Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 694
On one hand, Alnest is little more than an offstage voice, the voice of an old man cautioning Helena, his wife, against the cold. On the other, he is one of only two sympathetic white characters in Gaines’s story (Helena is the other). Though the motivation for their careful charity is not described, it is ultimately accepted, the suggestion being that whatever their motivation may be, their small generosity will only be accepted as kindness, not as charity.
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Like James and James’s mother, the source for James’s aunt is drawn from Gaines’s own experience, modeled after his own great aunt, Augustine Jefferson. Though her presence in ‘‘The Sky is Gray’’ is minimal, Augustine’s presence in Gaines’s life can hardly be overstated: ‘‘Unless you include her,’’ he says, ‘‘you can’t write about me at all.’’
Kept completely offstage except for his terrifying effect on Little John Lee, who screams bloody murder on receipt of his dental ministrations, Dr. Basset exists in the narrative not for what he is, but for what he isn’t—Dr. Robillard, the good dentist who takes care of the teeth of Bayonne’s whites.
Monsieur Bayonne at the story’s beginning is the superstitious complement to the preacher in the middle section. He is a sincerely religious faith healer/musician, but his religion is heavily tinged with superstition. For example, he believes that Catholic and non-Catholic prayers heal differently, but one suspects that the distinction between the two would be lost on the clergy of both Catholic and Protestant faiths. Based on Gaines’ own experience, the character of Monsieur Bayonne is a mildly unsympathetic but still dangerous figure—though he acts without malice, his actions keep James from a dentist for several days.
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A strong offstage presence, James’s father is most profound in his absence. It is because of his absence that Octavia’s moral teachings are both so important and so urgently imparted.
Alnest’s wife, Helena is the story’s other sympathetic white figure. But she is important for another reason besides her human decency: it is paradoxically her kind gesture that represents the greatest potential threat to James’s manhood, at least in his mother’s eyes.
The story’s protagonist, or main character, James is a young boy of about eight who lives with his mother, aunt, and their immediate family in the outskirts of Bayonne, Louisiana. It is through James’s eyes that the story is told; consequently, the story is heavily filtered through his sensibilities. James is on the cusp between youth and adolescence, trying to understand what is expected of him by his inscrutable mother as he enters this next phase of his life.
James’s mother Octavia is a strong, proud, uncompromising woman largely based on Gaines’s own mother. Indeed, one of the story’s more disturbing episodes, during which his mother tries to make James kill two captured birds, is drawn from Gaines’s own experience. She feels her first duty to her children is to toughen them up and show them how to live and survive. She loves her children, but more important to her than any visible demonstrations of affection are the moral lessons she insists upon teaching James.
The old lady
The old man
Like Monsieur Bayonne, the Preacher is little more than a foil—he exists only to become angered by the student on behalf of the other people in the dentist’s office, to strike him on their behalf, and to pity him.
The student, or the boy, is somewhat out of place in this story, but was certainly not out of place at the time the story was written. Like the narrator in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, the student is profoundly alienated from his community. In the microcosm of black society represented by the dentist’s office that morning, he offers an indictment of religion and of its opiate-like effect on the downtrodden that Gaines himself seems to share.