Ernest J. Gaines American Literature Analysis

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3119

Gaines is a raconteur of the agrarian South, specifically of the black experience in rural Louisiana during the three decades following World War II. His chief setting, former slave quarters located near the town of Bayonne, closely mirrors the actual surroundings of Gaines’s boyhood: the quarters on River Lake Plantation and the town of New Roads. This world, remote for most readers, becomes in Gaines’s novels a literary microcosm, inhabited principally by blacks, Creoles, and Cajuns, all treated with a simple honesty and direct style that are the hallmarks of his fiction.

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Prevalent themes in Gaines’s fiction often originate in his own experience. His male characters search for an identity at a time when change was hard-won and self-esteem required the courage to reject a demeaning place in a world in which wealth, prestige, and power belonged exclusively to white people. In those turbulent years of the mid-twentieth century, escape from poverty and racial servility often involved flight to the North or West, but at great emotional cost and with a deep sense of alienation and loss. In contrast to the stance of more militant African Americans who, writing during the 1960’s, were advocating confrontation and even violence, Gaines has defined courage in the young black male as the power to endure with dignity the injustices of a racist society (“The Sky Is Gray” and A Lesson Before Dying).

Gaines’s work reveals that the younger African Americans of his generation had few choices; the life that their parents and grandparents had known was disappearing. Slowly but relentlessly, black people who had eked out an impoverished but dignified living from the land were being pushed into the soggy bottoms, onto land unfit for serious cultivation. The inheritors, mostly Cajuns (that is, white people of French ancestry) were swallowing up the good lands, farming for profit with mechanized equipment, tearing down the houses of poor black people, and plowing over their graves.

Less deracinated by these events, the black women in Gaines’s novels, especially the older ones, are more adaptable. Most of them cling tenaciously to their Christian faith, drawing strength from the church, which many young black men, like Jackson Bradley in Catherine Carmier, come to abandon. The women endure in part because the conditions do not so deeply erode their sense of purpose or identity. They can live a bare, frugal existence because they gain much strength from their community and the extended families that they strive to hold together. The younger black men, their prodigal sons, either set out on solitary quests for a new source of pride and dignity or succumb to an early defeat, even a violent death.

Against this background, Gaines spins highly personal stories of individuals and families profoundly affected by change and exacerbated racial tensions, a complex problem because of miscegenation and the existence of a large Creole and mixed-race population. The separatist attitude of Creoles, like Raoul in Catherine Carmier, is often as intransigent as that of many bigoted white people.

Remarkably, the bitterness that might surface in this world is usually muted. Although omnipresent and insidious, the racial caste system is not something its principal victims dwell upon or use as a psychological crutch. For most, the system is a fundamental fact of life, and though they dream of change, they are pragmatists, finding dignity despite the system and summoning moral strength to confront it.

There are few real villains in Gaines’s fiction, even among the persecutors. The worst of men, such as Luke Will, the redneck bully in A Gathering of Old Men, are mindless and craven. Most, such as Fix Boutan from the same novel, are bound to a familial and racial code, however misguided, by a strong sense of honor. They, too, are victims of caste, for they cannot see that they are morally bankrupted by their blind arrogance and hate.

Such characters play only secondary roles, however, for Gaines’s avowed purpose is to focus on poor black people, not their persecutors. To that end, Gaines has evolved a disarmingly plain and direct style, a “voice” to match the simple, unsophisticated lives of his principals, most of whom have no hope of sharing the white people’s bounty. Inspired by the rhythm and phrasing of blues musicians, the harangues of Pentecostal preachers, and recorded interviews of former slaves, Gaines uses short sentences, colloquial cadences, and unpretentious diction with a lyricism that is both insistent and intense. He prefers monosyllabic, ordinary words of everyday speech, and his progress through a tale is seldom encumbered by elaborate description or extensive introspection by his characters. It is a style that he has mastered, and with it he evokes both humor and pathos.

It is also a style suited to Gaines’s realistic, uncomplicated plots, which often focus on the impact of one critical event or relationship in the experience of simple people who live uneventful, even placid lives. With the exception of The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, which covers a span of roughly one hundred years, the plot time frame is narrow, as in A Gathering of Old Men and A Lesson Before Dying. Gaines builds the real story in the event’s uncertain, soul-searching aftermath.

Frequent characters in Gaines’s fictive world are a young, educated black man, seeking purpose while impaled on the horns of a moral dilemma, and an older, righteous black woman, urging him toward the harder, self-sacrificing choice. They are Jackson Bradley and Aunt Charlotte in Catherine Carmier, Gaines’s first novel, and Grant Wiggins and his aunt, Tante Lou, in A Lesson Before Dying. Younger counterparts to this pairing are James and his mother Octavia in “The Sky Is Gray.” In one guise or another, they appear in much of Gaines’s fiction. Primarily through such characters, the author has struggled with the fundamental ambivalence toward his own heritage. This personal spiritual odyssey has been responsible for the author’s reputation as one of the most humane and compassionate novelists in the United States.

“The Sky Is Gray”

First published: 1963 (collected in Bloodline, 1968)

Type of work: Short story

A young African American boy learns a lesson in pride and endurance from his mother.

James, the eight-year-old narrator of “The Sky Is Gray,” lives with his mother, Octavia, his aunt, and three younger brothers in rural Louisiana. Because James’s father has been called to the army, the family lives a marginal existence, supported only by the mother’s fieldwork. James, knowing that there is no money for a dentist, suffers in silence with an agonizing toothache. When his aunt reveals the child’s misery, Octavia takes James to town on the bus. The action of the story occurs in one day.

The irony is achieved through the narrative position of the child who observes events he cannot comprehend but must accept. The rural town of Bayonne is rigidly segregated, with the warm restaurants and shops reserved for white people. The dentist is an inferior practitioner who accepts black patients. The black people must eat “back of town” and are not welcome in the white-owned stores. Octavia constantly corrects James, reminding him that he is the oldest son and must behave like a man. He understands that, no matter how intense his suffering, he must not cry or complain. The reader may view Octavia as hard and uncompromising, but James respects and loves her without reservation. Octavia is a realist who is preparing her son for his dangerous life as a black man in the rural South.

The gray landscape and the pervasive cold are central to the atmosphere of the story. After being turned away by the dentist’s nurse and told to return later, James and his mother walk to the back of town to take shelter from the freezing cold. When they return, an elderly Cajun woman with an invalid husband invites them into the back room of her store for warmth and food. She insists that the boy work for his meal, instructing him to move two empty garbage cans from the back of the store to the front.

After the meal, Octavia asks to buy a piece of salt pork for twenty-five cents. The storekeeper cuts a generous piece, but Octavia will accept only half; this transaction preserves the dignity of both women. The storekeeper telephones the dentist, arranging for him to take James immediately, an act of kindness that Octavia accepts with equanimity.

A familiar theme in Gaines’s work is the endurance and strength of the black woman contending with the harsh racism of mid-twentieth century America. The compelling details of Southern rural life, seen through the eyes of the keenly observant child, invite the compassion of the reader. The author, while acknowledging the tragedy of segregation, transcends oversimplification of racial issues to find hope in the strong bonds of pride and empathy in the brief encounter between the two women.

At the conclusion, when James turns up his collar for warmth, Octavia makes him turn it down, saying “You not a bum. . . . You a man.” Mother and child must make their way with dignity in a world that, like the gray sky, is indifferent to their suffering. One biographer reports that the events in the story closely parallel an incident in the author’s childhood.

The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman

First published: 1971

Type of work: Novel

A resourceful, engaging black woman survives a century of adversity and little joy to become a strong moral presence in her community.

The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman remains Gaines’s best-known work, partly because of Cicely Tyson’s portrayal of Jane in the 1974 televised adaptation of the novel. It is Gaines’s most panoramic and episodic book, tracing the long life of its protagonist from her youthful emancipation to her old age in the 1960’s.

The novel purports to be the recorded history of the protagonist herself, leading many to conclude that she was a real person, but she is actually a composite portrait Gaines drew from several inspirational sources, including his aunt Augusteen Jefferson. Miss Jane’s narrative threads through historic events, providing a backdrop of well-known names and dates against which, through adversity and triumph, Jane grows in stature from an ignorant young slave to a wise old woman.

Her saga begins with no inkling of geographic reality, merely the desire to find the Union soldier who, in dubbing her “Jane Brown,” had removed her stigma as a slave. She quickly learns that freedom means that she must forage for herself, not an easy task in a land full of marauding white people bent on exterminating black vagrants.

She teams up with Ned, a younger boy whose mother has been slaughtered, and together they follow her elusive dream. With the end of Reconstruction and the onset of the Jim Crow era, Ned migrates to Kansas, committed to helping his fellow black people, who have been forced once again into economic subjugation. Jane enters into a common-law marriage with Joe Pittman, a sharecropper and the great love of her life. They move near the Texas border, where Joe has a job breaking horses, but after Joe is killed, Jane settles near Bayonne, the epicenter of Gaines’s fictive world.

Ned returns to Louisiana, rekindling in Jane a hope that had dimmed with Joe Pittman’s death. Teaching the need for justice and change, he is soon marked for death. Within a year, Ned is gunned down by a Cajun assassin, Albert Cluveau, who, ironically, had befriended Jane.

In the final parts of the narrative, Jane’s focus shifts from episodes in which she is the main participant to stories of other people living on the Samson plantation, her last home. She describes the various teachers who come to the one-room black school, including Mary Agnes, a Creole who inspires an ill-fated love in Robert Samson, the son of the white plantation owner. Jane also reflects on black heroes, including Joe Louis and Jackie Robinson, and other public figures, including Huey Long. Her main focus, however, is on Jimmy, who, like Ned before him, goes away to be educated, returns to preach against segregation, and is killed by lawless white people. It is his spirit that lives on in Miss Jane, who, at the novel’s end, plans to carry on against racial injustice.

In Miss Jane, Gaines etched a compelling literary character who penetrates socially sanctioned wrongs with brash innocence. Yet her attraction lies less in that than in her wonderful earthiness and irrepressible determination to survive. She is an authentic, poignant, and engaging character who has left an indelible imprint on American literature.

A Gathering of Old Men

First published: 1983

Type of work: Novel

A group of elderly black men, defying tradition, reveal unprecedented courage when they gather to protect another man whom they believe has shot and killed a Cajun farmer.

Unlike The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman with its epic sweep, A Gathering of Old Men limits its primary action to a single day and to locales in and around the plantation quarters near Bayonne. It is only in Lou Dimes’s last narrative, a sort of epilogue, that the reader is carried past the climactic day on which a group of old black men gather to protect their friend, Mathu. They assume that Mathu has killed Beau, a white farmer and son of a powerful Cajun patriarch, Fix Bouton.

The old men congregate at Mathu’s house, each carrying a shotgun and confessing to the crime. They have an ally in a young white woman, Candy, who has prompted the gathering. She also claims to have shot Beau, fearing that Beau’s killer, once identified, will face brutal retribution. The men hold to their charade, braving the abuse of Sheriff Mapes and frustrating all of his attempts to intimidate them. Although he believes that only Mathu is capable of the act, Mapes slowly gains grudging respect for the men because they have dared to defy him.

Candy, too, must face the implications of the men’s stand. As her friend Lou Dimes tells her, Mathu is now free of her, free of her protection, which, however well intentioned, in its way has been as demeaning for black people as the brutal intimidation of men such as Mapes and Beau. The black men are finally able to stand alone, with dignity and pride, beholden to nobody.

Complications in the novel introduce two other white men with sharply contrasting attitudes about what should be done to avenge the death of Beau. Gil Bouton, brother of the victim and a star football player at Louisiana State University, counsels restraint; Luke Will, an ignorant redneck, tries to flame bigotry into action against the old men. Although Fix is chagrined by his son’s views, he declines to act. Disgusted, Luke leads a party of his friends to the quarters in an attempt to force Mapes into handing Mathu over to them. Mapes is wounded in the ensuing gunfight, and Luke and Charlie Biggs, who actually shot Beau, are both killed, ending the crisis.

The novel is narrated from the viewpoints of fifteen different characters, including several of the old men, whose accounts are full of good-natured ribbing in an engaging folk idiom. These men, with memorable nicknames such as Cherry, Dirty Red, Chimley, and Rooster, lend broad humor to the novel, so that its grim events, even the gunfight, have a seriocomic cast. That humor, at times self-deprecating, simply counterpoints their increasing sense of pride, for at the end they clearly stand triumphant, taller than they ever had before.

A Lesson Before Dying

First published: 1993

Type of work: Novel

Enjoined by others to help another black man to face his impending execution with dignity, a teacher struggles with his own loss of faith and sense of purpose.

A Lesson Before Dying is set in the late 1940’s, in the former slave quarters of the Marshall plantation and the town of Bayonne. Gaines takes his reader back to a time when racial segregation was both legal and endemic in the South, a time when black people could barely hope for recognition of their humanity, much less find justice in a court of law.

It is in this world that a dirt-poor, semiliterate black man, Jefferson, is accused of murdering a white liquor-store owner. In the Bayonne courthouse, Jefferson is quickly condemned to death by an all-white jury. Although he is innocent, the verdict is never in doubt. Even his attorney characterizes Jefferson as subhuman, claiming that electrocuting him would make no more sense than electrocuting a hog.

Jefferson’s godmother, Miss Emma, aided and abetted by Tante Lou, prevails upon Tante Lou’s nephew, Grant Wiggins, to help Jefferson face death like a man, with dignity. Grant, the teacher in the quarters where Jefferson lived, is very reluctant to undertake the task, but the women and Grant’s girlfriend Vivian convince him that he has no choice but to try.

Grant’s initial efforts are disappointing. Jefferson has accepted his lawyer’s depiction of him as a hog, and he resists all attempts to help him break through his self-loathing. Furthermore, in order to help Jefferson, Grant must cope with his own doubts about his role, both as man and teacher. The task also puts his own pride at grave risk, as he must seek the cooperation of white men such as Henri Pichot and Sheriff Guidry, who want to stifle his “smartness.”

Lashed by the righteousness of Tante Lou and the Reverend Ambrose, his chief tormentor, Grant persists and finally succeeds in befriending Jefferson, largely through simple kindness. He bolsters Jefferson’s courage, helping him to face Gruesome Gerty, the portable electric chair, with unflinching dignity.

The novel thus ends with hope, both for Grant, the protagonist, and for the South. Grant has learned that his teaching is not in vain, that his education has given him the power to help others discover their humanity. He has also earned the respect and potential friendship of a young white deputy, Paul, who holds out the promise for a future racial harmony.

Except for a few segments in which A Lesson Before Dying subtly slips into a third-person point of view and the section in which Jefferson speaks through his diary, the novel is presented in the first-person voice of its protagonist, Grant Wiggins. The reader thus closely audits Grant’s own progress from doubt and moments of self-hatred to an honest confrontation with his feelings of anger and bitterness, love and shame. His growth parallels that of Jefferson, who, by facing death bravely, at the end has become his teacher’s teacher.

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