Essays and Criticism (Novels for Students)

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Published in 1971, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman was Ernest J. Gaines's first major critical and popular success. It exemplifies the author's concerns with the relationship between language, identity, and narrative structure. The novel names itself as an autobiography but it is also generally recognized as a work of historical fiction. Gaines's novel functions as an autobiography in so far as it provides a first-person account of the life of a particular person. However, it differs from conventional autobiography in two ways. First, this is the life history of a fictional character as recreated by a fictional editor. Second, Jane's narrative, unlike those in many autobiographies, does not define her life as a quest toward an inevitable goal. In other words, she does not suggest that her past led in any direct way to her present state. As a historical novel, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman places its fictional characters in relation to a known history of African Americans in the South and names specific historical persons and events. But Gaines makes Jane, not history, the central figure in his novel, subordinating the broader historical element to her own personal story. The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman blends fictional autobiography and the historical novel to create a distinct narrative form.

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In the introduction, the editor admits that "even though I have used only Miss Jane's voice throughout the narrative, there were times when others carried the story for her." Of course, it is the author himself who literally carries the story. But continuing in his fictional role as editor, the author suggests an even broader impact of other voices on the autobiography: "In closing I wish to thank all the wonderful people who were at Miss Jane's house through those long months of interviewing her, because this is not only Miss Jane's autobiography, it is theirs as well. This is what both Mary and Miss Jane meant when they said you could not tie all the ends together in one neat direction. Miss Jane's story is all of their stories, and their stories are Miss Jane's "

By linking Jane's story to others' stories, the author does not intend to diminish the uniqueness and individuality of Miss Jane, as the story that follows makes clear. For it is Jane who narrates her own story in her own authentic dialect. Instead, he refers to the contributions of many voices in order to stress that there is no "one neat direction" in which a person's life progresses.

For instance, the first book of the novel imitates the framework of a quest North, common in nineteenth-century slave narratives. But in Jane's story, this framework disintegrates in Book II after Colonel Dye takes over Mr. Bone's plantation. The Union peacekeeping troops have withdrawn and Dye informs those who have stayed on the plantation that the school will close and that he will not be able to pay his workers till the end of the year:

"If that suit you, stay, if it don't, catch up with that coattail-flying scalawag and the rest of them hot-footing niggers who was here two days ago."

If Colonel Dye had told me that a week before I would have turned around then and left. But after what Bone had told us I had no more faith in heading North than I had staying South, I would stay right here and do what I could for me and Ned. If I heard of a place where I could live better, where Ned could get a better learning, I would go there to live. Till then I would stay where I was.

Jane's decision to remain in Louisiana rather than continue to Ohio is an act of survival rather than one of submission. Many characters in the novel do resist and even challenge their conditions, but these are mostly men (such as Ned, Joe, and Jimmy) who possess a greater freedom to travel. As a woman and as a pragmatist, Jane feels it less useful to relocate herself even when her situation is difficult. When Ned urges her to leave for Kansas with him, he observes, "You ain't married to this place." "In a way," Jane responds with characteristically few words. The author seems to approve Jane's rootedness since all the events represented in the novel are contained within the state of Louisiana. The story does not follow Ned when he moves to Kansas, nor does it even expand as far as New Orleans (still within the state) when Jimmy attends school there.

We may explain this geographical limit by noting that the novel shares its Louisiana setting in common with almost all of Gaines's other works, including most recently A Lesson Before Dying (1993). But the geographic boundaries of The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman also symbolize the novel's interest in community. In the introduction, the author proposes that the life story of an individual is also the life story of a community and vice versa. And if Jane's history is Louisiana's history, it is also the history of African Americans in the South.

By creating an editor who wants to use Jane's narrative to teach American history to his high school students, Gaines indicates that Jane's experiences are as important in understanding the past as are those of more famous historical figures. For example, the author incorporates Jackie Robinson into the novel in part as a sign of African American achievement. Robinson's presence is also a means by which to illustrate the personal sacrifices involved in progress. Robinson, who in 1947 became the first African American to play major league baseball, appears in the novel without much fanfare when Jane comments on her passion for listening to baseball games.

Jane recognizes Robinson's significance for a larger community: "Jackie and the Dodgers was for the colored people; the Yankees was for the white folks. Like in the Depression, Joe Louis was for the colored." More importantly, Robinson's presence has deeply personal consequences for Jane. "I was the oldest in the church and they called me the church mother. But I liked baseball so much they had to take it from me and give it to Emma." We might say that symbolically Jane is willing to lose some standing in her local community in order to identify with an emblem of a larger community and of a wider history. However, in so doing, we must be careful not to discount the particular effect this historic personage had on Jane as a private individual. She loses her position in the church, but she is compensated for this loss by the great joy she experiences as a baseball fan.

Jane certainly does not conceive of her allegiance to Jackie Robinson and the Brooklyn Dodgers in terms of its public meaning. While Games does not deny the power and significance of symbolic actions, he implies that those who do perform them or otherwise act as representatives of their communities risk losing their own identities. Jane's last act in the novel has at the same time enormous public and private meaning, as she defies Mr. Samson and heads to Bayonne with other residents of the quarters.

Some critics have faulted the novel's conclusion as abrupt and as belatedly introducing a new plot direction. In fact, Jane's act decisively completes the plot of this final book in the novel, whose theme is unity and whose structure is unified. This book is the story of "the One" and, appropriately, it is the only book which contains no titled subdivisions. This single purposefulness parallels the northern quest of the novel's first book. Just as a quest narrative subordinates the importance of the individual to her ultimate historic symbolism, Jane's defiance signals the end of her own individual, fictive existence. She moves to join a greater historical dimension that this autobiography cannot contain; "Me and Robert looked at each other there a long time, then I went by him." And Jane literally walks out of her own story.

As we imagine Jane continuing toward the demonstration in Bayonne, we would do well to remember that, with regard to history, she harbors no unrealistic expectations for what an individual can accomplish. She warns Jimmy that "'People and time bring forth leaders,' I said. 'Leaders don't bring forth people. The people and the time brought King; King didn't bring the people. What Miss Rosa Parks did, everybody wanted to do. They just needed one person to do it first because they all couldn't do it at the same time; then they needed King to show them what to do next. But King couldn't do a thing before Miss Rosa Parks refused to give that white man her seat.'"

Jane's attitude toward Rosa Parks parallels that of the author toward Jane. Jane observes that Parks is, to a certain extent, simply a representative of a group, having done what "everybody wanted to do." At the same time, Jane grants Rosa Parks her full individuality and recognizes that the personal pain she suffered was not reduced by the symbolic value of her act. Likewise, the author states that Jane's story is everyone's story, and yet Jane's personality, voice, and experience distinguish this autobiography as fully her own.

Source: Jeamune Johnson, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale, 1999.
Johnson is a doctoral candidate at Yale University.

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