Best known for his highly successful novel The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, Ernest Gaines’s new book In My Father’s House is at least as notable in its unflinching presentation of the modern black man’s dilemma as the earlier work is in its poignant portrait of the black man’s past. In The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, Gaines celebrates the indomitable spirit of blacks as they struggle out of the degradation of slavery and do battle with racial hatred and ignorance to claim their due as full human beings. In My Father’s House, through its lean plot and echoing rhythm, exposes another kind of slavery in the making in modern America: it is slavery dressed in the guise of material success. In My Father’s House is a cautionary novel that reveals the terrible danger that lies beneath the beauty and allure of the American dream. Blacks who now have the opportunity to make a place for themselves in middle-class society, to live the “good life” in America, can be so blinded in their quest that they can fall victim to an influence which would more effectively and insidiously strip them of their humanity than could any slave master in the past.
Gaines’s restrained style and serious tone effectively reveal the genuine depth of his feeling and the concern with which he views this very real problem. Although the author is sympathetic to the central figure in the novel, Philip Martin, he makes effective use of irony to strip away those trappings of affluence and power which hide the real Philip.
Philip is the pastor of a large black church in St. Adrienne, Louisiana, and is a leader in the local civil rights struggle. Thus he has attained position, prestige, and authority. He has all the external symbols of middle-class success: an elegant, ranch-style brick home, a luxury sedan, a station wagon for his wife, and an “ideal” family consisting of a wife and two children (one boy and one girl). Gaines’s use of irony is quite apparent here. Philip is described as tall, large, and very handsome. He is so satisfied with his apparent success that he finds no need to question or examine his life. Then a mysterious figure from his past comes to town, and Philip’s world collapses. The focus of the novel rests on Philip’s attempts to face himself and his life for the first time in order to know who he is and what his life means.
The action begins when a wraithlike Robert X appears out of the rain and winter cold, a ghost from Philip’s past. He is a hollow man, a shell, the remnants of a son Philip had abandoned more than...
(The entire section is 1072 words.)