(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

As the narrative opens, James and his mother, Octavia, are waiting by the roadside for the bus that will carry them to Bayonne. The weather is cold, and James knows that his mother will be worried that her family lacks wood to keep them warm until her return. She worries about other things as well, especially when James is not there to assume the man’s role in her absence. James is instinctively drawn to his mother and feels the urge to put his arm around her, but he restrains himself, knowing that she regards such a display of affection as weakness and “crybaby stuff.”

James has been silently suffering for some time with a toothache, about which he told no one because he knew that there was no money for the dentist. James’s aunt first became aware that he was in pain, but he swore her to secrecy. She did send for Monsieur Bayonne, a folk healer, to treat the tooth, but his remedies were ineffective. The pain became so unbearable that it could no longer be kept secret from James’s mother, so now they are on their way to have it removed. They have money “enough to get there and get back. Dollar and a half to have it pulled,” and fifty cents left over to buy a “little piece of salt meat.”

As they prepare for the day, James recalls the time before his father went off to the war, when things were better for the family. He also recalls when his mother made him kill two redbirds caught in the traps that he and his brother set for owls and blackbirds. James did not want to kill the redbirds, but his mother killed the first one and then demanded that he kill the other. He refused, and she beat him until he gave in. Afterward, as they ate the tiny morsels, James felt the pride the others had in him for providing even this small meal. He later understood that his mother’s stern discipline was preparing him in case he had to carry on in her stead.

The ride to town on a Jim Crow bus is uneventful except for James’s self-conscious flirtation with a small girl, which amuses the other passengers. Alighting in Bayonne, James becomes aware of the penetrating cold, which seems more intense than at home. They make their way to the dentist’s office, where James listens to an exchange between a preacher who believes it best not to try to understand suffering, and a young, educated black man who insists that people should “question everything. Every stripe, every star, every word spoken. Everything.” These two exchange views on religion, which the young man rejects. Growing angry and frustrated at the young man’s calm rejection of Christian complacency, the preacher finally strikes him twice in the face. The...

(The entire section is 1084 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

James, the eight-year-old narrator of “The Sky Is Gray,” lives with his mother, Octavia, his aunt, and three younger brothers in rural Louisiana. Because James’s father has been called to the army, the family lives a marginal existence, supported only by the mother’s fieldwork. James, knowing that there is no money for a dentist, suffers in silence with an agonizing toothache. When his aunt reveals the child’s misery, Octavia takes James to town on the bus. The action of the story occurs in one day.

The irony is achieved through the narrative position of the child who observes events he cannot comprehend but must accept. The rural town of Bayonne is rigidly segregated, with the warm restaurants and shops reserved for white people. The dentist is an inferior practitioner who accepts black patients. The black people must eat “back of town” and are not welcome in the white-owned stores. Octavia constantly corrects James, reminding him that he is the oldest son and must behave like a man. He understands that, no matter how intense his suffering, he must not cry or complain. The reader may view Octavia as hard and uncompromising, but James respects and loves her without reservation. Octavia is a realist who is preparing her son for his dangerous life as a black man in the rural South.

The gray landscape and the pervasive cold are central to the atmosphere of the story. After being turned away by the dentist’s nurse and told to...

(The entire section is 519 words.)