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Ernest J. Gaines

Ernest J. Gaines Essay - Critical Essays

Ernest J. Gaines American Literature Analysis

Gaines is a raconteur of the agrarian South, specifically of the black experience in rural Louisiana during the three decades following World War II. His chief setting, former slave quarters located near the town of Bayonne, closely mirrors the actual surroundings of Gaines’s boyhood: the quarters on River Lake Plantation and the town of New Roads. This world, remote for most readers, becomes in Gaines’s novels a literary microcosm, inhabited principally by blacks, Creoles, and Cajuns, all treated with a simple honesty and direct style that are the hallmarks of his fiction.

Prevalent themes in Gaines’s fiction often originate in his own experience. His male characters search for an identity at a time when change was hard-won and self-esteem required the courage to reject a demeaning place in a world in which wealth, prestige, and power belonged exclusively to white people. In those turbulent years of the mid-twentieth century, escape from poverty and racial servility often involved flight to the North or West, but at great emotional cost and with a deep sense of alienation and loss. In contrast to the stance of more militant African Americans who, writing during the 1960’s, were advocating confrontation and even violence, Gaines has defined courage in the young black male as the power to endure with dignity the injustices of a racist society (“The Sky Is Gray” and A Lesson Before Dying).

Gaines’s work reveals that the younger African Americans of his generation had few choices; the life that their parents and grandparents had known was disappearing. Slowly but relentlessly, black people who had eked out an impoverished but dignified living from the land were being pushed into the soggy bottoms, onto land unfit for serious cultivation. The inheritors, mostly Cajuns (that is, white people of French ancestry) were swallowing up the good lands, farming for profit with mechanized equipment, tearing down the houses of poor black people, and plowing over their graves.

Less deracinated by these events, the black women in Gaines’s novels, especially the older ones, are more adaptable. Most of them cling tenaciously to their Christian faith, drawing strength from the church, which many young black men, like Jackson Bradley in Catherine Carmier, come to abandon. The women endure in part because the conditions do not so deeply erode their sense of purpose or identity. They can live a bare, frugal existence because they gain much strength from their community and the extended families that they strive to hold together. The younger black men, their prodigal sons, either set out on solitary quests for a new source of pride and dignity or succumb to an early defeat, even a violent death.

Against this background, Gaines spins highly personal stories of individuals and families profoundly affected by change and exacerbated racial tensions, a complex problem because of miscegenation and the existence of a large Creole and mixed-race population. The separatist attitude of Creoles, like Raoul in Catherine Carmier, is often as intransigent as that of many bigoted white people.

Remarkably, the bitterness that might surface in this world is usually muted. Although omnipresent and insidious, the racial caste system is not something its principal victims dwell upon or use as a psychological crutch. For most, the system is a fundamental fact of life, and though they dream of change, they are pragmatists, finding dignity despite the system and summoning moral strength to confront it.

There are few real villains in Gaines’s fiction, even among the persecutors. The worst of men, such as Luke Will, the redneck bully in A Gathering of Old Men, are mindless and craven. Most, such as Fix Boutan from the same novel, are bound to a familial and racial code, however misguided, by a strong sense of honor. They, too, are victims of caste, for they cannot see that they are morally bankrupted by their blind arrogance and hate.

Such characters play only secondary roles, however, for Gaines’s avowed purpose is to focus on poor black people, not their persecutors. To that end, Gaines has evolved a disarmingly plain and direct style, a “voice” to match the simple, unsophisticated lives of his principals, most of whom have no hope of sharing the white people’s bounty. Inspired by the rhythm and phrasing of blues musicians, the harangues of Pentecostal preachers, and recorded interviews of former slaves, Gaines uses short sentences, colloquial cadences, and unpretentious diction with a lyricism that is both insistent and intense. He prefers monosyllabic, ordinary words of everyday speech, and his progress through a tale is seldom encumbered by elaborate description or extensive introspection by his characters. It is a style that he has mastered, and with it he evokes both humor and pathos.

It is also a style suited to Gaines’s realistic, uncomplicated plots, which often focus on the impact of one critical event or relationship in the experience of simple people who live uneventful, even placid lives. With the exception of The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, which covers a span of roughly one hundred years, the plot time frame is narrow, as in A Gathering of Old Men and A Lesson Before Dying. Gaines builds the real story in the event’s uncertain, soul-searching aftermath.

Frequent characters in Gaines’s fictive world are a young, educated black man, seeking purpose while impaled on the horns of a moral dilemma, and an older, righteous black woman, urging him toward the harder, self-sacrificing choice. They are Jackson Bradley and Aunt Charlotte in Catherine Carmier, Gaines’s first novel, and Grant Wiggins and his aunt, Tante Lou, in A Lesson Before Dying. Younger counterparts to this pairing are James and his mother Octavia in “The Sky Is Gray.” In one guise or another, they appear in much of Gaines’s fiction. Primarily through such characters, the author has struggled with the fundamental ambivalence toward his own heritage. This personal spiritual odyssey has been responsible for the author’s reputation as one of the most humane and compassionate novelists in the United States.

“The Sky Is Gray”

First published: 1963 (collected in Bloodline, 1968)

Type of work: Short story

A young African American boy learns a lesson in pride and endurance from his mother.

James, the eight-year-old narrator of “The Sky Is Gray,” lives with his mother, Octavia, his aunt, and three younger brothers in rural Louisiana. Because James’s father has been called to the army, the family lives a marginal existence, supported only by the mother’s fieldwork. James, knowing that there is no money for a dentist, suffers in silence with an agonizing toothache. When his aunt reveals the child’s misery, Octavia takes James to town on the bus. The action of the story occurs in one day.

The irony is achieved through the narrative position of the child who observes events he cannot comprehend but must accept. The rural town of Bayonne is rigidly segregated, with the warm restaurants and shops reserved for white people. The dentist is an inferior practitioner who accepts black patients. The black people must eat “back of town” and are not welcome in the white-owned stores. Octavia constantly corrects James, reminding him that he is the oldest son and must behave like a man. He understands that, no matter how intense his suffering, he must not cry or complain. The reader may view...

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