The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman Themes
by Ernest J. Gaines

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Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

When Jane Pittman recounts a sermon delivered by Ned Douglass, she constructs a powerful piece of rhetoric echoing Christ’s Sermon on the Mount. It is remarkable that she can recall in such detail the words of Ned from so long ago; she claims she does not remember all that he said, but what she remembers she attributes to Ned’s faith: “I can remember it because Ned believed in it so much.” She has a prodigious memory or a persuasive imagination. In either case, she is a compelling storyteller.

The theme of Ned’s sermon is what it is to be American, to take possession of America, to be possessed by it, and to nourish one’s identity with attachments to the earth. Freedom carries with it a responsibility to labor and to love the land and its people. One of Jane’s earliest lessons is that any place can be all places; at ten, frustrated that her days of traveling to Ohio have still not taken her out of Louisiana, she exclaims, “Luzana must be the whole wide world.” Her hope for finding a place of freedom is dashed by a hunter she and Ned meet during their early travels. Freedom, the hunter tells her, “ain’t coming to meet you. And it might not be there when you get there, either.” She must find freedom in herself before she can find it anywhere else, and that understanding does not come until the end of her long life. Indeed, it may not come until she tells her story to the editor.

In the novel, freedom is bounded by natural processes and expressed through natural forces. Human blood drenches the earth as if to keep life going. From Jane’s bloody beating when she is ten to the murder of Jimmy Aaron when she is 110, Jane’s history is a story of the earth absorbing the blood of martyrs. When Ned is murdered, his blood drips along the dirt road as his body is carried home; Jane swears that his blood could be seen for years afterward, even after the road was covered with gravel.

Blood-soaked earth produces great oak trees, which express the virtues of endurance, stolidity, and fortitude. Jane talks to trees, and she understands that such behavior may appear crazy to others. She insists, however, that it is a sign of her respect for nobility; she thereby has a connection with the soil of her bloody history, just as the great trees have with the earth from which they spring. Indeed, Ned’s sermon includes an image of trees falling back into the earth as a symbol for the earthly origins of human beings.

Another powerful symbol used in the novel is the river. Jane tries to cross it to reach Ohio; Ned teaches beside it; and Jane dreams of her spiritual crossing of it when she “travels” to salvation. This flowing river washes away guilt and restores life; first, though, the fear of death has to be conquered. Thus the figure of the black stallion, unbroken by Joe Pittman, ridden by the evil Cluveau, has to be confronted and purged by a renewed Jane Pittman in her dreams. When Jimmy Aaron is killed because he protests the arrest of a black woman in Bayonne, it is deeply ironic that her arrest is for drinking from the “whites only” fountain in the Bayonne court-house. Drops of water forming the morning dew cleanse the air for Jane on the morning that she chooses to be free and to go to Bayonne herself.

Social Concerns / Themes

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

The dominant social concern of the novel is the struggle of blacks to survive in a racist society. A very old woman by the time of the civil rights movement of the 1960s, Miss Jane Pittman is a skillfully rendered character who has experienced the strife of American blacks from the Civil War onward. She is a leader of her people not in a political sense but because her long suffering has given her stature. A major point that emerges from all her suffering is that the hard-won gains of a century of struggle cannot be taken for granted; blacks must still fight for the rights that the U.S. Constitution supposedly guarantees them. The slavery and beatings that blacks endured are paralleled by open slaughter, lynchings,...

(The entire section is 2,602 words.)