Study Guide

In My Father's House

by Ernest J. Gaines

In My Father's House Themes

Social Concerns / Themes

In My Father's House explores a universal range of social concerns, although many of them are by-products of racism. It concentrates on matters that were only sub-themes in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pillman (1971): the oppression of women, marital infidelity, social instability amid the poverty and uncertainty of a racist society, the isolation of those who seek to effect change, and the neglect of children. The pivotal ethical predicament of the novel is the dilemma of the main character, Phillip Martin, who has, in an earlier life, abandoned his wife and three children. This action comes back to haunt him after he has remarried and become a prominent minister and civic leader. His son, Etienne, suddenly appears in St. Adrienne, Louisiana, having adopted the name Robert X. (That these names suggest the civil rights leaders, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X has been noted by several reviewers.) Many reviewers find unpalatable soap operatic elements in Martin's dilemma, but charges of melodrama and sensationalism are unwarranted when racial and social oppression are the issues. Although Martin has obvious moral flaws, the punishment of having to bear not only his son's awkward return but also his suicide, is extreme. The powerful expression of the suffering of blacks in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman has a positive and hopeful outcome; here, however, it becomes an occasion to explore some of the negative, soul chilling results of...

(The entire section is 351 words.)