The Implications of a Moral Reading of The Sky is Gray

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2191

Though Gaines’s works invite a wide number of readings, almost all current criticism can be divided into one of two broad categories: race-centered criticism, concerned primarily with the story’s instructive value about such things as prejudice and injustice, and structural criticism, which describes the parts of the story and their relation to the whole in formal, rather than thematic, terms. Not surprisingly, the lion’s share of critiques fall into the first camp, and even the structural readings include didactic (instructive) digressions in almost every case. Such readings all share a serious, albeit unintentional, flaw; they suggest that one must understand all actions and most events as direct or indirect consequences of race, rather than individual choice. The drawback to what I’ll call, for lack of a better term, ‘‘race-based’’ readings may not be immediately obvious, but isn’t terribly complicated. Reading Gaines first, foremost, always, and only as a black author, an author of race and race issues, rather than primarily as an imaginative author, an author of ideas, delimits the kinds of questions one can ask about his works and necessarily diminishes the reader’s appreciation of the imaginative sphere in which he works. In short, the unfortunate consequence of exclusively race-based readings is that they narrow the reader’s scope of inquiry, inviting the reader to ask fewer questions and questions of a more particular nature than one would ask of an author like James Joyce, Salman Rushdie, or J. M. Coetzee—each of whose writings are intimately concerned with different conceptions of ‘‘race’’ and their ramifications. Though it is indeed difficult, particularly for Americans, to step far enough back from the late 20th century American present to see the world Gaines describes with the same dispassionate clarity as one might see the Ireland, India, or South Africa that Joyce, Rushdie, and Coetzee respectively describe, nothing is lost—and much is gained—if one makes the effort. In short, what is missing from the current crop of responses to Gaines is a moral reading, one that doesn’t look for causes and effects in a two-dimensional equation of character and color, but rather, in the quality of the characters’ thoughts and actions, regarding the characters not as caricatures of different types, but as fully formed people with their own—to borrow a phrase from Joyce—‘‘individuating rhythms.’’ If Gaines is indeed an imaginative writer of canonical status, his works will reward such readings.

It is not possible, within the scope of this essay, to survey all of Gaines’s works, or to make more than a cursory pass through ‘‘The Sky is Gray.’’ It is also not possible, in a discussion of what I’m calling moral readings, to avoid some necessary oversimplifications of the complex issues surrounding and clouding the idea of race. But this much is clear. Gaines writings about Louisiana have been understood and responded to largely as writings about race. It is also clear that race, racial injustice, the years of segregation, and the particular way these things play themselves out in rural Louisiana are central to Gaines’s writing and therefore are central to understanding his works. Less clear, because less attention has been paid to this question, is how much is left when race is left out or made irrelevant to the readers. Put another way, if Gaines’s stories were set in the India of 1946, two years before partition, if the primary groups described were Muslim and Hindu, rather than black and white, would the stories still merit reading? This is neither a subjective nor an unimportant question.

‘‘The Sky is Gray’’ is told in the first person by an eight-year-old child, James, on the cusp of youth, and describes a half-day in James’s life. His narrative begins as he and his mother wait for a bus to take them to a dentist’s office where James is to have his tooth pulled and ends that same day, sometime shortly before (the reader presumes) that tooth is finally pulled. Told in a series of thirteen more or less chronological episodes, James’s narrative is punctuated by frequent flashbacks to past events, each of which provide the reader with a more complete picture of the moral forces pulling at and shaping James. What makes the fact of James’s narration worth remarking upon is that Gaines could have chosen to tell the story from a number of different perspectives. He could have told it through the eyes of James’s mother Octavia, or Val; he could have told it in epistolary form (as a letter) from James’s mother to his father; or from an omniscient perspective, one that allowed him to describe the sensory and sentient world from all of these vantage points in turn. But instead, Gaines allows James to tell his story in his own words. This is puzzling, because a child’s perspective is considerably narrower than an adult’s. What might be complex, three-dimensional people with equally complex motivations threaten to become two-dimensional caricatures with obscure, even uninteresting motivations when seen through the eyes of a child. Moreover, while an adult may be judged on the basis of his or her thoughts and actions, a child is still too completely a product of his or her parents to evaluate as an independent being. Whatever the narrative gains by being told through James’s eyes would need to add a great deal to offset these drawbacks. But James’s narration creates a rationale for reading the story as a moral story. Though still a child, James is on the verge of youth. One might therefore argue that the real story is yet to be told, that it cannot be told until we see the boy as a man. But the counter to this argument is that one should, if Gaines is successful, be able to see how James will turn out, that the creation of a characterization sufficient to demonstrate that the child is father of the man is a demonstration of a naturalism like Zola’s, and worthy of similar respect. And by the end of the story, the reader does indeed sense that there has been some change to who James is in that short span, a sense reinforced by his mother’s assertion that he is not a bum, but a man.

The distinction his mother makes between men and bums is both subtle and significant: bums pull their coat collars up, while men don’t. What this suggests is that in the highly polarized world in which James is growing up, external appearance can be more significant that internal reality—after all, whether James’s collar is up or down, he’s clearly not a bum, but a boy, and even a man can be permitted, under conditions as cold as those James and Octavia find themselves in, to pull his collar up around his throat. If one’s analysis of this scene stops here in attempting to understand this odd end point for the story, the reading which suggests itself is quite straightforward, something like, ‘‘external appearance is essential because James’s person will always be identified and understood first by his external blackness, then, perhaps, if he is lucky, by his innate character by the world in which he lives, a world in which the white gaze is the most significant threat a black man faces.’’ This reading is reinforced by other stations in the text, and indeed, most critics have read James and Octavia as I’ve suggested. For example, in Ernest Gaines Valerie Babb writes:

Unable to buy food because of their poverty, and forbidden to enter the warm shelters in the area of the dentist’s office because of their color, they become rambling outcasts in a society in which the whim of any white is empowered to affect their destiny. While they wait for the dentist to reopen his office, Octavia must devise ways in which she can keep James from the cold and at the same time carefully adhere to strict rules of racial separation. Observing his mother manipulate their environment moves James closer to what will be his particular entry into manhood, the psychic freedom that comes from emotional selfmastery. In one instance Octavia enters a whiteowned hardware store and pretends to inspect ax handles for purchase while James heats himself at the wood stove. Her dissembling enables her to warm him without compromising her dignity by begging the proprietor to allow her son use of the stove. Here, hiding her true feelings and motives, she makes use of the technique of ‘‘masking’’ and teaches her son a valuable lesson in pride and survival.

But if one takes a step back from the more obvious reading another, more subtle, reading begins to emerge. Consider, for example, the contradiction in Babb’s representation of Octavia as on the one hand trying to ‘‘keep James from the cold’’ while ‘‘adher[ing] to strict rules of racial separation,’’ but on the other being ‘‘enabled’’ by her ‘‘dissembling’’ to keep him warm ‘‘without compromising her dignity.’’ Exactly what is keeping James cold, one wonders—‘‘strict rules of racial separation,’’ or Octavia’s uncompromised dignity? Babb can’t decide. Babb would have Octavia read as a woman whose prideful ‘‘dissembling’’ and ‘‘technique of ‘masking’,’’ whatever that entails, are the necessary consequence of living in a dangerous world in which ‘‘the whim of any white is empowered to affect their destiny.’’ But this is a significant, even inexcusable oversimplification of Octavia’s motivations. Clearly, if the environment in which they found themselves was as dangerous as Babb suggests, with every white potentially disposed to do harm, Octavia’s lesson would be the worst example she could possibly give James, setting him up at some future date for a prideful miscalculation whose outcome could be fatal. It is both more reasonable and more in keeping with Gaines’s own views on the importance of dignity to read Octavia as intentionally withholding warmth from James to teach him that the value of their personal dignity is greater than the value of the most basic comforts—being warm and well-fed.

The importance of this distinction is difficult to overstate: it is nothing less than the difference between a story about people living in perpetual victimhood, on one hand, or a story about a mother trying to teach her son what it will take to become the sort of man she will respect, on the other. If one reverts to the easiest sort of race-based reading, one will invariably decide to read the story as one about victimhood. If that is the reading one chooses, the more important, more striking, more interesting story disappears, while James and his mother become nothing more than sympathetic but uninteresting racial stereotypes about the lives of poor blacks long ago. But if one decides to read the story as a more complex critique, not of racial relations, but of the value—and the cost—of dignity, one sees that even as an eight-year-old James understands her, Octavia is an interesting, fully-realized character.

Babb seems to approach this realization when she writes that Octavia’s ‘‘dissembling enables her to warm him without compromising her dignity by begging.’’ Babb realizes that Octavia’s act is fundamentally about dignity, not about warmth, but she doesn’t think through the implications of the point she has made, here or later. For Babb, Octavia’s intention is to ‘‘teach her son a valuable lesson in pride and survival,’’ but she doesn’t interrogate the relationship between pride and survival, preferring tacitly to assume that her readers will infer a necessary relationship between the two where none in fact exists. But assume for a moment that Octavia’s world is not so simple. Though her family is clearly poor, it is evident that they have learned to function within the constraints of their poverty. James tries to keep silent about his tooth not out of fear, but because he knows how expensive it will be to have a dentist pull it. Later, the whole family is at hand when Octavia and James’s aunt count out the cost of a trip to the dentist: ‘‘She say: ‘enough to get there and get back. Dollar and a half to have it pulled. Twenty-five for me to go, twenty-five for him. Twenty-five for me to come back, twenty-five for him. Fifty cents left. guess I get a little piece of salt meat with that.’’’ Though it is clear that money is scarce, it is just as clear that this family knows how to survive with dignity—that is, without charity. The great fear here is not the capriciousness of white townfolk, but of being beholden, as a result of their poverty, to anyone. And a reading focussed exclusively on the story’s racial dynamic misses this completely.

Source: David Y. Kippen, ‘‘An Overview of ‘The Sky is Gray’,’’ in Short Stories for Students, The Gale Group,1999. David Kippen is a doctoral candidate in world literature with an emphasis on the literature of southern Africa.

Ernest J. Gaines and the Black Child’s Sensory Dilemma

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1435

Each of the first two stories in Ernest J. Gaines’s Bloodline—‘‘A Long Day in November’’ and ‘‘The Sky Is Gray’’ —describes a black boy or youth attempting to come to terms not just with the world in which he lives, his parents’ problems, and the racism which circumscribes him but, more importantly, with the sensory orientation of his own body, the struggle between what William Faulkner called a ‘‘black blood and white blood.’’ It is this private or internal struggle more than any public or external debate that creates the real identity crisis for the young black and for the artist or writer who would contend with an America which has ‘‘painted the senses white!’’ Both Sonny in ‘‘A Long Day in November’’ and James in ‘‘The Sky Is Gray’’ have to resolve the conflict between their African/aural roots and their American/visual reorientation—between James Baldwin’s declaration that ‘‘it is only in his music . . . that the Negro in America has been able to tell his story’’ and Ralph Waldo Emerson’s assumption that ‘‘the eye is final; what it tells us is the last stroke of nature; beyond color we cannot go.’’ This hyperverbal/hypervisual trauma or rite de passage forms the real theme or subject of both black children’s accounts in ‘‘A Long Day in November’’ and ‘‘The Sky Is Gray.’’ . . .

James, in ‘‘The Sky is Gray,’’ is a somewhat older black youth who rightly faces a more complex dilemma concerning his ear and eye. The absence of the father—‘‘in the army’’—has somewhat prematurely forced James into the role of ‘‘the man of the house’’; and we first find this young black initiate ‘‘looking down the road,’’ of American hypervisuality. Here, James must learn to balance the words of his black heritage with the visions of white America— must learn to observe his mother’s sadness and poverty while at the same time controlling his words after the fashion of the stoic adult black male: ‘‘I want put my arm round her and tell her. But I’m not supposed to do that. She say that’s weakness and crybaby stuff.’’ Time and time again, the black youth must simply ‘‘take it’’—must see the advantages of the whites or the sufferings of himself and other blacks—while saying nothing and offering no complaints. Indeed, the ‘‘tooth’’ with the aching root here is James’s own Afro-American tongue and ear—the dilemma of finding that his deepest ‘‘roots’’ are at odds with hypervisual America. The text of ‘‘The Sky Is Gray’’ subtly brings out this painful aurality: I’d just lay there and listen to them, and listen to that wind out there, and listen to that fire in the fireplace. Sometimes it’d stop long enough to let me get little rest. Sometimes it just hurt, hurt, hurt. Lord, have mercy (italics mine). This tooth of endless remorse/aurality may be denied—‘‘It ain’t hurting me no more’’—but will never be extracted from the central black consciousness of ‘‘The Sky Is Gray.’’ Of course, too, there is a shrewd and even humorous irony involved in attempting to exorcise the black hyperverbality by ‘‘prayer’’—whether this be Baptist or Catholic incantation—for the Word/word, spoken or sung, lies at the root of black religiosity. Yet James, for all his acuteness of perception, can never follow Emerson into the parody of the Biblical command, ‘‘Pray without ceasing’’: the New-England sage demands, ‘‘Observe without ceasing’’ (italics mine). The only way that James can truly understand his world is by authoritarian explanation—the tongue and ear forming the eye: ‘‘Auntie and Monsieur Bayonne talked to me and made me see’’ (italics mine).

The trip to town on the bus marked ‘‘White’’ and ‘‘Colored’’ represents the real rite de passage for the black youth in white America—the blurring of his sensibilities into gray: ‘‘The river is gray. The sky is gray.’’ From henceforth, James’s own ‘‘long day’’ will be comprised of this struggle between ‘‘black blood’’ and ‘‘white blood’’ within a cerebral ‘‘sky’’ of ‘‘gray’’—a terrifying and chilling confrontation with one’s own senses and sensibilities. The first thing that James learns is to rein in his potential visuality—to accept verbal blinders for his eyes: ‘‘Mama tells me to keep my eyes in front where they belong’’ (italics mine). Next, James discovers that the dentist’s ‘‘colored’’ waiting-room is a place of intensified vocality and aurality, where patients are ‘‘hollering like pigs under a gate’’ and where ‘‘all round the room people are talking. Here, the key episode occurs between the ‘‘liberal’’ black student and the ‘‘conservative’’ black preacher—a paradoxical conflict between Word and word, between faith and sight. The black student demands hypervisuality—‘‘Show me one reason to believe in the existence of a God’’ (italics mine)—while at the same time demanding a reinterrogation of is verbality: ‘‘What do words like Freedom, Liberty, God, White, Colored mean?’’ (italics mine). The student wants very much to deny his aurality—‘‘Me, I don’t listen to my heart’’— and he ends up sad and depressed over his liberalism and scepticism: ‘‘I hope they aren’t all like me . . . I was born too late to believe in your God.’’ What the student desires is a new age for American blacks—one which can blend ‘‘faith’’ with ‘‘sight,’’ the ‘‘ear’’ with the ‘‘eye,’’ one’s internal ‘‘blackness’’ with the surrounding ‘‘whiteness’’ into ‘‘The Sky Is Gray.’’ James is acute enough to sense a kindred dilemma and thinks to himself: ‘‘When I grow up I want to be just like him.’’

Again, Gaines is shrewd enough not to let James end his ordeal at this point but forces him to confront the obstacles of bitter cold and hunger in order to accomplish his sensory rite de passage. Being told that he must return after lunch, James goes with his mother out into the sleeting streets of Bayonne. He hears his mother complain—‘‘We the wrong color’’—and he sees for himself the relative comfort of the ‘‘white people’’ eating in a nearby cafe. This time the trial is so severe that the verbal command is ineffectual: ‘‘Mama tells me keep my eyes in front where they belong, but I can’t help from seeing’’ (italics mine). Nor can the mother’s demands for stoicism keep James from nearly succumbing to the piercing chill of the sleeting ‘‘gray sky.’’ At this point, almost by deus ex machina, the black youth’s deepest self reasserts itself in all its visceral aurality: ‘‘My stomach growls and I suck it in to keep Mama from hearing it . . . It growls so loud you can hear it a mile.’’ Moreover, it soon becomes clear that the black mother and son must accept the fact that they have now become the observed, not the observers—that they are the ones who dearly need to be seen for what they are, cold and hungry. An elderly white woman and storeowner declares, ‘‘I saw y’all each time you went by.’’ The blacks, now realizing they are not going to conquer the keen-eyed compassion of this woman and her husband, bow and accept food and a perhaps- too-generous supply of ‘‘salt meat’’ under the transparent pretense of James’s doing some ‘‘chores’’ for the shopkeepers. The blacks then leave the store under the kindly but acute ‘‘genius in America, with tyrannous eye’’: James recounts how ‘‘she’s still there watching us’’ (italics mine).

All in all, the only pride that can be salvaged at the conclusion of the story is the black mother’s verbal assurance—‘‘You not a bum’’—and the visual accommodation whereby James ‘‘turns down the collar’’ of his coat in order to appear as an Afro- American or newly reconstituted hyperaural/ hypervisual ‘‘man.’’ This is what the black student in the dentist’s office had desired—the best of both cultures, of ear and eye. But the question remains whether or not in this blending of ‘‘black’’ and ‘‘white’’ into ‘‘The Sky Is Gray’’ there still may be too great a personal pain and sense of loss or selfbetrayal for black youth or artist ever to transcend Gunnar Myrdal’s penetrating observation: ‘‘The colored peoples are excluded from assimilation.’’

O Say, Can YOU See that in one’s ‘‘Bloodline’’ one may indeed rediscover the ‘‘wise blood’’ of his or her deepest cultural and aesthetic self?

Source: William E. H. Meyer, Jr., ‘‘Ernest J. Gaines and the Black Child’s Sensory Dilemma,’’ in College Language Association Journal,Vol. 34, No. 4, June, 1991, pp. 414–25.

The Individual and the Community in Two Short Stories by Ernest J. Gaines

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1972

The interaction between the community and the individual, along with its role in the shaping of human personality, is a primary concern of Ernest J. Gaines in much of his fiction. It is in probing the underlying community attitudes, values, and beliefs to discover the way in which they determine what an individual will or has become that Gaines gives poignancy to the pieces in his short-story collection Bloodline. Because his fiction focuses on the peculiar plight of black Americans in the South, Gaines must consider an additional level of significance— the strong communal bonds characteristic of Southern black folk culture. In these stories, black folk culture, with its emphasis on community-defined values and behaviors, shows signs of deterioration, while Western individualism and the development of more personally-defined values appear as catalysts in the demise of the black folk world view. In such a cultural climate, the spiritual and emotional well-being of both the community and the individual is threatened. Faced with the necessity to act and finding traditional solutions no longer viable, the characters in Gaines’s stories struggle desperately to restore some semblance of normalcy to their worlds. The dramatic conflict endemic to the stories in Bloodline arises out of the efforts of various characters to reconcile their individual needs with community prerequisites. Two of the stories in Bloodline, ‘‘A Long Day in November’’ and ‘‘The Sky Is Gray,’’ are particularly illustrative of the conflict between community perspective and individual needs. The conflict in these two stories further illustrates the importance of the changes taking place within Southern black culture to the development of the social consciousness of children. While the action of the stories revolves around two young boys, the resolution of the conflict resides with their parents. . . .

The feeling of community which permeates ‘‘A Long Day in November’’—that sense that whatever happens to Amy and Eddie is everybody’s concern— is conspicuously absent from the second story in Bloodline, ‘‘The Sky Is Gray.’’ James, the eight-year-old narrator of this story, struggles to understand his mother and her conceptions of manhood and dignity without aid from the community. With the exception of Auntie and Mr. Bayonne, who attempt to explain his mother’s cold, dispassionate treatment of him on one occasion, James is alienated in his effort to come to grips with both the social and personal forces governing his life. The source of James’s isolation is his mother Octavia, who moves through the world of the story with a calm and control which always seem on the verge of eruption. She has cut herself completely off from the community which conceivably could have provided her with support while her husband does his tour of duty in the army. Although her relationship with this absent husband is only briefly mentioned, one senses in her attitude and behavior that his departure left her vulnerable. As a result, she has made protecting James from becoming vulnerable her primary goal in life. The problem in the story arises not so much from her efforts to make James a ‘‘man’’ as from her approach to and definition of manhood.

In her efforts to make James a ‘‘man,’’ Octavia apparently believes that she has only her own behavior and attitude toward life to offer as a model. To project an image of invulnerability for James, she alienates herself from the community and deals with her world on an individualistic level. The community, presumably, offers no such model. Taking what she has—her pride and her poverty— she moves toward her goal of inculcating in James a sense of independence and dignity in self undeterred by offers of kindness and generosity. However, because she never explains her motives to him, she presents James with a world filled with extremes which endangers his realization of the manhood she attempts to force prematurely on him. The ‘‘gray’’ of the sky which hangs threateningly over the action of the story symbolizes the dangers inherent in the extremes which James must reconcile. While ‘‘gray’’ literally represents the harmonious blending of black and white, its use in the story to describe the sky before a brewing storm symbolizes a potentially destructive force. The force implicit in the story is Octavia’s individualism, which threatens to deprive James of membership in the human community.

The dangers that her approach poses to James are dramatically illustrated in the argument between a minister and a student in the dentist’s office, the scene of much of the action. The argument between the men focuses on the existence of God. The minister accepts God unquestioningly, while the student rejects God because belief in Him alleviates the need to question:

‘‘Show me one reason to believe in the existence of a God,’’ the boy says.

‘‘My heart tells me,’’ the preacher says.

‘‘‘My heart tells me,’’’ the boy says. ‘‘‘My heart tells me.’ Sure, ‘My heart tells me.’ And as long as you listen to what your heart tells you, you will have only what the white man gives you and nothing more. Me, I don’t listen to my heart. The purpose of the heart is to pump blood throughout the body, and nothing else.’’

Whereas the minister clings to the traditional religious value of faith, the student espouses the development of more individualistic values based on reasoning and logic.

During the exchange between the men, the minister exposes the weakness of his position when he becomes frustrated and strikes the student. Through his action, he admits that the emotional or ‘‘heart’’ position leads to a cul de sac; it cannot be defended rationally. On the other hand, the student maintains a defensible position, but his egotistical stance exposes his feelings of alienation from his community. His father, we’re told, is dead, and his mother is in a charity ward with a serious illness. Futhermore, he is forced to ‘‘wash dishes at night’’ to finance his education. Consequently, his feelings of isolation cause him to alienate himself from the emotional support and comfort of the members of his community, whom he, in turn, deprives of the benefits of his education. His feelings of isolation are clearly illustrated in his conversation with a woman who attempts to take his side in the disagreement. Rather than explaining his position to her in such a way that she will be able to understand it, he raises his argument to a metaphysical level and alienates her:

‘‘You really don’t believe in God?’’ the lady says.

‘‘No,’’ he says.

‘‘But why?’’ the lady says.

‘‘Because the wind is pink,’’ he says.

‘‘What?’’ the lady says.

The boy don’t answer her no more. He just reads in his book.

Although he claims to have a solution for the black community, he refuses to consider its level of comprehension. Consequently, in attempting to communicate with the community, he feels frustration, which reinforces his belief in his own isolation.

Octavia’s skepticism and self-imposed isolation place her in a similarly antagonistic stance toward the community. Although her primary goal is to project a model of strength for James through her own actions, her inability to make her sense of the world comprehensible to him leaves James vulnerable to the very forces from which she would shield him. By forcing James to sublimate his emotions and accept them as signs of human weakness, she fails to provide him with a means of dealing with the emotional responses of others in a way consistent with her philosophy. James’s vulnerability to this aspect of human nature is illustrated in the episode with an old couple who offer them food during their visit to town. James does not betray the kind and heartfelt offer of the couple although his mother would want him to. He responds to the emotional intent of the act. It is through these kinds of moderating forces in James’ environment that Gaines sees his salvation.

Although Octavia does not operate from the same level of awareness that the student does, it is strongly implied that her attitude stems from perceptions and conscious choices made as a result of her husband’s army duty. She uses her new awareness to structure her world into clear-cut oppositional units. Her final statement to James in the story is probably the most illustrative of her world view: ‘‘‘You not a bum,’ she says. ‘You a man.’’’ While this is the nature of Octavia’s world, it does not completely define the contours of the world with which James must come to terms. Human existence does not lend itself to such neat categorizing. Contrary to what Octavia would have him believe, the choices that James must eventually make about the quality of his existence should not be between ‘‘bum’’ and ‘‘man,’’ or between adhering to the dictates of the ‘‘head’’ or ‘‘heart’’ as advocated by the student and the minister respectively. His choices should involve a conscious effort to integrate the extremes. However, for the moment, James is literally and figuratively caught in the middle of a storm in which both social and personal forces threaten his well-being.

The symbolic significance of the ‘‘gray sky’’ is the key to an understanding of the complexity of the issue raised in the story. To see ‘‘gray’’ merely as the integration of black and white on a literal level, and as a metaphor for racial integration on a symbolic level is, I think, to misunderstand Gaines’s real intent in the story. As the argument between the student and minister in the dentist’s office clearly illustrates, there is a racial dimension present in the story. But the conflict goes much deeper than that. It also involves the problem of integrating the individual and the community in a mutually rewarding relationship in the face of dehumanizing individualistic forces. In this case, consciousness raising of blacks should not lead to an alienation from the community as it has for the student and Octavia; it should provide the basis for bettering the community.

In both ‘‘A Long Day in November’’ and ‘‘The Sky Is Gray,’’ Gaines involves the reader in the dilemma faced by individuals who find traditional folk values inadequate to meet their needs. In both cases, the situation is presented as a puzzle to the young who must attempt to resolve the conflicts that come about as a result of this realization. For Eddie in ‘‘A Long Day in November,’’ the ability to solve the enigma created by Amy’s decision to leave him is compounded by his already established communal world view. However, his indirect discovery that the community is no longer capable of defining his individual responsibility to his family is potentially important both for him and for Sonny. Furthermore, the story implies that the community can continue to provide the individual with emotional support in his efforts to fulfill his individual needs. On the other hand, James in ‘‘The Sky Is Gray’’ will never know the values of communal bonds if Octavia has her way. Although the point is never explicitly stated, it is apparent that Octavia finds the values of her community inadequate to make James the kind of man that she feels he must become. Her personal situation can be seen as a metaphor for the plight of blacks. Dependency on the philanthropy and good will of others leads to vulnerability when that support is no longer forthcoming. Her alternative, however, creates an atmosphere which, for James, is potentially equal in the dangers it poses. The fact that neither story offers a resolution to the underlying conflict apparent in the situations is indicative of the contemporary nature of the issue which Gaines raises.

Source: John W. Roberts,. ‘‘The Individual and the Community in Two Short Stories by Ernest J. Gaines,’’ in Black American Literature Forum, Vol. 18, No. 3, Fall, 1984, pp. 110–13.

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Critical Overview