Ellen Douglas Essay - Critical Essays

Josephine Ayres Haxton

Ellen Douglas Short Fiction Analysis

Although Ellen Douglas addresses such twentieth century problems as racism, alienation, and cultural breakdown, her approach is unlike that of most contemporary writers. Her characters may be confused about the direction their lives should take, but the author herself is not in doubt; her works reflect her unswerving adherence to Judeo-Christian ethics. Like the great moralists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, such as Jane Austen and Charles Dickens, Douglas believes that such happiness as this world can provide is achieved only by putting principles above selfish considerations, by placing the needs of others ahead of own’s own.

This preoccupation with the way people behave toward one another is evident throughout Douglas’s short fiction. “The House on the Bluff,” from Black Cloud, White Cloud, examines the relationships between a number of characters, primarily members of two white families, who have lived in the same community for generations, and the blacks who were so much a part of their lives. With so many possibilities for kindness, compassion, and pure spitefulness, it is not surprising that a child like Anna McGovern often finds this world quite puzzling.

Whether they are told by first-person narrators or in the third person, Douglas’s short stories and novellas generally have a single point of view. Almost always the protagonist is both sincere and sympathetic. “I Just Love Carrie Lee” is an exception; in that story, the reader is expected to see beyond what the unreliable narrator says. Most of the time, however, the reader and the protagonist move together toward the recognition of some truth about human nature or about life. While Douglas is too much of a realist to minimize the difficulties inherent in human relationships, she always holds out hope that, despite their differences, her characters can become more tolerant and more empathetic.

“I Just Love Carrie Lee”

One of the pervasive themes in Black Cloud, White Cloud is how difficult it is for even the best-intentioned whites and blacks to surmount the racial barriers erected by time and tradition. In the satirical monologue “I Just Love Carrie Lee,” Emma, the white narrator, thinks of herself as a model employer. She points out an obvious truth: that, unlike transplanted Yankees, Southerners take responsibility for their black employees—for instance, making sure that they have an income even when they cannot do their usual work. However, despite her protestations, Emma does not really “love” Carrie Lee. Though the two women do know each other intimately, they are not friends, for while Emma admits she depends on Carrie Lee, she does not respect her. She quotes Carrie Lee’s homey truths in order to laugh at them, and even when she allows Carrie Lee to enter the white church for family weddings and funerals, she does so primarily so that Emma can admire her generosity. Ironically, it is not Emma but Carrie Lee who knows the real meaning...

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