bloodline.CLA Journal 19, no. 2 (December 1975): 200-09.

[In the following essay, Shelton elucidates Gaines's complex portrayal masculinity in Bloodline.]

With the recent highly regarded television version of the novel, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, Ernest J. Gaines's reputation and popularity have been enhanced substantially. His earlier works are consequently being reconsidered, but one of the curious facts of Gaines criticism is that his one volume of short stories, Bloodline, has been relatively neglected.1 Certainly “The Sky Is Gray” is an...

(The entire section is 3924 words.)

William Burke (essay date June 1976)

SOURCE: Burke, William. “Bloodline: A Black Man's South.” CLA Journal 19, no. 4 (June 1976): 545-58.

[In the following essay, Burke views the five stories in Bloodline as “the record of changing race relations in America.”]

One of the finest collections of short stories published in the past few years—Bloodline by Ernest Gaines (New York: Dial Press, 1968, to which all page numbers refer)—has gone generally unrecognized by literary critics in spite of its praise by reviewers, and it is time to give the volume recognition. The five stories in the collection demonstrate their excellence in two ways: they are human stories—moving,...

(The entire section is 5338 words.)

Barbara Puschmann-Nalenz (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: Puschmann-Nalenz, Barbara. “Ernest J. Gaines: ‘A Long Day in November’ (1963).” In The Black American Short Story in the 20th Century: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Peter Bruck, pp. 157-69. Amsterdam: B. R. Grüner Publishing, 1977.

[In the following essay, Puschmann-Nalenz provides a thematic and stylistic analysis of “A Long Day in November” and views the story as a precursor to Gaines's popular novel The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman.]

Ernest J. Gaines was born in 1933. He grew up on a plantation in the Louisiana “bayou country.” At the age of sixteen he moved to San Francisco, where he still lives.


(The entire section is 4782 words.)

Todd Duncan (essay date May 1978)

SOURCE: Duncan, Todd. “Scene and Life Cycle in Ernest Gaines' Bloodline.Callaloo 1, no. 3 (May 1978): 85-101.

[In the following essay, Duncan examines the way Gaines depicts the process of maturation and aging in Bloodline, comparing events in the stories to the eight life-cycle stages theorized by psychoanalyst Erik Erikson.]

When Ernest Gaines published The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman in 1971, he secured his footing within the American literary world as an important artist. The critical acclaim was nearly unanimous, and the transformation of the work into a popular television drama embellished that success. But Gaines' quiet vision...

(The entire section is 7407 words.)

Ernest J. Gaines with Calvin Skaggs (interview date 19 October 1979)

SOURCE: Gaines, Ernest J., and Calvin Skaggs. “Interview with Ernest J. Gaines.” In The American Short Story: Volume 2, edited by Calvin Skaggs, pp. 443-51. New York: Dell Publishing, 1980.

[In the following interview, which was originally conducted in 1979, Gaines comments on the origins of “The Sky Is Gray,” discusses his metaphorical use of colors, and identifies the literary works that influenced the story.]

[Skaggs]: Do you have any memory of when the idea for this particular story, for “The Sky Is Gray,” occurred to you? What was the germ of the story? Or what made you put these particular events together?

[Gaines]: I...

(The entire section is 3664 words.)

John F. Callahan (essay date winter 1984)

SOURCE: Callahan, John F. “Hearing is Believing: The Landscape of Voice in Ernest Gaines's Bloodline.Callaloo 7, no. 1 (winter 1984): 86-112.

[In the following essay, Callahan contends that in Bloodline “voice becomes a transforming agent” that allows the characters to realize their identities and pursue changes that will result in greater freedom than they had previously experienced.]

The way home we seek is that condition of being at home in the world which is called love and which we term democracy.

—Ralph Ellison


“Usually,” Ernest Gaines...

(The entire section is 12960 words.)

John W. Roberts (essay date fall 1984)

SOURCE: Roberts, John W. “The Individual and the Community in Two Short Stories by Ernest J. Gaines.” Black American Literature Forum 18, no. 3 (fall 1984): 110-13.

[In the following essay, Roberts argues that “A Long Day in November” and “The Sky Is Gray” depict the conflict between traditional, community-defined values and those established by individuals.]

The interaction between the community and the individual, along with its role in the shaping of human personality, is a primary concern of Ernest J. Gaines in much of his fiction. It is in probing the underlying community attitudes, values, and beliefs to discover the way in which they determine what...

(The entire section is 3546 words.)

Karen Carmean (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: Carmean, Karen. “The Short Stories: Bloodline (1968).” In Ernest J. Gaines: A Critical Companion, pp. 137-55. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1998.

[In the following essay, the critic provides an overview of Bloodline, commenting on the different perspectives the stories provide on the subject of African American manhood and asserting that their effect is heightened when read as a whole.]

Throughout his career, Ernest Gaines has said that he writes about “survival with sanity and love and sense of responsibility, and getting up and trying all over again not only for one's self but mankind” (Lowe, 96). Nowhere is his concern more...

(The entire section is 7896 words.)

Further Reading


Doyle, Mary Ellen. “Ernest J. Gaines: An Annotated Bibliography.” Black American Literature Forum 24, no. 1 (spring 1990): 125-50.

Comprehensive annotated bibliography through 1989.

———. “Bibliography.” In Voices from the Quarters: The Fiction of Ernest J. Gaines, pp. 237-42. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2002.

An update of Doyle's 1990 bibliography, although this version is not annotated.


Babb, Valerie Melissa. “The Odyssey to Self in Bloodline.” In Ernest Gaines, pp. 15-44. Boston: Twayne, 1991....

(The entire section is 417 words.)