In My Father's House

by Ernest J. Gaines

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Social Concerns / Themes

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In My Father's House explores a universal range of social concerns, although many of them are by-products of racism. It concentrates on matters that were only sub-themes in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pillman (1971): the oppression of women, marital infidelity, social instability amid the poverty and uncertainty of a racist society, the isolation of those who seek to effect change, and the neglect of children. The pivotal ethical predicament of the novel is the dilemma of the main character, Phillip Martin, who has, in an earlier life, abandoned his wife and three children. This action comes back to haunt him after he has remarried and become a prominent minister and civic leader. His son, Etienne, suddenly appears in St. Adrienne, Louisiana, having adopted the name Robert X. (That these names suggest the civil rights leaders, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X has been noted by several reviewers.) Many reviewers find unpalatable soap operatic elements in Martin's dilemma, but charges of melodrama and sensationalism are unwarranted when racial and social oppression are the issues. Although Martin has obvious moral flaws, the punishment of having to bear not only his son's awkward return but also his suicide, is extreme. The powerful expression of the suffering of blacks in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman has a positive and hopeful outcome; here, however, it becomes an occasion to explore some of the negative, soul chilling results of social oppression.

This novel focuses on the plight of the black male, despite a sub-theme of the awful toll on the black female exemplified by the plight of Martin's deserted first wife, Johanna. The return of Robert X, his subsequent suicide, and the manifestation of Phillip Martin's past is a terrible emotional blow that also results in the destruction of Phillip Martin's career. At the end, Phillip concedes to his present wife, "I'm lost Alma. I'm lost." Alma's reply, however, seems lost on critics who tend to read the novel too negatively: she says, "Shh. Shh. We just go'n have to start again." Her words evoke a spiritual and physical toughness and should not be discounted.

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