Characters

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1117

In My Father's House pivots on a single dramatic and catalytic event — the return of Etienne Martin, or Robert X, and his subsequent suicide. Consequently, the cast of primary characters is small, and despite the omniscient narrator, the mood is more introspective than panoramic. If The Autobiography of Miss...

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In My Father's House pivots on a single dramatic and catalytic event — the return of Etienne Martin, or Robert X, and his subsequent suicide. Consequently, the cast of primary characters is small, and despite the omniscient narrator, the mood is more introspective than panoramic. If The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman was Gaines's epic poem, this is his Greek tragedy, focusing as it does on the moral plight of a particular character. It is a tale about the profound isolation of people from one another, ironically set in the context of the effort of blacks to join in political protest and collective racial progress. The main character, Phillip, married to his second wife. Alma, appears to have learned the lessons of life presented by the rootless-ness of his early years. He seems to be a well-adjusted, successful family man, committed both to his wife and to his career. Yet conflict is hinted at rather early on, not only because the reader can connect Robert X or Etienne to him, but also because his wife complains that they have a shallow relationship and that he never confides in her. Similarly, he tells no one the truth about his son for four days, until the son's arrest by the local sheriff forces an admission which leads to his son's demise. Like a Greek tragic hero, he has achieved great prominence, yet is marred by the fatal flaw of his past and his present cowardice.

The characters, both primary and secondary, may be divided into two groups — those from Martin's second life, and those from his first. Members of the two groups seldom cross paths, the notable exception being Alma's visit to Chippo's place near the very end of the book, where she attempts to function as the bridge to join and reintegrate the two lives. Notable in the first group is Virginia Colar, Robert X's landlady, an "ordinary" person whose insights do much to characterize both Robert and the community of St. Adrienne. The schoolteacher, Elijah Green, who lives at Reverend Martin's house (the most expensive owned by a black man in St. Adrienne), and Shepherd Lewis, who brings Robert X to the party hosted by Martin and Elijah, are leaders among a group of teachers who frequent a popular night spot for blacks. The current mission of Reverend Martin to force a Cajun store owner, and known but unprosecuted rapist, Albert Chenal, to pay equitable wages to blacks, and his job as a prominent preacher brings the more prominent black citizens, and some whites, to the Martin house. Also important in the group are Howard Mills, the head deacon, and Jonathan Robillard, the fiery young assistant pastor, who later usurps Phillip's position when Phillip compromises the interests of the whole community in order to get Robert X-Etienne out of jail. Notable other women characters from this first group are Alma, Martin's second wife; Beverly Ricord, Shepherd Lewis's girlfriend; Sister Claiborne and Sister Jackson, two old black women who evoke Miss Jane in their speech and attitudes; and wives of some of the white professionals present at the party. Joyce Ann and Patrick, Martin's two children from his second marriage, who are sensitive and properly raised, also figure in this first, civic minded group. Sheriff Nolan, not present at the party, is a nasty white character who uses his position to bait Martin into abandoning the demonstration against Chenal's store, exacerbating the conflict between private and public responsibility, one of the major themes of the book.

Critics have complained both about the character of Robert X-Etienne and Phillip himself. Robert X-Etienne is negative and suicidal, not to mention vindictive. He is no longer capable of human feeling because he is so totally consumed by the injustice of his life. Yet negative as they are, his feelings appear justifiable. Etienne has been isolated even from his only brother, Antoine, who served a five-year prison term for the attempted murder of his sister's rapist, and who disowned his whole family upon getting out of jail. Martin's desertion has ruined the whole family. Martin pleaded psychological paralysis — paralysis that did not let up until he found Jesus — as his excuse, which neither satisfies the angry son nor some reviewers, who find the dichotomies in Martin's character impossible to reconcile. Such characters seem to threaten, rather than support, the struggle of blacks for equality and respect. Yet Martin's painful feelings distinguish him from less sensitive men who would deny any responsibility for an ex-wife and her children. The father and son are credible characters; Gaines seems to be exploring the pathological side of social oppression while still asserting the ability of black people to thrive both psychologically and politically.

Another character who bridges both the lives of Phillip Martin is Chippo Simon, a one eyed former merchant marine whose name comes from his speed in chopping wood. He has taken Johanna and her children away from the town and later helps Martin find out what has happened to them in the interim. Martin finds Chippo through his godmother, Angelina, an energetic matriarch, who still lives on the Reno plantation where Martin spent his youth and married Johanna. Chippo tells both Martin and the reader about his abandoned family. Johanna has been patient; though she is beautiful and has had a string of lovers, none of them have replaced Martin in her heart. The last, Quick George, raped Justine, the daughter, occasioning both Antoine's imprisonment and Etienne's psychological breakdown, and presumably Johanna's own psychological paralysis. In twenty years, Johanna has become old in appearance and has lost teeth. Chippo describes his last meeting with her as so painful that he can barely talk about it.

The whole scene of the novel changes drastically as Martin searches for Chippo and news of his family in Baton Rouge, mainly in slum areas where "twenty years ago it used to be lively, but now it was dead." In the city, blacks seem much less fortunate than in St. Adrienne. The rest of the plot unfolds in Baton Rouge, where Martin almost deserts his second family over grief about abandoning his past one, and he even threatens to spend the night with an old girlfriend. Yet he is rescued by Beverly and Alma, who recognize both the irony of his situation and his true worth as a man and a leader. Alma's name is obviously well-chosen, for she nurtures Phillip, and helps him reconcile the conflict between past and present, and public and private lives, Gaines strongly makes the point here that one's own personal integrity, including responsibility for one's sexuality and one's family, figures in public leadership, and also must be the basis for a person's self-esteem.

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