Essays and Criticism (Novels for Students)
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.
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...
(The entire section is 1554 words.)