Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The most striking technical feature of “Just Like a Tree” is the author’s use of multiple narrators. Each narrator speaks with a distinctive voice, and each has something to contribute to the narrative. Even the outsiders, James and Ann-Marie, with their limited understanding, point to deeper levels of insight.

It is Aunt Fe’s departure that is most on the mind of these people, but their thoughts are not limited to this one event. They have their own lives, their own concerns, illustrated by the tensions, observed with understated humor, between Emile and Aunt Lou. Through multiple narrators, the author provides not only multiple perspectives on what is happening to Aunt Fe, but also a wider and deeper acquaintance with the community as a whole.

Aunt Fe and Emmanuel stand at the moral center of the story, and it is significant that neither assumes the role of narrator. Readers see them as the others see them. They hear as the others do their words and their silences. The responsibility of understanding what to see and hear remains the reader’s. One may assume that Gaines supports the Civil Rights movement, but the emphasis in this story is not on the didactic but on the dramatic.

This is the emphasis that motivates the technique. On first reading, there may be some difficulty in keeping straight who is who, and who is related to whom. By demanding the reader’s active involvement in the narrative process, Gaines encourages one to bring to bear on the story the power of one’s own moral imagination.