Style and Technique

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Ernest J. Gaines is a master of the dialect of his home region of southern Louisiana, and he uses this skill to good advantage in “The Sky Is Gray.” His use of the point of view and language of an eight-year-old boy, who narrates the story in his own words,...

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Ernest J. Gaines is a master of the dialect of his home region of southern Louisiana, and he uses this skill to good advantage in “The Sky Is Gray.” His use of the point of view and language of an eight-year-old boy, who narrates the story in his own words, is also an important stylistic device. The conversation between the preacher and the student that occurs in the dentist’s office, for example, is presented without comment on the boy’s part, because James lacks the intellectual capacity to analyze or even fully understand the significance of all that he sees and experiences. Abstractions such as the question of God’s existence are beyond his intellectual range, so he simply repeats the dialogue as he heard it. Thus, the narrative is straightforward and simple; Gaines’s themes and meanings are implicit rather than explicit, shown rather than told.

The effective integration of language, theme, and narrative voice makes this story an excellent example of the literary realism for which Gaines is justly respected by critics and reviewers.

Historical Context

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Race and Rights
Gaines’s story is meant as more than an entertainment; it is meant as a critique of the racial injustice he experienced as a boy made vivid again by a visit to Louisiana in 1968. Understanding ‘‘The Sky is Gray’’ requires that one not only understand something about the Louisiana of the 1930s and 1940s but also understand what was happening with regard to race in the United States during the 1960s, because the events of what later came to be called ‘‘the Civil Rights era’’ made a substantial and lasting impression on Gaines, one that can be seen not too far beneath the surface of ‘‘The Sky is Gray’’ in the person of the student and in the story’s preoccupation with racial inequality.

While precisely dating the start of an era is difficult, most agree that the beginning of the Civil Rights era can be dated to John F. Kennedy’s election in 1961 as this country’s 35th and youngest President, and with the United Nation’s decision that same year to condemn the South African apartheid. Two years later, in 1963, the conflicts began in earnest, with riots and acts of racial brutality against demonstrators in Birmingham, Alabama, culminating with Martin Luther King’s being jailed in Birmingham. In response, later that year, 200,000 Americans, black and white, joined together in a ‘‘freedom march on Washington’’ to demonstrate. But the American consciousness was jolted away from these events by Kennedy’s assassination on November 22, 1963, and by events abroad, principal among these being the escalation of what would become the Viet Nam war.

It is important to recall that the Civil Rights era coincided with the casting off of imperial control by a series of African countries. In 1964, for example, Zanzibar and Tanganyika came together to form Tanzania, expelling a sultinate, while Zambia was formed out of Northern Rhodesia’s ashes by Kenneth Kaunda the same year that Kenya became a republic under Jomo Kenyatta. Also in 1964, a white minority in Southern Rhodesia elected as Premiere, Ian Smith, under whose leadership Rhodesia managed to postpone representative government for another two decades. Overall, however, the move away from colonial entanglements was stronger than the ties that bound African countries to their colonial powers, and the move toward home rule was unstoppable. This did not go unnoticed in the United States, particularly among black leaders who read with interest books like Jomo Kenyatta’s Facing Mount Kenya.

In 1965, Malcolm X was assassinated in New York and outbreaks of anti-black violence occurred in Selma, Alabama, including Ku Klux Klan shootings and Martin Luther King leading a procession of 4,000 in a protest march from Selma to Montgomery. In Los Angeles, race riots in Watts resulted in 35 deaths, the arrest of 4,000, and $40 million in property damage. In 1968, the same year that Gaines’s Bloodline was published, Reverend Martin Luther King himself was assassinated in a Memphis hotel.

Literary Style

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Point of View
‘‘The Sky is Gray’’ is told entirely from the point of view of the eight-year old narrator, James. Consequently, the reader is limited to what James observes and understands. Though he can accurately recall the words of the student in the dentist’s office that lead up to the student being hit by the preacher, he cannot understand the argument in which they are engaged (‘‘She just looks at him like she don’t know what he’s talking ’bout. I know I don’t.’’). The limitations imposed on the narrative by an eight-year-old narrator are more obvious when he tries, unsuccessfully, to understand his mother’s frequent mood changes or her mysterious decisions to fight or flee at each of the stations of mood the narrative visits.

But what the narrative loses from one hand it gains in the other. James is sympathetic without being an object of sympathy; the reader feels his cold, his confusion, his hunger directly, authentically, without the intrusion of another character or narrator’s impressions or observations. And when, at the story’s conclusion, his mother pronounces him a man, the reader who has been inside James’s subjective world can take measure of both how far he still is from manhood and of what he has learned from the lessons meant to take him the rest of the way there.

Episodic Form
‘‘The Sky is Gray’’ is episodic in form—that is, the story is not told as a sequence of events, but as a sequence of events punctuated by narrative flashbacks and broken up into numbered segments. The effect of the story’s episodic discontinuity is to emphasize the particular moment James is living, whether he is reliving a memory or moving through present events, while de-emphasizing the story’s overarching structure. The advantages of episodic form, when relating the experiences of a young boy, are obvious, and have been used with great success in works as different as Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn and Rudyard Kipling’s Kim. The greatest advantage of an episodic form is that it allows the author to follow the protagonist, or main character, from one important event to another without recording all the unimportant events in between. This is particularly useful in a story limited by the narrative point of view to the description of a young person’s inner life.

Bildungsroman ‘‘The Sky is Gray’’ is a bildungsroman, a story describing the growth of a child into adulthood. Of course, the reader doesn’t follow James all the way from childhood into adulthood, but the central premise of bildungsroman is that the reader watches the protagonist go from innocence to experience—in this case, from being a child whose primary interest is in staying warm and well-fed to a youth who has the first glimmerings of pride in himself and awareness of an important and external reality: that others will judge him not by what he is, but by how he appears to be. In this transformation, as he puts his collar down, the reader has taken a small but important step with James from childhood to adulthood.

Bibliography

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Babb, Valerie Melissa. Ernest Gaines. Boston: Twayne, 1991.

Beavers, Herman. Wrestling Angels into Song: The Fictions of Ernest J. Gaines and James Alan McPherson. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995.

Carmean, Karen. Ernest J. Gaines: A Critical Companion. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1998.

Davis, Thadious M. “Ernest J. Gaines.” In African American Writers: Profiles of Their Lives and Works, edited by Valerie Smith, Lea Baechler, and A. Walton Litz. New York: Macmillan, 1991.

Doyle, Mary Ellen. Voices from the Quarters: The Fiction of Ernest J. Gaines. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2002.

Gaudet, Marcia, and Carl Wooton. Porch Talk with Ernest Gaines: Conversations on the Writer’s Craft. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1990.

Lowe, John, ed. Conversations with Ernest Gaines. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 1996.

Simpson, Anne K. A Gathering of Gaines: The Man and the Writer. Lafayette: Center for Louisiana Studies, 1991.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources
Babb, Valerie Melissa. Ernest Gaines, Boston: Twayne, 1991.

Estes, David C., editor.Critical Reflections on the Fiction of Ernest J. Gaines, Athens: Georgia University Press, 1994.

Gaudet, Marcia G. Porch Talk with Ernest Gaines: a Conversation on the Writer’s Craft, Louisiana: Louisiana State University Press, 1990.

Lowe, John., editor. Conversations with Ernest Gaines, Mississippi: Mississippi University Press, 1995.

Further Reading
Bryant, Jerry H. ‘‘Politics and the Black Novel,’’ in The Nation, Vol. 212, No. 14, April 5, 1971, pp. 436–38. Reviews The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, describing it as an ‘‘epic poem.’’ The critic writes: ‘‘Literally, it is an account of Jane’s life. Figuratively, it is a metaphor of the collective black experience.’’

Burke, William. ‘‘Bloodline: A Black Man’s South,’’ in CLA Journal, Vol. XIX, No. 4, June, 1976, pp. 545–58. Summarizes Bloodline, noting of the work: ‘‘The five stories in [this] collection demonstrate their excellence in two ways; they are human stories—moving, humorous, ironic; and they are symbolic—which tradition tells us is a quality of great literature.’’

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