Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Because certain of the themes of Catherine Carmier are familiar, perhaps overly familiar, elements of African American fiction, there is some danger that these themes will draw excessive attention to themselves, producing a distorted impression of the novel as a whole. The situation of the light-skinned African American was a staple of fiction of an earlier era; the temptation to “pass” often arose as a motif within this frame of reference. The tensions created by color prejudice within the African American community, too, are not new matters of concern.

Certainly, these themes do in part inform Ernest J. Gaines’s first novel; however, they enter into highly complex relationships with other thematic elements. The result is a novel that, although not entirely free of the problems that first novels often manifest, moves far beyond a generalized meditation on the significance of color to become an urgent and at times impressive exploration of psychological and ethical conflicts.

Their light skin distinguishes the Carmiers from their neighbors. Because of Raoul’s intransigence, it isolates them from others, and this isolation generates a morbid intensity of relationship within the family. The relationship of Raoul and his daughter may be described as emotionally incestuous, even if not physically so. Thus Catherine, a grown woman and herself the mother of a son, questions whether she can ever love another man as much as she loves her father. It does not seem to occur to her that in a healthy relationship, a daughter’s love for her father differs in kind, not in degree, from a woman’s love for a man. The emotional fervor with which Raoul maintains the barriers between Catherine and men of her age is also obviously beyond what even so intense a color prejudice as his would require. As Della sees, when Raoul fights Jackson, he is fighting his rival for the woman he loves. Della’s hope is that Jackson’s victory in the physical fight will prove an emotional victory as well: that Jackson will now be able to claim Catherine,...

(The entire section is 844 words.)

Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Catherine Carmier investigates complex human relationships that in part evolve from the particular time and place in which the novel is set. Of primary importance is the racial heritage of the principal characters, for it weighs heavily on the lives of all of them, and especially on their sense of belonging and commitment.

For Aunt Charlotte, custom bound, commitment is to be found in service to the community, to the folk, accomplished principally by bringing everyone into the greater family, represented by the church. It seems a time-honored maternal mission that accepts self-sacrifice as a communal virtue, and it is strong among persecuted peoples, who, as individuals, are powerless to shape their own destinies. For the black, rural Louisiana matron living in the early 1960’s, that life could offer a quiet, abiding dignity, as it does for Charlotte.

For Jackson, however, it offers only a dead end. Keenly observant, Jackson sees that Aunt Charlotte’s self-sacrifice leads only to the ignominy of an obscure grave. Furthermore, he knows that what little the blacks of the quarter possess is being lost to aggressive Cajun farmers, and he wants no role in that collapsing, suffocating world. He knows that he must seek hope and personal fulfillment elsewhere.

In its subtle way, Catherine Carmier offers a strong indictment of racism, which has an important negative impact on the lives of all the characters and is at...

(The entire section is 467 words.)