The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman by Ernest J. Gaines

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The Characters

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Jane Brown is the name taken by a ten-year-old slave girl, Ticey, when a white Union soldier tells her she should not let herself be abused by her white slavemasters. After the soldier leaves, Ticey/Jane tries to assert her independence, and she is beaten for it. This beating destroys her ability to conceive children, and so her only motherhood is caring for Big Laura’s child, Ned, after Big Laura is killed while helping other slaves escape to the North. Jane learns early to repress the instinct for rebellion that she felt when she was Ticey. When Jane decides to live with the horse-breaker Joe Pittman, she takes his name as well, but she never marries and remains “Miss” for all her life.

Miss Jane Pittman is presented by the editor as a character speaking in her own voice. Because of her great age and infirmity, as well as her unpolished language, Jane’s narrative seems unlikely. The rationale for its style is that the editor is an educated schoolteacher who has smoothed out the illiteracies and oral characteristics of the original recitation. Nevertheless, some of her speaking voice is suggested by such expressions as “It might ’a’ been July, I’m not too sure, but it was July or August. Burning up.”

Although Jane tells her own story in her own words, edited as they are, her character is expressed more fully by the relationships she forms with the people in her life. Apart from Big Laura, there are men whose significance for Jane is slow to dawn in her moral development. After the first outburst of defiance that she shows as ten-year-old Ticey, Jane Pittman survives because she succeeds in repressing her passions and maintaining some distance from those who cannot do the same. The men of her life, from Ned to Jimmy, seek to implicate her in their courage and rebellion, but she resists until the very end. Even her life of intimacy with Joe Pittman is sustained with caution and care. She does not see clearly that her care, in the form of a consultation with a voodoo woman, leads directly to the death she tries to prevent for Joe.

The characters of Jane’s narrative are presented through her words, through her eyes, and through her moral imagination. Recalling Ned Douglass, Jane struggles to understand why he risked his life for his right to teach. Jane understands the motives of the sinister Albert Cluveau better than those of her beloved Ned. Albert has a physical and familiar presence, although he becomes a sign of evil in Jane’s dreams. Cluveau is a cold and calculating person, all the more frightening because he seems so common. When Cluveau dies insane, Jane does not think it extraordinary that her wishes might have caused his suffering.

Jane Pittman is a naïve observer of her own life, which is punctuated by the martyrdoms of one woman and three men. When Jimmy Aaron’s body is returned to Samson’s plantation after he tries to exercise his civil rights in Bayonne, Jane reaches into her spiritual resources and finds the child Ticey again, as she walks past Samson to take her place in the cause of righteousness. She boards a bus for the town, where she means to drink from a “whites only” water fountain. For one so wise, Jane seems remarkably insensitive to the power of her men’s moral courage, although she can appreciate the vitality of their presence. There is aesthetic pleasure in recognizing that Jane’s naïveté may be the product of the editor’s own moral innocence. The character of Jane Pittman is left incomplete and mysterious, because the schoolteacher has smoothed out the bumps and filled in the gaps of her living autobiography. To see into her essential being would be difficult enough for anyone listening to her living voice. It is more difficult still for a reader dependent upon a text edited by a teacher who is making a lesson of Jane’s life for his schoolchildren.

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

Miss Jane Pittman

Miss Jane Pittman, a former slave and lifelong agricultural laborer and domestic. She is small but...

(The entire section is 3,083 words.)