Summary (Masterplots II: African American Literature, Revised Edition)
In Catherine Carmier, the arrival in a small rural community in southern Louisiana of two outsiders—two natives who have been away—threatens the tentative equilibrium that has been established within the community. Whether that equilibrium can ever be reestablished, and whether it should be, are questions that the novel explores.
Jackson Bradley has come home after being graduated from college in California. His aunt, Charlotte, believes he has come home to stay, that he will settle down to teaching in the community, and that he will probably marry Mary Louise, whose love for him has never faltered during his absence. Although he is not sure where he does belong, Jackson realizes that this backwater community can no longer satisfy his needs. As far as he is concerned, he has returned for a visit of only a few weeks.
Lillian Carmier arrives on the same day as Jackson. She is welcomed by her sister, Catherine. When Catherine and Jackson encounter each other, it is clear to Lillian that there is something between these two.
The Carmiers’ skin is so light that they could easily pass for white, and Lillian, who has been reared by relatives of her father in New Orleans and who therefore has no strong ties either to the community or to her parents, has decided to do just that, a long way from Louisiana. Catherine has no such intention, and she tries to encourage a greater closeness between Lillian and Della, their mother. Their father Raoul’s insistence that they have nothing to do with dark-skinned men, however, has left Catherine in a position of emotional isolation.
Her father cannot so easily dictate Catherine’s feelings. In fact, she has had a son, but Raoul drove the dark-skinned father away before he could marry her. She has also loved Jackson, whose skin color makes him just as unacceptable....
(The entire section is 759 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series, Revised Edition)
There is a strong autobiographical strain in Catherine Carmier. Like the novel’s protagonist, Jackson Bradley, Gaines moved to California to get a decent education and a stronger foothold on a better life than he could find at home, in the poor rural area around New Roads, Louisiana, which, fictionalized, is the novel’s setting. He also faced a similar personal dilemma, whether to return home to teach or to seek a more promising life elsewhere.
By the time he finished Catherine Carmier, Gaines knew that writing was his life’s work, but Jackson, his fictional counterpart, has no such vision of the future. He knows only that he cannot sacrifice himself to the seemingly futile task of trying to educate children whose futures he perceives as singularly bleak.
The novel is divided into three parts, each made up of several short chapters. Throughout, Gaines uses a third-person-omniscient narrative technique, but he primarily limits forays into the thoughts of characters to those of Jackson and his romantic nemesis, Catherine. The work also develops two distinct but parallel lines of action. The first, dealing with Jackson’s decision to leave Louisiana, centers on Jackson and his Aunt Charlotte; the second focuses on the intense but ultimately ill-fated love affair of Jackson and Catherine.
Part 1 starts with the imminent arrival of Jackson on a bus from New Orleans. He is to be met by his old friend Brother, who is introduced in the opening scene. Catherine Carmier also waits for the same bus, which, coincidentally, carries home Lillian, her younger sister. Thus Jackson has a brief encounter with Catherine, revealing at the outset that there is a magnetism between them; however,...
(The entire section is 710 words.)
Bibliography (Masterplots II: African American Literature, Revised Edition)
Babb, Valerie Melissa. Ernest Gaines. Boston: Twayne, 1991. Asserts that Gaines’s writing transcends African American experience and voices the concerns of humanity. Catherine Carmier is a pastoral, but one in decline.
Bell, Bernard W. “Ernest Gaines.” In The Afro-American Novel and Its Tradition. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1987. Bell claims that Catherine Carmier is informed by the sense of nihilism of the nineteenth century Russian author Ivan Turgenev and by the sense of southern history of the twentieth century American author William Faulkner.
Bryant, Jerry H. “Ernest J. Gaines: Change, Growth, and History.” The Southern Review 10 (1974): 851-864. Bryant states that Gaines combines moral commitment and aesthetic distance. Catherine Carmier depicts the triumph of inertia.
Byerman, Keith E. “Negotiations: The Quest for a Middle Way in the Fiction of James Alan McPherson and Ernest Gaines.” In Fingering the Jagged Grain: Tradition and Form in Recent Black Fiction. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1985. Examines how Jackson and Catherine must escape the confinements of the old world, but in the name of the values of that world.
Carmean, Karen. Ernest J. Gaines: A Critical Companion. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1998. Critical overview of Gaines’s work and its importance to African American and southern literary history.
Doyle, Mary Ellen. Voices from the Quarters: The Fiction of Ernest J. Gaines. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2002. Focuses on Gaines’s achievement in capturing the oral traditions and the linguistic cadences of African American culture. Argues that the varied voices of his characters combine to generate the unique voice of the author himself.
Hicks, Jack. “To Make These Bones Live: History and Community in Ernest Gaines’s Fiction.” Black American Literature Forum 11 (1977): 9-19. Notes that Catherine Carmier is informed by a view of personal and racial history as a prison from which the principal characters can never fully escape.
Stoelting, Winifred L. “Human Dignity and Pride in the Novels of Ernest Gaines.” CLA Journal 14 (March, 1971): 340-358. Stoelting claims that Gaines is concerned with how his characters handle decisions, rather than with the rightness of their choices.