On the Occasion of My Last Afternoon

by Kaye Gibbons
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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1929

On the Occasion of My Last Afternoon, Kaye Gibbons’s novel of a Southern woman’s inner dialogue, stretches from 1842 to 1890. Her narrator, Emma Garnet Tate Lowell, creates the South in sometimes painfully personal terms. As the book opens, Samuel, Emma’s father reels about the plantation kitchen. He has murdered a slave, and in spite of his belligerent protestation that he “did not mean to kill the nigger,” the violence has clearly debilitated him. His direction, at that moment, comes from Clarice, a black servant who superintends but does not help him clean up as he rants. Her strength and clear- mindedness never desert Emma or the household.

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After Samuel washes, Clarice, the “only woman he would allow a riposte, to tell him how to manage an affair,” orders him to “go upstairs and dress and not wake the twins.” Then, with Emma in her wake, she strides onto the hog-killing floor of the barn and orders the stunned field hands to cover the corpse and perform the ritual toe-touching so that the ghost will not return to haunt them. Clarice’s stature as a free black wins instant obedience from the circle around the slain slave and keeps order on the Tate plantation without negating any of the inherent inequities that allowed the attack. Her paradoxical involvement in the repressive life under which she suffers, her unlikely equality with Samuel Tate, Emma’s reliance on her, and her complicity in the ongoing cruelty of the plantation system are a microcosm of the cross-purposes and malignity that tied the Old South together. She illustrates the untenable position of influential blacks, who made survival more certain for less powerful slaves by intervening in a system they despised. Clarice is both a mammy figure and a courageous black woman. She embodies the negative and positive facets of real existence in the South.

Gibbons’s opening bares the complexities and paradoxes that reverberated in plantation and slave life in the American South. Animal savagery masquerades in Samuel’s person, and Clarice feels bound to protect her master even though she despises him. Their tie was forged years before the story commences. As part of the early mayhem, Emma reports that she has overheard Clarice “confide to someone once” that she had known “Mr. Tate when he was what he was before he became what he is. . . . I know a fat budget of stories.” Readers and Emma must wait for fuller disclosure of his childhood trauma. As narrator, Emma emerges as a “quick-marrow,” an outsider girl who questions everything. She craves learning and takes her world in whole. She has concerns beyond her years. After the murder, she worries about the Tates’s culpability and about vengeance being visited on the family by slaves “because that is what things did. They came back.” Emma’s beautiful, good- hearted mother, Alice, misses the melée of murder and settlement at Seven Oaks; she has fled her matrimonial and domestic situation to spend time with the Carter family at Shirley Plantation. This is not lost on Emma. Even at twelve, she sees her mother as “a woman of nightly-broken spirit” with a tenuous hold on life.

Gibbons focuses on Emma’s difference from Southerners who considered blacks to be inhuman ciphers. She knows the group in the barn are slaves from New Guinea because, she announces, “Negroes [do] not all look alike to me.” She knows blacks by “the quality of their faces, the way they [hold] themselves, their voices, the same way I [know] anyone on the James [River].” The murder also reveals Clarice’s and Emma’s intuitive tie and collaboration in household crises. Clarice summarily orders Emma back to the house from the barn. Showing the slaves her power restores them a mite of self-respect. Emma meekly bows, understanding that her obeisance would show that “at least one Tate had respect for a Negro.”

Gibbons does not dilute the paradox and conflicts besetting family and slaves at Seven Oaks. The tangle of brutality initiated by Samuel creates alliances and power struggles. Marriage and family life are a shambles of cruelty and resignation. In one example of horrific moral posturing, Samuel triumphantly drags his family off to a public hanging. He disowns and effectively kills his eldest son, Whately, who is left to succumb to venereal disease and poverty in an abandoned shack. Tate manipulates two sons into entrepreneuring in Europe during the Civil War, and he blocks his youngest daughter Maureen’s chances for marriage. Neighbors despise his insulting manner and rough breeding but tolerate him for Alice’s sake and economic stability. Ultimately, everyone conspires against him.

Emma and Clarice live out their lives in what Emma relates as a mutually confidential relationship between two strong women. Yet the power dynamic is never absent; Mistress Emma always requires things of Clarice. There is a bargain of sorts. Their unarticulated pact against Samuel Tate saves Alice anguish; later, in Emma’s household in Raleigh, Clarice valiantly supports Emma’s nursing of Confederate soldiers. The Lowell home becomes a hospital ward, with the overwhelming burden of cleaning, cooking, washing, and care that entails. Clarice works tirelessly, along with Martha, Mavis, and Charlie. Clarice moves her cot into the kitchen as demands of all types escalate, and Emma tells readers it was Clarice’s decision to be on call. Yet underneath the assertion rides readers’ knowledge of who makes the requests, even though Clarice exercises eminent domain over the Lowell household, commenting freely on family events.

Clarice labors a lifetime, dying in Emma’s fine bedroom as the Civil War draws to a close. Never once, in Emma’s intellectually informed and socially rebellious existence, has she confronted Clarice’s separateness. Nor has Emma questioned her entitlement to afternoons of reading or evenings with her husband while Clarice worked. Her gratitude and admiration are profuse, but readers may question her moral consistency. Emma’s chief lament upon Clarice’s death is the overwhelming panic she feels at having to manage her life alone. Her chief shame, and Clarice’s, is their conspiracy to keep the other house servants ignorant of their free status. Clarice’s final episode of weakness makes disclosure necessary so the newly free blacks can teach Emma and Maureen how to cook before they leave. The enigma of Clarice as a willing accomplice in the deception frankly acknowledges the confused loyalties of Southern life. Gibbons does nothing to ameliorate these inconsistencies.

Emma’s relationship with her mother plays out less satisfactorily than her pact with Clarice. Early in life, Emma learns to appear at her parents’ bedroom door with fever when she hears an escalation of voices and tension. Her mother comes to rely on Emma and Clarice as her chief redeemers. Alice’s life consists of wild careening from stability to mayhem, her frail existence hampered by depression and migraines. At book’s end, Emma and her husband receive a letter from the physician who attended Alice’s final bout with life. As suspected, Samuel’s engagement of an incompetent practitioner who still bleeds and purges patients has killed his long-suffering wife. Emma agonizes over her abandonment of her mother, for whom she promised to return when she left as a bride to establish her new household. She failed to honor her word and send Clarice back to buffer Alice’s life after the Raleigh residence was in order. She even failed to return to Seven Oaks for a single visit. When Samuel Tate, ailing and perverse, takes over a suite of rooms in Emma’s home—at his own and the war’s end—readers wish Alice Tate herself had been rescued from his cheap conception of life instead of merely her picture, which hangs in Emma’s parlor after Samuel’s justified, and not altogether natural, demise. Emma’s inconsistency in the matter of her mother rankles. She has energetically questioned all Southern protocol, so her inability to act, when she has known and intervened in Alice’s intimate situation from the time she was a child, is hard to reconcile.

Gibbons offers readers an unflinching look at the inequities and hypocrisy of Southern life in On the Occasion of My Last Afternoon. Samuel spouts philosophy as he bullies his domestics, family, and guests. Clarice suffers divided loyalties because she witnessed the incident in which Samuel was forced to shoot his own mother when he was a mere child of five or six. Emma keeps her free blacks hostage through their ignorance. The novel’s long interior narrative structure builds around Emma’s reminiscences and chronicles her attempt to rise above the worst excesses. Readers learn that Emma instantly recognized Lavinia Dawes as a “quick-marrow” young woman like herself. She educated Lavinia, who needed to know “why we are on this Earth and how we got here” and rescued her from the poverty and ignorance of the flats. As the wife of Doctor Lowell (of the Harvard Lowells), Emma diagnoses and nurses the grossest forms of illness and infection throughout the Civil War. In the book’s final chapters, Emma returns to Raleigh after her husband’s death from exhaustion at the war’s end and her years of recuperation in Boston. There, she has worked as a nurse and taught Southern culinary arts, never successfully reconciling her uneasy balance between Southern culture and intelligence. Re-ensconced in Raleigh, she organizes the first school for freed slaves, then organizes private tutoring when violence threatens. She becomes a silent partner in successful businesses growing up during Reconstruction. Her tone, smug but proud of pushing propriety and striving to do what she deems decent, keeps Emma a paradox till book’s end.

She is Gibbons’ version of an honorable Southern woman of breeding and intelligence who fights for dignity and the right to know for herself and her intimates. She is an exemplary woman who sees herself as a force for change and social evolution. Yet readers realize that when Emma Garnet Tate marries a New England Lowell, she has reached the limits of her rebellion. She has created the space for a decent, moral life that contradicts the status quo without abolishing it or turning away from its decorum and patterns of cordial behavior. Emma’s marriage of enlightened friendship and passion saves her from the boredom and constraint of the usual Southern arrangements. Her ultimate rebellion is a mothering style that educates the Lowell daughters to be respectable and use their minds. All three pursue higher education in Massachusetts after the war; yet the three stay in the North, so their freedom does nothing to alter Southern culture. Gibbons’s compassionate portrayal of Emma pictures a woman who leads an intellectual life and resists confinement but who does not have the stamina for broad confrontation or the vision that could make her a true partner with Clarice or other blacks. Emma remains within the structure of Southern society and works against its strictures to the limits of her moral horizons. Readers may judge her as compromised by her complex and contradictory decisions. Graciously, Gibbons grants Emma the freedom to remain who she is and was on the occasion of her last afternoon.

Sources for Further Study

Atlanta Constitution. June 2, 1998, p. D1.

Booklist. XCIV, May 15, 1998, p. 1564.

Boston Globe. May 31, 1998, p. N3.

Library Journal. CXXIII, June 1, 1998, p. 150.

The New York Times Book Review. CIII, July 19, 1998, p. 12.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLV, April 20, 1998, p. 43.

San Francisco Chronicle. June 14, 1998, p. REV3.

USA Today. June 18, 1998, p. D5.

The Washington Post Book World. XXVIII, July 12, 1998, p. 9.

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