What is one of the universal themes in In My Father's House by Ernest J. Gaines?  

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Karen P.L. Hardison eNotes educator| Certified Educator

One of the universal themes in Gaines' novel that is full of important themes (e.g., oppression of women, neglect of children, isolation, infidelity) is that of the inescapability of consequences to decisions and actions taken. It is this that leads Phillip Martin to the tragic end of this narrative, yet, as Alma expresses, it is a tragic end that requires a new beginning: "Shh. Shh. We just go'n have to start again."

Decision and Action 1. Phillip had left his wife and son Etienne (and two other children) and gone on to become a Christian and a minister and a social leader. Decision and Action 2. Rather than go back to his first wife and children, Phillip remarries.

Inescapable Consequence: Etienne, having changed his name to Robert X, reflecting the militant Black Power movements of the era, comes to St. Adrienne where Phillip is. Etienne is there with a purpose, to attend a "conference" and to "meet a man." Both men violently react when they first encounter each other:

Shepherd ... didn't see how violently the tenant's face trembled when he saw the minister [Martin] for the first time ... staring across the room like someone hypnotized. His face covered with sweat.

Gaines illustrates through Phillip that, while personal redemption may guide later decisions and actions, the consequences of first actions cannot be escaped.

If those first decisions and actions are detrimental to other people, other innocent people, then the consequences that cannot be escaped and that must be faced may have unpredictable secondary consequences in the others' lives. These may be as horrible as the primary consequences. In the case of Phillip and Robert X, the secondary consequences were more horrible because, with his young life devastate by abandonment, Etienne ended that life so as to suffer no more.

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