Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 844

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...

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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, leaving Raoul to Della. Della, then, has known for years that her daughter is her rival for the man they both love.

Is Della’s hope realized? The ending of the novel is ambiguous. Jackson waits for Catherine to come to him. “But she never did,” the novel states. Is this merely the colloquial “never,” or is it to be taken as final, as indicating that Catherine will never be able to leave her father’s house? In any event, Gaines explores the morbid consequences of a family’s turning in upon itself.

Jackson’s situation is thus left unresolved. He is, at the novel’s denouement, at a standstill. What of his resolution to continue his search? Has that been defeated by his entanglement in the Carmiers’ emotional wars? When the novel introduces Jackson, he is a man in motion. At the end, his condition is one of stasis and uncertainty.

The novel acquires further direction from thematic concerns that will prove constant in Gaines’s work. The varieties of love, both sexual and nonsexual, play an important organizing role in Gaines’s work. In this novel, Gaines works changes on the relationship of love and possession. Mary Louise’s love does not entail the need to possess. This is her strength—yet, insofar as it tends toward passivity, it is also a weakness. Charlotte, supported by her religious faith, can only with difficulty purge her love for Jackson of its possessive elements. For Raoul, love is possession; the loved one is to be denied any independent existence, any freedom to choose a life of her own. The relationship of Jackson and Catherine is articulated in terms of these tensions. How much that is possessive is there in Jackson’s love for Catherine? To what extent is love, for Catherine, a matter of being possessed?

All of Gaines’s important and memorable characters, moreover, confront the difficulty of striking the proper balance between continuity and change. Lillian is on the verge of denying her family and racial history. Charlotte tries to hold on to an old dream. Jackson thinks he can walk away from his past, but he feels himself drifting rather than moving purposefully in a chosen direction. Catherine cannot imagine escaping from her past. The ambiguities of the novel’s resolution underline the complexity and power with which Gaines invests these issues. The past, Gaines seems to say, must be acknowledged as the foundation on which to build toward the future. Tragedy can arise from the valorization of either past or future at the expense of the other. To an extent, Charlotte is able to let go, but it remains very much in doubt whether she has the strength to move on. Della, at the end of the novel, seems ready to accept the worst of the past, even the knowledge that Raoul killed her son, as a condition of moving into the future. The novel’s resolution, however, leaves doubt as to whether that hope can be fulfilled.

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 467

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 least the indirect cause of much misery. Although it is an oppressive cross that Jackson bitterly bears, its chief victim is Raoul Carmier. He is a man wedged between the black and white races who, because he can identify with neither, despises both. His angry, erosive intolerance weighs heavily on his family and all but destroys it. His estrangement from Della had begun because she, a mulatto who does not share his hatred for blacks, had tried to befriend the inhabitants of the quarter, and she is finally driven by the resulting desperate loneliness into the brief affair with Mark’s father. After Mark’s birth, she becomes a nonperson in her own house, although she does give birth to another daughter, Lillian, who is Raoul’s child.

Lillian becomes the unwanted, outcast child, sent away to be reared by relatives. Deprived of parental love, she is emotionally scarred with spite, even hatred, for both her mother and father. Raoul hardly acknowledges her, caring only for Catherine and the land. Lillian’s resentment leads to her attempts to promote the relationship between Catherine and Jackson, which, she knows, can destroy her father. Bigotry is thus a poison that runs deep in the Carmier family well. It is also a fundamental and insidious fact of life for all the main characters in the novel, and at least the indirect source of most of their troubles.

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