Themes and Meanings
Best known for his novels, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1971) and A Gathering of Old Men (1983), Ernest J. Gaines locates most of his fiction in Louisiana, focusing on black southerners, Cajuns, and Creoles. A century earlier, the locale of this story would have been the slave quarters. In varying degrees, all the stories recount the trials of being a man, woman, or child in a hostile environment. Here he underscores the rituals that protect a person and a family from despair and disintegration.
Decades have taught the need for codes and rituals if the African American family is to survive. The bleaker, the more difficult life is, the greater the need for rules of behavior. Although Eddie is a good worker and a good man, when he neglects his family—however briefly and unintentionally—he threatens the entire community. The women are preservers and transmitters of tradition and set in motion the series of gestures and countermeasures that make up this folk narrative. Amy’s leaving precipitates all subsequent action, to the extent that she foresees her own ritualized whipping that resolves the tale. Grandma is willing to spur her on, because in her eyes, Eddie violates decorum. Miss Hebert teaches the Creole sense of learning and manners. Madame Toussaint is the community guide to the invisible mysteries of love and value.
Sonny’s embarrassment at school is central to the meaning of the story. He does not know his lesson because no one has taught it to him. His father does not know the dangers of a car, because none of the women has yet taught him the lesson of where legitimately to place his love. Each initially appears woefully inept. Each quickly learns his lesson, for the whole community is watching. Each comes of age.