The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman

by Ernest J. Gaines

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The Characters

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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...

(This entire section contains 677 words.)

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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

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Miss Jane Pittman

Miss Jane Pittman, a former slave and lifelong agricultural laborer and domestic. She is small but wiry, perhaps 110 years old at the time of the narrative. Miss Jane is a living repository of the American black experience in the Deep South. Jane has survived a long life of neglect, abuse, and oppression through a combination of endurance, tenacity, and necessary forbearance. She weathers the brutality and dehumanizing effects of institutionalized racism and the grief of personal loss with a wisdom and vitality that affects even her white social superiors. Her autobiography reflects her personality and attitude, and she shapes the novel with an eyewitness’ sense of historical immediacy. At the end of the novel, in a culmination of her life, she asserts her independence and freedom by staring down a white plantation owner as she leaves for town to lend her support to a civil rights protest.

Ned Douglass

Ned Douglass, Miss Jane’s adoptive son, a Spanish-American War veteran, schoolmaster, and community leader. In his late thirties at the time of his murder, Ned is tall and powerfully muscled, with intense eyes and a natural orator’s persuasive ability. As a small child, Ned is unofficially adopted by Jane, herself barely more than a child, after his mother and infant sister are murdered by nightriders shortly after emancipation. Ned is the child Jane can never have biologically. His departure to the North at the age of seventeen or eighteen devastates her. He is killed because of his indepen-dent thinking and his campaigning for civil rights for black citizens.

Joe Pittman

Joe Pittman, Jane’s common-law husband, a widower with two daughters and an expert breaker of wild horses. Joe accepts Jane’s inability to bear children with compassion. His expertise as a horse tamer leads him to seek employment on a ranch in western Louisiana, where he becomes locally renowned for his courage and ability. Joe is killed trying to tame a huge black stallion. The seven or eight years Jane and Joe spend together are the most carefree and peaceful of Jane’s life.

Jimmy Aaron

Jimmy Aaron, a young civil rights worker born on the Samson plantation. He is shot dead by white racists in the nearby town of Bayonne. Tall and thin, with serious eyes, Jimmy is from birth considered a savior figure in the black community. He is constantly identified as “the One” upon whom black hopes rest for a leader. Jimmy’s intelligence and oratorical skills lead him neither to the pulpit—as universally hoped among the black community—nor to the teacher’s lectern, but into civil rights action after the example of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. After successfully motivating black citizens to attend a protest in Bayonne, Jimmy dies a martyr’s death.

Jules Raynard

Jules Raynard, an elderly white man, godfather to Tee Bob Samson and “like a second father” to Robert Samson, Sr. Jules, a big man with white hair and a red face, apparently an asthmatic, intervenes in the crisis triggered by Tee Bob’s suicide. A man of intelligence and compassion, Jules speaks truths with Jane about the insidious effects of institutional racism on modern young people. Jane respects Jules more than any other white person.

Albert Cluveau

Albert Cluveau, a Cajun ne’er-do-well and paid assassin who murders Ned Douglass. Pock-faced and bowlegged, with patchy, unkempt white hair and watery blue eyes, Cluveau admits dispassionately to Jane to killing numerous people, both black and white. Oddly attracted to Jane, Cluveau seeks her company, runs errands for her, and sips coffee and fishes with her. He shows neither hesitation nor remorse about shooting Ned, even knowing that Jane loves Ned as her son. Believing afterward that Jane has put a curse on him, Cluveau dies terrified, in a delusion of being attacked by demons.

Robert Samson, Sr.

Robert Samson, Sr., the owner of the Samson plantation and father of Tee Bob. He defends the values and attitudes of the Old South. Robert is a tall, thin man with brown hair and gray eyes. Like his natural son, Timmy Henderson, Robert is high-spirited and loves practical jokes. Robert is part of the racist status quo. He is not personally vicious, but he lacks any sympathy for black civil rights.

Tee Bob

Tee Bob, the name by which Robert Samson, Jr., is called. He is the legal heir and only child of Robert Samson, Sr. He commits suicide after falling deeply in love with the mulatto schoolteacher on his father’s plantation. Childlike in appearance (though a college student), with a soft red mouth; large, sorrowful eyes; and fair, smooth skin and a beardless face, Tee Bob’s love for Mary Agnes LeFabre transcends racial boundaries and social mores. His love is rebuked by the adults, both black and white, as well as by his closest friend, leading Tee Bob to take his own life.

Mary Agnes LeFabre

Mary Agnes LeFabre, the mulatto teacher on the Samson plantation and the object of Tee Bob’s love. Beautiful, of medium height, fair-skinned, and with long black hair, Mary Agnes resembles the people of Italian and Sicilian descent living in the Bayonne area. Mary Agnes perceives Tee Bob’s basic decency and enjoys his boyish attention from a respectful distance, but she rejects Tee Bob after he confesses his love for her; she knows that they cannot be together. She is forced to leave the state in anonymity after Tee Bob’s suicide.

Timmy Henderson

Timmy Henderson, Robert Samson, Sr.’s, natural child by a black woman, Verda Henderson. Tall and thin, with reddish-brown hair and brown eyes, Timmy even has his father’s hook nose. Beyond the striking physical resemblance, Timmy has his father’s personality. His confusing identity and confused social status lead Timmy into a violent confrontation with a jealous white overseer. For Timmy’s own safety, Robert sends him away from the plantation. Timmy’s character and story powerfully convey the destructive effects of the South’s institutionalized racism.

Amma Dean Samson

Amma Dean Samson, Robert Sr.’s wife, the mistress of Samson plantation. Mrs. Samson comes across as the domestic heart of the Samson enterprise, worrying about the supervision of the black staff and keeping a nervous watch over Tee Bob. She is resigned to the existence of Timmy Henderson and allows him to be Tee Bob’s playmate and companion. She is devastated by Tee Bob’s suicide, even though Jane tried to warn her of his love for Mary Agnes.

The narrator

The narrator, a black history teacher who travels to the Samson plantation to interview Miss Jane in 1962. Although more a presence than a developed character, the narrator provides the frame story for Jane’s dramatic autobiography. The narrator also establishes the importance of Jane’s life and story as the oral history of all black Americans in the South.


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The chief character, Miss Jane Pittman, tells her own story and that of others. Through her long life, she gathers the acquaintance of many, and also reminisces about public figures, like Huey Long, Martin Luther King, Jr., and even Jackie Robinson. Her eyewitness clarity and authentic voice make the reader forget that Miss Jane Pittman is a fictional character and that the concept of an autobiography is merely a fictional device. This device complicates her character, producing a succession of Miss Janes as she grows through time, yet integrating them through the voice of the old woman. As the book begins, Ticey (Miss Jane before she re-christens herself) meets with soldiers from both sides of the Civil War, as they arrive in close succession on the plantation. From her exchanges with them it appears that she is never allowed to get enough sleep and is beaten if she catnaps during the day. When she changes her name, she is beaten for that too. Though young, she already displays bravery that later grows into an enduring courage.

With freedom comes other trials to test Jane's mettle. Led by Big Laura, a powerful matriarchal ex-slave, a small band of blacks travelling north from the plantation is massacred by a marauding band of Secesh, or Confederate soldiers, leaving Jane to go on with only Big Laura's little orphaned son Ned at her side. Minor characters encountered during their journey — a poor white-trash ferryman, a domineering black woman at the orphanage who, perhaps understandably, forces the children to take baths, a white woman who begrudges the two children a drink of water, and a concerned hunter, himself black, who is baffled by the magnitude of the children's quest to get to Ohio — give a composite picture of the devastation encountered during their journey. They encounter skepticism — an old man who invites the children into his cabin, feeds them, and shows them a map, continues by totally discouraging their effort, cataloguing likely obstacles, including the prophetic statement that Ned is certain to be killed when he matures enough to fight. Subsequently, they stay the night in a barn on the property of a man, aptly named Job, whose wife has become too crazy from the war to care about herself or others. Job has no recourse but to take the children to another plantation, where they sign on with Bone, a Republican landowner, for the next twelve years as field hands. Constant field work during these early years is given as the probable cause of Jane's subsequent inability to bear children.

Nevertheless, under Jane's care, Ned flourishes despite the obstacles of a life that is no improvement over slavery. As was true of the Reconstruction years in general, life is initially better for Jane and Ned. Ned is given an education of sorts. The teacher is a fine young black man from the North who is admired and liked by young and old alike. While Bone's plantation is soon to returned to its Confederate owners, leaving Jane to a less hospitable employer. Colonel Dye, Ned joins a committee for the improvement of Negro life. He changes his name to Ned Douglass, after abolitionist Frederick Douglass. He has to leave the plantation when white vigilantes show up and beat Jane to retaliate for Ned's political activities. He goes to a farm in Kansas, where he attends night school, becomes a teacher, and then is drafted into the Spanish-American War. Ned is later assassinated by a Cajun, Albert Cluveau, a bounty hunter for the Ku Klux Klan. Ned's story is a sad reminder that throughout black American history the best men have often fallen prey to the bullets of racist assassins.

Jane meets her husband-to-be, Joe Pittman, on the Dye plantation, but soon, seeking a better life, the two leave (with Joe's daughters by a former marriage) so that Joe can take a job as a horse breaker on the Clyde plantation. Before doing so, Dye makes Joe pay one hundred and fifty dollars as protection money so the Ku Klux Klan won't kill him. Still, they must travel through the swamps to avoid "secret groups" who might slaughter them. After about ten years at Clyde's, Joe is killed by a spirited horse about whom Jane has had premonitions. Madame Eloise Gauthier, a psychic she visits for a consultation about the horse and Joe, is a stock character in Gaines's fiction, her predictions based more on common sense than supernatural clairvoyance.

Once at Clyde's, Jane is beaten, ironically, by a houseworker, Molly, who is afraid of being displaced by a new, younger worker. Molly never overcomes her jealousy of Jane. Although Molly quits, she only gets worse and dies "of a broken heart" at losing her place in the household. Jane does not resent Molly's bad temper, and regrets that she cannot be friends. It is of course Molly's insecurity, fostered by racism, that prevents the friendship.

Jane shows a human spirit that is not easily daunted by hardship. She is tough and puts everything that happens in perspective, living on to tell a story that is not just her own personal history but a history of her people.

Her final years are spent on the Samson plantation, where she moves after the death of her adopted son's assassin; here she continues to chronicle the life around her, including a work contest between two women field hands in which one is driven insane and the other fired, her own conversion experiences and those of others, the ill-fated sibling relationship between Tee Bob and Timmy, the fates of various teachers hired for the plantation, and at the book's close, the civil rights movement of the 1960s as it affects the lives of those on the Samson plantation and nearby Bayonne (a fictional town modelled on New Roads, Louisiana).

The chosen leader for the area, Jimmy, has been singled out at age five by the women of the community to be "the one." Growing up with no knowledge of his father and abandoned by his mother shortly after weaning, Jimmy is nevertheless bright, curious, and attentive, the Ned of his generation. Jimmy is also clever, perhaps more politically astute than Ned. The newspaper reader for the illiterate population of the plantation, Jimmy invents tales for Miss Jane about the exploits of Jackie Robinson. She figures this out, but when Jimmy is called away, and a straight, dull, and guileless boy is substituted as the reader, Jane misses Jimmy and realizes that this poor substitute could not have been "the one." Despite his cleverness, Jimmy, too, is assassinated for asserting the right of black people to drink from the fountain at the Bayonne courthouse (a transgression for which a young black woman has been jailed); upon the news of his death, Miss Jane leads a small band of courageous people, against Samson's advice, to a gathering in Bayonne to protest racism and the killing. This ending is decidedly less dramatic than that of the movie, where Miss Jane marches forward and drinks herself from the fountain. Yet the book's ending is successful in its own own terms. Miss Jane simply stares at Robert Samson "a long time" and then walks right by him. This is her strongest moment of open self-assertion against racism in the entire book, and it resolves the tension between the activist young people and the fearful, more conservative old people on the plantation. Jane, having survived over one hundred years of suffering, has acquired the authority to act successfully against racial oppression.




Critical Essays