Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 448

“The Sky Is Gray” takes as its major theme the issue of black pride in the face of intolerable conditions of poverty. James and his family are reduced to poverty, ironically, by his father’s service in the army. In the face of these hardships, James has been forced to sacrifice...

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“The Sky Is Gray” takes as its major theme the issue of black pride in the face of intolerable conditions of poverty. James and his family are reduced to poverty, ironically, by his father’s service in the army. In the face of these hardships, James has been forced to sacrifice his childhood to the harsh realities of survival in a hostile, unforgiving world. The episode in which he is forced to kill the redbirds in order for the family to eat powerfully dramatizes the extent to which his mother must force him to overcome his own natural feelings for the sake of the family’s need. As James comes to realize, there is no room for softness or gentleness in their world. What superficially appears to be cruelty on Octavia’s part is her way of preparing him for a hard future.

Despite the grinding poverty of their lives, Octavia retains her pride and instills it in her son. James, like any child, cannot fully understand why his mother insists on paying her way when charity is offered, but the reader is aware that she is developing in him a sense of pride and character that will enable him to rise above his environment. Intuitively, he wants to be like the educated young black man he saw in the dentist’s office, but he can become so only if he develops a sense of manhood based on self-reliance, self-respect, and pride. Octavia gives him that opportunity, even though her methods are hard. When, at the end of the story, she tells him that he is a man, she is refusing to allow him to be less.

Another theme of the story has to do with the kindness of Helena, whose generosity transcends the color line. As the young man says, it is by action rather than words that people should be measured. Even in the segregated South, simple human kindness can and does exist. After the callous disregard of the dentist and other whites in the story, Helena offers James an object lesson that people should be judged by what they do, not by who they are. Though this theme is never stated overtly, it is implicit throughout.

A last important meaning is the sense of a changing South implied by the conversation between the young black man and the preacher in the dentist’s office. While the older man speaks of acceptance of suffering injustice as the duty of Christians, the young man represents a rising generation that will eventually throw off the shackles of segregation. Though James is still too young to understand these arguments, he is being reared to become one of that generation.

Themes

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 768

Change and Transformation
The overarching theme in this story is change and transformation. In physical terms, there is motion from one pole to its opposite: from warm, to cold, to warm again; from beyond the outskirts of Bayonne to the city and back again; from the doctor’s office to the street, and to the office again, and so on. From a larger, more global viewpoint, these motions support and underscore James’s own transformation. James, who begins the story as a boy more conscious of his feelings and inner life than of the world in which he lives, moves far along the path toward understanding the moral complexi- ty of adulthood and of being ‘‘a man’’ in the course of the single day.

Civil Rights
Though the events in this story take place well before what is commonly called the Civil Rights era, one cannot read ‘‘The Sky is Gray’’ without a keen awareness that the writer is writing at the historical moment during which the Civil Rights movement exploded onto the national stage and that, surprisingly, given this context, the story somehow manages to describe but not to overplay the protagonists’ suffering in terms of prejudice and inequality. While the prejudice James and his mother encounter is real and unarguable, the response of James’s mother presages the essence of Martin Luther King’s message that salvation begins in the person of the oppressed, not the oppressor.

Class Inequality
Only slightly less prominent than the theme of Civil Rights is class inequality. While many argue that the difference between races is less substantive than the difference between the classes, class inequality clearly takes a back seat to racial inequality in Gaines’s fiction. While James and his mother would certainly have had an easier day if they had had enough money to own a car—to drive to the dentist’s office, to perhaps stop and do some shopping and have lunch on the way, perhaps even to see Dr. Robillard instead of Dr. Bassett—the simple fact remains that to do so, they would have had to be not only financially comfortable, but also white.

Coming of Age
‘‘The Sky is Gray’’ is fundamentally a story about the process of coming of age, of going from one state to another. The reader only sees a small part of this process, a few hours one morning, a few more that afternoon, but these hours are important: they form some of the bedrock upon which the foundation of James’s manhood—his sense of personal dignity and worth, as well as courage and silence in difficulty—will be built. Gaines creates these moments with sufficient force and clarity both to explain his protagonist’s past and to anticipate his future.

God and Religion; Knowledge and Ignorance
In thematic terms, two of the most important sections in the story—sections seven and eight— explore the relationship between God, religion, knowledge, and ignorance. On one side is a heretical young black student who has not only renounced his religious beliefs but argues that ‘‘words like Freedom, Liberty, God, White, Colored’’ are meaningless.

‘‘Words,’’ he says, ‘‘mean nothing. One means nothing more than the other. . . . Action is the only thing. Doing. That’s the thing.’’ In the communal microcosm of the doctor’s office he represents the defiance, the nonviolent non-cooperation of the Civil Rights movement that would sweep through the South thirty years later. In Gaines’s words, describing the type of person he depicts in the student to Carl Wooton in an interview reprinted in Porch Talk: ‘‘you will have this rebellion against authority. You have these kids, you know: I’ll stick a goddamned needle in my arm, I’ll sniff coke, to hell with anybody telling me what to do. Can I get a job tomorrow? Can I live here tomorrow? Well, if I can’t, to hell with it. I’ll take coke, or I’ll use any kind of profanity, I don’t give a damn.’’ On the other side are the preacher and the other woman the young man speaks to after the preacher departs. They are unwilling, or unable, to follow his line of reasoning, for to accept that the signification of green or black has no intrinsic relationship to a Platonic ideal of green or black, but signifies by consensus only, comes perilously close to accepting that the other words about which the young man seems to care even more than God—freedom and liberty—are empty of meaning unless they signify the same thing to speakers both black and white.

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