The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman

by Ernest J. Gaines

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Book 1, Chapters 1-2 Summary

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The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1971) by Ernest J. Gaines is written as if it were being dictated to a man who is interested in hearing Miss Jane’s story. Miss Jane is more than one hundred years old as she recounts all the circumstances of her life as a slave and later as a free woman.

After introducing the story, the novel begins in the voice of the protagonist, Miss Jane, who as a slave was called Ticey. Ticey is serving water to Southern troops who are passing by the plantation on which Ticey lives. The men are completely exhausted; they can barely lift their arms to receive the gourd of water Ticey hands them. They do not even see her, she says. They do not notice if she is a girl or a boy or if she is white or black.

She pays attention to one particular soldier who is not much older than she is, though she is not completely sure of her own age, which is probably around eleven or twelve. This young soldier quotes from the Bible, claiming that the Bible says the land belongs to Southerners and black people were made to serve the Southern people. Ticey doubts that these quotations are legitimate. She says that since hearing this young soldier speak, she has asked many people to verify the soldier’s statements by searching the Bible for his references. No one has ever found them.

Several hours later, a Union troop also stops at the plantation where Ticey lives. She offers them water as well, under orders of her mistress. These soldiers are quite different, Ticey realizes. One of the men even tells her that he cannot call her Ticey because he knows it is a slave name. He gives her the name of his daughter, Jane Brown. Before leaving, the soldier asks Ticey if her master has ever beaten her. Ticey has difficulty answering this question because she senses she could get in trouble. The soldier encourages Ticey to be honest. Eventually Ticey nods in the affirmative to his question. The soldier tells Ticey that if her mistress or master ever beats her again, she is to come looking for him and he will return to burn down their house.

As she watches the soldiers leave, her mistress calls her by the name Ticey, but she refuses to respond. She is beaten for her disobedience and loses her position as a helper around the house. She is put out to work in the fields as punishment.

A year later, the white master on the plantation calls all the slaves to the house to make an announcement. When all are gathered, he tells them they are free. He adds that they can stay and work but he can only pay them with a share of the crops they grow. Whoever does not want to stay, he tells them, is free to leave.

Ticey is the first to say she wants to leave. She asks which way is North. She knows nothing of how to get there but knows the soldiers from the North helped her to gain her freedom. Others joins her, mostly the younger slaves. They gather the little bits of food the master offers them and their few clothes and take off on the road.

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Book 1, Chapters 3-4 Summary