In My Father's House

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1072

Best known for his highly successful novel The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, Ernest Gaines’s new book In My Father’s House is at least as notable in its unflinching presentation of the modern black man’s dilemma as the earlier work is in its poignant portrait of the black man’s past....

(The entire section contains 1630 words.)

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Best known for his highly successful novel The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, Ernest Gaines’s new book In My Father’s House is at least as notable in its unflinching presentation of the modern black man’s dilemma as the earlier work is in its poignant portrait of the black man’s past. In The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, Gaines celebrates the indomitable spirit of blacks as they struggle out of the degradation of slavery and do battle with racial hatred and ignorance to claim their due as full human beings. In My Father’s House, through its lean plot and echoing rhythm, exposes another kind of slavery in the making in modern America: it is slavery dressed in the guise of material success. In My Father’s House is a cautionary novel that reveals the terrible danger that lies beneath the beauty and allure of the American dream. Blacks who now have the opportunity to make a place for themselves in middle-class society, to live the “good life” in America, can be so blinded in their quest that they can fall victim to an influence which would more effectively and insidiously strip them of their humanity than could any slave master in the past.

Gaines’s restrained style and serious tone effectively reveal the genuine depth of his feeling and the concern with which he views this very real problem. Although the author is sympathetic to the central figure in the novel, Philip Martin, he makes effective use of irony to strip away those trappings of affluence and power which hide the real Philip.

Philip is the pastor of a large black church in St. Adrienne, Louisiana, and is a leader in the local civil rights struggle. Thus he has attained position, prestige, and authority. He has all the external symbols of middle-class success: an elegant, ranch-style brick home, a luxury sedan, a station wagon for his wife, and an “ideal” family consisting of a wife and two children (one boy and one girl). Gaines’s use of irony is quite apparent here. Philip is described as tall, large, and very handsome. He is so satisfied with his apparent success that he finds no need to question or examine his life. Then a mysterious figure from his past comes to town, and Philip’s world collapses. The focus of the novel rests on Philip’s attempts to face himself and his life for the first time in order to know who he is and what his life means.

The action begins when a wraithlike Robert X appears out of the rain and winter cold, a ghost from Philip’s past. He is a hollow man, a shell, the remnants of a son Philip had abandoned more than twenty years before. The X in Robert’s name reflects his lack of substance and identity; it also underscores the fact that Philip no longer remembers his son’s real name (Etienne). When Robert X appears in his father’s living room during a party, Philip starts to move forward to greet him, stumbles and suddenly falls to the floor. Symbolically, Robert X is the spiritual and emotional commitment that Philip had long ago rejected, as he had rejected Robert X and his mother, Johanna. Philip is pathetically estranged from true spiritual and emotional understanding. When he attempts to move closer to it, he falls; he lacks the necessary strength of conviction even to approach it much less to embrace it. The fact that Philip is a minister and yet suffers such spiritual deprivation is another example of Gaines’s use of irony.

Robert X also represents the future of men like Philip Martin, and, in particular, their sons. As Gaines presents it that future is bleak indeed. For if it is the fathers who make a place for their sons, who provide the models and guidance and strength, what kind of place is it going to be when fathers do not even know their sons, when fathers abandon their sons, or when, even though they are physically present, they essentially ignore their sons? What would such a world be like?

Gaines provides a glimpse of the awful answer through the agonized figure of Robert X as he ponders the empty colored bottles strewn in the alley beneath his window: “. . . used to be something good in them. . . . Somebody went through a lot of pain making them. . . . Look at them now. Busted. Nothing but trash. Nothing but trash now.”

The heart of the novel lies in Philip’s torturous struggle to face his past and thereby avert this disastrous future. In My Father’s House is a moving tale of a man’s attempt to face, first of all, the fact that even in 1970 he is still operating under the influence of the slave mentality—that, in fact, he has inadvertently accepted the damning myth that he is a stud, a buck, an animal. What else but an animal would sire children and then leave them as he, Philip, had done? Second, in order to compensate for the underlying doubts about his own self-worth, he has wholeheartedly adopted the desire for power, individual gain, and material possessions—in other words, the white value system that underlies the whole structure of American life. In so doing, he has lost sight of the values of human dignity, community, and compassion for which black people have fought so long. In relinquishing these largely spiritual and emotional values, Philip has created an unbridgeable gap between himself and his wife and children.

Philip symbolizes many upwardly mobile blacks who play the game of getting ahead, but who, somewhere along the way, lose sight of where the game begins and where it ends. In the process, they often also lose sight of who they themselves are. Repeatedly, Philip asks himself: “’Who really was Philip Martin, and what, if anything, had he really done?’”

In his uncomplicated and straightforward style, Gaines deals with themes of tremendous significance to every reader who is concerned about the direction that life in this country has taken. The novel is not all darkness and pain, however. For in the midst of the winter, the season in which the action of the novel takes place to emphasize the theme of psychic death, Philip’s cry of “I am lost” can be recognized as his most honest statement. Within it are contained the seeds of hope.

Techniques / Literary Precedents

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 352

Distinguished from The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman by its use of a single pivotal action and its consequences, and by the use of an omniscient narrator, In My Father's House has roots in tragic drama, both Greek and British. The revenge motif links it to these forms and evokes plots from other literature and film where the "stranger" returns to town and turns out not to be a stranger after all. Gaines's use of the motif is daring in the context of black literature because he is alluding to potentially offensive material about his own people. While much literature by black writers centers on a single male character, such as Richard Wright's Black Boy (1937) and Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man (1952), the action usually progresses toward greater freedom and a sense of dignity against harrowing odds. This book, however, is about the fall of a black man over a matter that a lesser man might dismiss out of hand. Martin ends up in what is practically a fetal position at the end, being comforted by Alma, making him in some eyes a very poor role model; yet his tragic flaw has been that he has not been able to accept his need for others or share his feelings.

Gaines's use of metaphor and symbolism is unobtrusive, yet very effective. For example, Phillip has put up a gate near his house in St. Adrienne made of cypress, a funereal and very strong wood, suggesting the wall of isolation he has built around himself, and which he later decides to tear down. Creative treatment of settings, for which Gaines is well-known, is seen in this novel, as in the use of the winter setting, in the contrast between St. Adrienne and Baton Rouge, and between the suburban town and the plantation. The central irony of Phillip's attempted salvation of his people, and his false conception of his own redemption, challenges the Christian concept of finding Jesus or being saved just once, implying that an ongoing process is needed. There is humor in such irony, and humor abounds in this book despite its predominantly tragic tone.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 23

Book World. June 18, 1978, p. E5.

Horn Book. LV, October, 1978, p. 546.

New York Times. CXXVII, July 20, 1978, p. C19.

School Library Journal. XXV, November, 1978, p. 81.

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