Critical Context (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series)
Catherine Carmier was Gaines’s first novel. Although it was not a critical success, it revealed the author’s unquestioned skill as raconteur and established the fictional locus that he used in succeeding works. In all of his published fiction, Gaines has dealt with poor blacks in the same locale in rural Louisiana, a former slave quarter on a plantation near the town of Bayonne, places adapted from the author’s boyhood home. Typically, for Gaines’s black characters, that idyllic world is slowly but relentlessly disintegrating.
In Catherine Carmier, he also introduces central characters who appear in one guise or another in many of his later works. One is the fatherless son, alienated from his heritage and searching for a new identity and sense of self-worth. For example, Grant Wiggins, in A Lesson Before Dying (1993), is in many ways Jackson’s resurrected Doppelgänger. A second major character is the childless black matron who, like Aunt Charlotte, serves both as the young man’s foster parent and benefactress and as a strong defender of the community and the Christian faith. Her counterpart in A Lesson Before Dying is Tante Lou, who, like Charlotte, is both the protagonist’s aunt and his moral conscience. In a somewhat different guise, she also appears as the title character of The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1971), Gaines’s most famous work.
Although Gaines would later experiment with other narrative voices and techniques, in Catherine Carmier he uses a plain, direct, and simple style that he has never abandoned. The folk idiom and cadences of real speech, for which he has a finely tuned ear, he exploits extremely well, making his characters both intriguing and convincing. Apparent, too, is the author’s sympathetic engagement in his characters’ plights, his kind, fundamental empathy, a quality that marks all of his works and attenuates the bitterness of those who suffer from poverty entrenched in racial discrimination. With his very first novel, Gaines seemed to have learned that a gentle, cajoling humanism can be a much more powerful force than a strident, divisive, and message-heavy diatribe. In Catherine Carmier and succeeding novels, whether his characters are black, white, or racially mixed, he asks only that readers understand, not side with, applaud, or condemn them.