Study Guide

Ernest J. Gaines

Ernest J. Gaines Essay - Gaines, Ernest J. (Vol. 11)

Gaines, Ernest J. (Vol. 11)

Introduction

Gaines, Ernest J. 1933–

Gaines is a black American novelist and short story writer. His fiction deals with the victimization of the poor, uneducated black, often in settings drawn from Gaines's native southern Louisiana. Character portrayal in Gaines is realistic and convincing, and has been compared to Faulkner's. The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman is his best known work. (See also CLC, Vol. 3, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)

William Peden

Gaines's strength lies in his quietly compassionate depiction of plantation Blacks in his native Louisiana….

"A Long Day in November," the best piece in Bloodlines (all five are good), is a masterly novella of a young boy, his father and mother, and their world on a Louisiana plantation. There are no technical pyrotechnics here, no violence, but in their place a steadily seen and beautifully rendered picture of family life, alive with the minutiae of day-to-day existence…. The novella is climaxed by two powerful scenes that in less skilled hands would become either ludicrous or melodramatic…. Gaines's fine sense of control, his effective use of dialogue, and the quiet resonance of his scene-building [are evident]…. (p. 238)

Different as the fictional worlds of Alice Walker and Ernest J. Gaines are, they share one thing in common: they are the work of mature writers who in one manner or other (and quite apart from their concern for their race) have moved from the platform of sociology to the realm of art. "What moves a writer to eloquence is less meaningful than what he makes of it," Ralph Ellison has said. In their best stories, Miss Walker and Mr. Gaines have made that implied transition. And that makes all the difference. (p. 239)

William Peden, in Studies in Short Fiction (copyright 1975 by Newberry College), Summer, 1975.

LARRY McMURTRY

Ernest Gaines's fiction has been characterized from the first by its quiet force. The characters in his several fine books often raise their voices, but the author declines to raise his. These characters are mainly poor, and mostly black; their lives are seldom far removed from the threat of violence, physical or emotional or both. Sooner or later the violence arrives, and the characters cry out at one another, or to the heavens. Their pain, struggle, bewilderment, joys and agonies are registered with precision and sympathy, but the strong prose that carries their stories is not affected by the fevers or the biases of those it describes.

A swimmer cannot influence the flow of a river, and the characters of Ernest Gaines's fiction—from Catherine Carmier to Miss Jane Pittman, and from Miss Jane to the Rev. Phillip Martin of "In My Father's House"—are propelled by a prose that is serene, considered and unexcited. It is the force of Mr. Gaines's character and intelligence, operating through this deceptively quiet style, that makes his fiction compelling. He is, pre-eminently, a writer who takes his own good time, and in [the case of "In My Father's House"] the result of his taking it is a mature and muscular novel.

The Rev. Phillip Martin is a pillar or the black community in the little town of St. Adrienne, La…. He is at the height of his influence as a civil-rights leader…. [Then his] past abruptly catches up with...

(The entire section is 601 words.)

Julian Moynahan

In My Father's House would make a gripping play with its tight plot and strong scenes of confrontation, its Ibsenite central character …, and its central unsettling question, which brings together public and private issues of great moment to the black community in modern America yet which opens historical perspectives reaching from slavery days to the present.

The question relates to a profound cleavage between the male generations, between black fathers and sons….

There's little doubt that the Reverend Martin and his ravaged older son are meant to represent historical generations. Also, the year 1969 [the year of the novel's action], a time when much of the impetus of the civil rights movement had been checked, following the King and Robert Kennedy assassinations, and when the cult of the guerilla warrior and of the gun was spreading among disillusioned younger blacks, is deliberately chosen to heighten the intergenerational tension. Gaines, however, is far too good a writer to let the narrative thin out into mere allegory. The milieu of St. Adrienne and its rural neighborhoods, where both blacks and whites function within a regional culture amalgamating French Catholic with Southern Baptist influences, is solidly built up.

Julian Moynahan, "Spectral Visitation," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), June 18, 1978, p. E5.

Mel Watkins

In ["In My Father's House"] Ernest Gaines returns to the fictional terrain he carved for himself in "The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman" and "Of Love and Dust."… The characters too are familiar; they are the staunch rural types, like Catharine Carmier and Jane Pitman, who meet life's adversities with stoic heroism and whom Mr. Gaines has portrayed with such authenticity in his previous works. All are familiar—all, that is, except Robert X, who emerges in this tale as a Giacomettilike figure amid a landscape peopled by stalwart, Old South provincials.

In this sense, "In My Father's House" is a striking departure for Mr. Gaines, for during the first half of this novel the mysterious Robert X controls the tempo of the narrative. It is his presence, eerie and initially inexplicable, that dominates the story, and ultimately, precipitates the action. Mr. Gaines has unleashed an alien force in the insulated folk world that has heretofore delineated his fiction. And although Robert X never emerges from the shadowy torpor in which he has been cast, he is the catalyst that shakes the traditional assumptions and tentative equilibrium of the St. Adrienne blacks, the Rev. Phillip Martin, and even the white power structure with which they are in restrained conflict.

"In My Father's House," however—despite the larger social, generational and regional themes that are touched upon in its finely textured narrative—is...

(The entire section is 590 words.)