(Short Story Criticism)

Bloodline Ernest J. Gaines

American novelist and short story writer.

The following entry presents criticism on Gaines's short story collection Bloodline, published in 1968. See also Ernest J. Gaines Literary Criticism (Volume 3), and Volumes 18, 86, 181.

Published in 1968, Bloodline is Gaines's only collection of short fiction. The book has received considerable attention for its masterful use of viewpoint and narrative voice and for its careful structuring of individual stories around a central theme. Although two of the collection's stories—“A Long Day in November” and “The Sky Is Gray”—are more frequently lauded and anthologized than the others, critics have noted that Bloodline's primary accomplishment is the way in which the five stories create a unified artistic whole. In fact, the book has been described by some as an episodic novel, though Gaines has resisted this interpretation. Whatever its designation, Bloodline has been recognized as a powerful evocation of the struggles of blacks in the rural South in the century following the Civil War.

Plot and Major Characters

The opening story, “A Long Day in November,” chronicles a dispute between Eddie and his wife, Amy. Narrated by the couple's six-year-old son, Sonny, the argument concerns Eddie's car, which Amy feels is preventing her husband from fulfilling his responsibilities as a husband and father. In the end, Eddie accepts the advice of the community's “hoo-doo woman” and burns his car to demonstrate his commitment to his family. “The Sky Is Gray” also follows the events of a single day and is told from the perspective of a child—although the narrator, eight-year-old James, is older than Sonny and has far greater responsibilities. In the course of the story, James, who is suffering from a toothache, must travel with his mother from their rural black community to a dentist in the mostly white town of Bayonne. The journey allows James to observe the segregated culture of the South and the stirrings of black dissent, as personified by a young man in the dentist's office. The narrator and protagonist of “Three Man” is Proctor Lewis, a young black man who is imprisoned after stabbing another man in a fight. His cellmates are Munford Bazille, an older man who has plenty of experience with jails and violence, and Hattie, a homosexual. Initially, Proctor plans to gain his release through the intervention of a wealthy white man, Roger Medlow—a common practice in the South at that time. But Proctor reconsiders when Munford counsels him that he should instead take responsibility for his own actions and serve his time in prison. After much soul searching, Proctor chooses jail rather than being obligated to Medlow.

The title story, “Bloodline,” centers on the conflict between an elderly white plantation owner named Frank Laurent, and his nephew, Copper Laurent, who is the son of Frank's brother and a black woman. Though the story is set in the post-slavery era, many vestiges of the system remain, which Copper vigorously opposes. Copper also maintains that he should inherit the plantation on Frank's death, an idea that Frank opposes because of Copper's mixed racial makeup. The central event in “Just Like a Tree,” the final story in the collection, is a going-away party for Aunt Fe, the beloved African American matriarch of the Duvall Plantation. The old woman is being taken from her lifelong home by her niece, who fears the family may be harmed by the violent retaliations taking place in the area as a result of civil rights activities. Unlike the other stories in Bloodline, which utilize a single first-person narrator, “Just Like a Tree” is told from multiple perspectives—members of the black community, the white woman who owns the plantation, and an African American visitor from the North. Throughout the story, Aunt Fe is opposed to leaving the plantation, and at its conclusion she dies before she leaves her home.

Major Themes

Manhood is the central motif in the stories comprising Bloodline. Most of the male characters in the collection are concerned with defining and proving themselves as men; but for Gaines, this means more than exhibiting stereotypical masculine behavior or asserting dominance over women. Instead it means accepting responsibility and its consequences and working toward the betterment of something outside of oneself. Interpreted in this way, it can be argued that the women in the collection are often more “manly” than the men, so the subjects of gender roles and family relations are also major thematic concerns in Bloodline. Intergenerational relations is another recurring theme in the collection, as the stories explore how the younger and older generations interact. The stories also consider the legacy of slavery and the unjust social structure of the American South, especially in the decades leading to the 1960s. In turn, the changes wrought in the South by the Civil Rights movement figure prominently in the stories, particularly “Just Like a Tree.” On a more figurative level, the book considers the balance between the use of the head (logic) versus the use of the heart (emotion).

Critical Reception

Bloodline attracted little critical attention when it was first published. Yet after the success of Gaines's novel, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1971), the collection received renewed interest. Critics voiced near universal praise for the author's control of narrative voices and skillful use of first-person point of view. Moreover, they commended his skillful and authentic use of rural Southern black speech patterns. Critics have also elucidated the unifying elements in the collection, such as the progressively older narrators and characters in each of the stories as well as the fact that the stories take place on the same day in and around Bayonne, Louisiana. Many commentators have discussed Gaines's treatment of manhood and responsibility in the stories comprising Bloodline as a unifying theme. The collection's sense of place and history also gets ample attention from commentators. Commenting on Gaines's fictional rendering of rural Louisiana, William Burke summed up the book as “a symbolic story of the South—and America—from the experiences and point of view of its black citizenry.”