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“Let Miss Jane tell the story”

Claudine Raynaud

II. Poétique de la voix

Bayonne or The Yoknapatawpha of Ernest Gaines1

Michel Fabre
Traduction de Melvin Dixon et Didier Malaquin


Parmi les écrivains noirs américains, Ernest Gaines est le seul à relever le défi de Faulkner d’implanter ses romans dans un univers imaginaire circonscrit à un territoire du Sud précis, Bayonne, décor de grand nombre de ses romans et de ses nouvelles (Catherine Carmier, Of Love and Dust, Bloodline, The Autobiography de Miss Jane Pittman). Terre rude des hommes durs au labeur, présence sensuelle de la nature. Cet espace permet à l’écrivain d’explorer, dans un univers stable, la multiplicité des divisions sociales et des relations interraciales de sa Louisiane natale. La passion soudaine sauve et détruit à la fois car le système, comme le montre l’exemple de Of Love and Dust, emprisonne tous les hommes. Le style de Gaines, sa lenteur, ses silences, ses répétitions, sert une écriture du tragique tandis qu’au fil des textes s’affirme une vision plus positive.

Texte intégral

  • 1 Originally published in French in Recherhes Anglaises et Américaines (Université de Strasbourg) 9 ( (...)

1[William] Faulkner’s shadow, more than ever since his death hovers over every American novelist who writes about the South. This is perhaps more true for the black novelist because Faulkner spoke of his people with so much depth at times and often with so much compassion that his racial myths are the most indestructible. They remain an inevitable reference, the insidious point of convergence of new myths raised in response and in criticism. The excellence of the Faulknerian style makes anyone who takes up his challenge look like an imitator.

2When black novelists of the Sixties considered the South something more than the starting point of the Great Migration, a mold in which the more subtle defeats of the ghetto were imprinted, their literary output attempted to replace Yoknapatawpha with other frameworks which refused comparison even if they implied one: at times a South of fantasy from which Ishmael Reed draws a voodooistic surrealism, at times a fictive New Marsails where William Melvin Kelly plants his flag, or an anonymous patch of land where Ronald Fair sets up his plantation. However, Faulkner’s influence weighs heavily in the writing of A Different Drummer, and the parable of Many Thousand Gone recalls white fables. Of all the new black novelists, Ernest Gaines alone really takes up Faulkner’s challenge.

3Like Faulkner, Gaines is a regionalist whose native Louisiana or more precisely the network of hamlets and estates which surround Bayonne, defines the entire universe. It is a fictive universe whose borders Miss Jane Pittman, the protagonist of his third novel, never succeeds in crossing in her quest for freedom in Ohio. It is a universe in which the slang of the ghetto seems as out of place as the prodigal sons themselves in the first days of their return home. This South, notoriously self-centered, lacks any reference other than symbolic to the American North or West. Just as in Jefferson the Confederate flag waves from the Bayonne courthouse. And until recent decades, when Catherine Carmier and Of Love and Dust take place, the society and customs have changed in a century only to thin out imperceptibly the Creole caste. Just as Faulkner’s whites could not exist in a world without blacks, Gaines’s blacks are intimately tied to the planters and Cajuns by blood and by suffering. The Creole group represents here an additional dimension; and the erosion of traditions is measured in the collapse of this caste as much as in the substitution of tenant farming for the paternalism of the plantation.

4We notice right away the coherence and overlap of themes in Gaines’s fiction. Because of the enclosure provided by a single environment, we see patterns emerging out of the plots and situations: the gatherings of Aunt Fe’s neighbors in “Just Like A Tree” and Charlotte’s reception for Jackson’s return in Catherine Carmier; the dilemma of Proctor Lewis in “Three Men” who killed someone in a bar because of a woman and the identical situation of Marcus in Of Love and Dust the impossible love of the son of the planter Robert for the Creole Marie Agnes in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman and the same impossible love between black Marcus and Cajun Louise, between the overseer Sidney Bonbon and black Pauline, or still, at a close variant, between Jackson and Catherine Carmier; the bastards whose skin bears the image of a white man whom they cannot call father (Willie and Billie in Of Love and Dust, Timmy Robert in Miss Jane, Christian Laurent in “Bloodline”); the young rebel who angers the pastor in “The Sky is Gray” and Jimmy the militant who speaks against Thomas-the-Just in Miss Jane’s church; the bald-headed house servants (Statesmen in “Bloodline,” Bishop in Of Love And Dust) who are composed yet just as frightened as the cautious narrators; Felix, the blacksmith in “Bloodline” or the mechanic Jim in Of Love And Dust, not to mention the elderly aunts and grandmothers who wear themselves out protecting the orphan who must transmit the torch of racial pride from one generation to another. This recurrence of situations and conflicts from one family or generation to the other derives from rules that those in power struggle to preserve but whose demise still triumphs over values that only lovers and martyrs have the madness and the courage to uphold.

5This world is enclosed by gates, barbed wire, hedges between fields. Curtains of trees between kingdom-like plantations, territory marked by the seal of one man or another; sinuous of streams and dusty roads; guidepost trees, guardians and symbols of permanence; fields of corn and sugar cane whose last rows are never reached; animals raised for profit except for an occasional dog or ominous hawk, pretexts for a man to assert his power.

6World overwhelmed with sun. The aura and ooze of sweat. The ritual of the waving fan alone abolishes the distinction between race and class. Sun white at its peak and whose rage is not erased by the night. Merciless camusien planet. Dust, each, ashes, the same white dust under the march of horses, Confederate soldiers, or Yankees; dust raised up by the tires of cars and trucks and tractors. White veil that momentarily blocks the line of fascinated vision, ashes that immobilize speech in the hollow of the mouth. Or, when the sun disappears, it is the bitter cold of November, chilled breath, the sky gray like the eyes of whites and slimy bayous and gullies full of mud. In short, a rough place for hardened men. The sensuous presence of nature is both witness and protagonist; rays of light that are so icy or gleaming hot that they force their way through the screens of the masters’ houses whose gloomy libraries filled with trophies cannot protect them from sunlight or twists of fate.

7Land where one survives, where one nonetheless lives; where dancing balls, drinking bouts, Saturday night brawls, or even some young girl in a red dress give heart to the daily grind; land of solidarity among neighbors, of hospitality and courtesy in spite of mistrust, respect for those who sometimes bear the named of Old France: Mme, Toussaint, Catherine Carmier, Albert Cluveau, Marie Agnes LeFabre, Anne Marie Duval, Etienne, Emile, Bonbon—be they voodoo priest, school mistress, crooks or managers, not to mention the Creole aristocracy.

8This deliberate accumulation of details extends the Louisiana of Gaines as far from Yoknapatawpha as from Jean Toomer’s Georgia. Other forms of speech, fragments of patois and French, are used and other sides of the social structure shown, despite the similarity of manners throughout the Deep South. Social divisions are multiplied here perhaps because of the influence of Catholicism, Cajuns, and Creoles. Descendants of unhappy Acadians chased out of Canada and sold by Napolean, the Cajuns became ruthless poor white got the best pieces of land. They formed a united front and threatened any new property owners. Miss Jane describes their conquest of the estates in the following terms:

...Robert chopped the place up in small patches and called in the people. First he called in the Cajuns off the rivers and gived them what they wanted. Then he called in the colored out of the quarters and gived them what was left. Some of them got a good piece of land to work, but most of them got land near the swamps, and it growed nothing but weeds, and sometimes not even that. So the colored people gived up and started moving away...The Cajuns, on the other hand, was getting more and more all the time. And the more they got, the better plows and tractors they got. And the better and the plows and tractors, the more they got. After a while, they wanted more land. That’s when Robert started taking acre by acre from the colored and giving it to them. (AJP, 206)

9Such is the law of real estate capitalism, but also the law of racial solidarity as the plot of Catherine Carmier underscores.

10Essentially, however, this universe remains a stable one. A slower time reigns here; time for remarks to be made and answers waited for at length; where words are weighed. This, in its excellence, is the Gainesian style. At first, it seems to be a monologue, the story of a narrator who witnesses an event or who relates the story of another observer. Meaning unfolds in detail after detail, a minute synchronizing and linking together of gestures and facial expressions. A careful transcription by one who simply takes his time. There are no long periods filled with twists and stammers where the narration becomes too descriptive in an attempt to render reality, but brief passages where meaning fills the gaps, where one doesn’t know how many will have to be stacked up or how each one brings into focus a wink of an eye or a silence until the waiting tension explodes in a tragedy. Words are repeated, becoming a refrain which denies that any one moment can provoke an event more than another. This delivery orchestrates perfectly a manner of speech cannot be depicted as picturesque or dialect but rather a lexical simplicity and the refusal of abridgement. The silence lasts as long speech because it confronts rather than avoids. It is a total a presence to others as the word itself. This slowness provokes fearful outbursts at the end of long periods of tension. The rumblings of tragedy are as wholly inevitable as a thunderstorm after hot weather. The time the clock ticks evenly away marks the equation between the flow of natural forces and the flux of human passions.

11In spite of the passions and sudden impulses which are part of the stereotypical personality of the Southern man, we notice that Gaines’s characters, regardless of their race or class, appear to be thinkers who mediate, ruminate, and seek to understand in order to foresee and prevent events. At least the outlook of the privileged narrator who assesses the motives of behavior with full knowledge of the social conventions presents them as such. In Of Love and Dust the metaphor of the game of human relations, as in chess or poker, imposes itself. It is initiated by the game of a creator who is no longer concerned about his creatures: “He had quit listening to a man a million of years ago. Now all He does is play chess by Himself or sit around playing solitary with old cards” (LD, 49).

12Thus a tragic game exists between four protagonists in which each throws down his trump card at the right moment. The drama arises from the conflict between the deliberate calculation and the passion which seizes unexpectedly and which saves the very moment when it destroys.

13This fact is evident in a simple plot summary. The planter Herbert, who had his brother’s creditor killed by his overseer Sidney Bonbon, must accept that Sydney has been robbing him for years. Bonbon, never attracted to his own wife Louise, falls in love with Pauline, his black mistress who gave him twins. Pauline submits to the custom which forces her to become the overseer’s mistress but which forbids her from becoming his wife. Louise can only hope that her husband leaves town with the black woman, for Cajun honor would force them to kill him; her plan is to seduce any black man in order to cry rape and raise a conflict: “With a mark, Bonbon would definitely have to kill the nigger. Marshall Hebert would definitely get rid of Bonbon for the stealing that he had been doing-she would be free to leave” (LD, 161). As soon as he arrives on the farm, Marcus is constantly watched by the overseer who has the responsibility for breaking his pride. Bonbon breaks him in day after day during the corn harvest. In order to fuel with some hope of revenge the hate that binds him, Marcus, who is black and handsome, undertakes to seduce Pauline, but she loves Bonbon. He then responds to the silent advances of Louise out of pure vengeance and falls naively in love with her as she is with him. Hebert then plays his trump card. He offers Marcus a car and money if he will kill Bonbon. Marcus bluffs: the murder is unnecessary; with the car and money he will take Louise away. Bonbon will be forced to give pursuit and Hebert will be free of him. Hebert acquiesces, but he has the overseer, who has no suspicion of the plan, return home so that he surprises the lovers who are about to depart. The confrontation is inevitable; Bonbon would let Marcus escape if he were alone but Marcus wants to take Louise with him. He stands up to Bonbon but he has no weapon other than a wooden stake against Bonbon’s scythe, for Hebert removed the pistol from the glove compartment of his car. The overseer kills him and Louise goes insane. Bonbon, although, released from a prison sentence, must leave the estate. But what must be emphasized in this murderous game is that the Cajun overseer is as much a victim of the planter as the black man who would ask the impossible –going off with a white woman.

14Bonbon has a firm sense of his place as an intermediary in the scale of power when, n the eve of the drama, he learns of the acquittal of Marcus, a worker under bond. He says to the mechanic Jim:

They had it rigged from the start. The boy he kill don’t mean a thing...
There, they got that boy out there and they laughing at me behind my back.
They make me the fool... Me and you-what we is? We little people, Geam.
They make us do what they want us to do, and they don’t tell us nothing.
LD, 252)

15Jim also must leave the plantation, not only because Hebert asks him to (under the pretext of a possible revenge by the Cajuns, but in reality because he knows too much and could talk), but also because he is afraid of becoming like Aunt Margaret who decides to forget that the master, not the overseer, caused Marcus’s death.

16Marcus clearly personifies the admirable rebel. The status of Jim, the narrator, on the other hand is ambiguous: “good guy,” compliant and not lacking in courage, but isn’t he really a mediocre fellow? Such is the question implied by the reader’s attitude towards characters of this type, for it defines the exact margin of individual liberty in a system which imprisons both blacks and Cajuns. If the black day-laborers reacted so hatefully as a block when Marcus seduced Louise, it was first by instinct of preservation, an age-old knowledge of the penalties (lynching or a bombing) that every transgressor risks inflicting upon the community.

17It is remarkable that for the most part the transgression consists more in talk than in action. A forbidden relationship can last a lifetime if people chose to close their eyes and not say a word. Every study of the theme of vision in Gaines’s work thus implies a concomitant study of a dialectics of silence. This silence is a shameful accomplice because it supposes acceptance of the rules. The violation of the taboo whose archetype evidently is miscegenation, must be committed as an error and be consumed as a sin because the system defines it as such. To raise it above its infamous level, to proclaim it innocent and joyful constitutes an absolute transgression. But the act is an attempt to modify a convention established by the white man. To legislate it again is a strange privilege of language. Let’s not forget that the Word is the prerogative of God.

  • 2 A comparison with Uncle Tom’s Cabin and with the narratives of fugitive slaves is important here fo (...)

18In Gaines’s novels, altogether realistic, the races live, if not in harmony, at lest, in reciprocal contact both physically and spiritually within the framework of this law. When the blonde Louise covers her face with soot in order to reach the liberal North with Marcus, her fears are revealing: she dreads the frequent visits of Yankee friends to her daughter, yet it has never occurred to her to keep her apart from the blacks on the plantation where she shared her husband with Pauline. What irony in this touch of realism.2 The South of the big estates weaves a strange place where, just as in fiction, only the given and named truth prevails. It is out of question for the overseer to recognize his mulatto twins, and everyone, from landowner to sharecropper, is subjected to the convention which was transmitted by their ancestors and which shaped them. The overseer is not the sadist he would appear to be at first glance:

He was brutal because he had been brought up to be in a brut-taught world and in brute-taught times. The big house had given him a horse and a whip... and they told him to ride behind the blacks in the field and get as much work out of them as he could.... He fell in love with one of the black women. He couldn’t just take her like he was supposed to take her, like they had given him permission to take her –no, he had to fall in love. When the children came, he loved them too. He couldn’t tell them he loved them... (LD, 64)

19The law permits the white man to roll in the hay with any black woman as he could with an animal or a whore precisely because sexuality impedes real sentiment. When he becomes infatuated with the Creole Marie Agnes in Miss Jane Pittman, and his relationship is discovered, Tee Bob is driven to suicide. Our quotation is long but it best illustrates the Gainesian tone and style:

She was the only thing that meant a thing in this world to him. But instead of her falling in his arms, she told him the same thing Jimmy Caya had told him earlier. She was a nigger, he was white, and they couldn’t have nothing together. He couldn’t understand that he thought love was much stronger than one drop of African blood. But she knowed better. She knowed the rales. She was just a few years older than him in age, but hundred of years wiser.... He grabbed her and swang her back... In the flash when her hand and back hit the wall, something happened to her... The past and present got all mixed up. That stiff proudness left. Making up for the past left. She was the past now. She was grandma now, and he was that Creole gentleman. She was Verda now and he was Robert. It showed in the face. It showed in the way she laid down there on the floor. Helpless; waiting. She knowed how she looked to him, but she couldn’t do anything about it. But when he saw it, he ran away from there. Because now he thought maybe the white man was God –like Jimmy Caya had said... He ran and ran, stumbling and falling; like a hurt animal. Then he was home. Home. Home. Home Now he tried to forget whet he had seen on that floor back there. But nothing in that library wouldn’t let him forget. Too many books on slavery in that room; too may books on history in there. (AJP, 194-195)

20Witnesses from both races, whose identical vision establishes the truth of the explication, admit the inevitability of this destiny: “He was bound to kill himself anyhow?” “One day. He had to. For our sins” (AJP, 196). Louise and Marcus also die for having tried to disobey the law. Paradoxically, Bonbon’s departure North where Pauline and their children can join him one day represents the only victory. As in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, salvation lies in escape: the south defines itself as the reference point for past laws that always destroy blacks and sometimes whites.

21In the preceding episode taken from Miss Jane Pittman the Creole woman was defined against the planter’s son as just another “negress”: one drop of African blood sufficed. However, other episodes depict the Creoles differently and clearly contrast them with blacks.

22Note also that the Creoles and Cajuns both were culturally opposed to the American tradition. They could have united in their Francophony; but comparing the refinements of the mulatto aristocracy (whose great literary contribution of the 19th century Louisiana is the collection Les Cenelles) to the miserable Cajuns with their unintelligible patois is enough to measure a gulf almost as unbridgeable as skin color in a racist environment.

23This grandeur, inherent to every defender of lost causes, justifies, according to Jackson, Catherine’s return to her father. But is this pride or arrogance? A source of strength or weakness? These men fall all of a piece and the physical victory of Jackson during a confrontation with Raoul signals Raoul’s total defeat. Della, his wife, foresees that he will let Catherine leave: “He’s a proud man and after what happened tonight, he won’t ever be able to raise his head in front of her like he done before. So that means she’ll have to leave. He’ll see to that” (CC, 247). A shocking trait, this pride is an hereditary characteristic of the race of “lords.” The evocation of Robert Carmier, father of Raoul, reclaiming a farm from a white owner, furnishes a key to the present situation.

“What color are you?” Mack Grover wanted to know. “I’m colored man,” Robert Carmier said, “but I can farm as well as the next one...” He had come up here as a man would come up to a man, and he asked for the house as a man should ask for a house. He had taken off the hat, not because he, Robert Carmier, thought he should take it off, but because someone in the past he had told him that was the proper thing to do when asking a favor. (CC, 8-9)

24However, what appears in Robert as a legitimate pride appears in Raoul as displaced vanity. when he refuses any commerce with his black neighbors. His loyalty to the impressive Creole tradition proves to be as questionable as white racism, and as degradation as Delia’s suffering, who ends up conceding to the wishes of her in-laws forbidding her to visit her neighbors. This alienation brings its own punishment: it leads to the infidelity of the white, it causes the death of Marky, the illegitimate child, and it deprives Raoul of a son.

25On the borders of the two worlds that he does not want to join, the Creole turns to his own people and towards the earth that he could cultivate without coming into direct contact with either blacks or whites. It is a question here of a compensatory act inherent in a socioracial status, as the old school mistress, Madame Bayonne explains:

His love for his and, his hatred for the white man, the contempt with which he looks upon the black man has passed from one generation to the other... He is only carrying out something that was cut for him in the beginning. He has no control over it. He was put there by Robert, nor his grandfather. He was put there by the white and the black man alike. The white man will not let Raoul compete with him because of that drop of Negro blood, and at the same time he has put the Negro in such a position that Raoul would rather die than compete with him. So it is Raoul alone—Raoul and his land, his field. (CC, 116-117)

26Here the fiction reflects a reality for millions of “Creoles,” these members of intermediary castes dispersed throughout the world. The tragedy does not stem from a personal ubris: it not individual or moral but collective and historical because racial and economic polarization leads an entire caste to disappear. Catherine’s younger sister who comes back the city understood it clearly:

“I hate black. I hate black worse than the whites hate it. I have black friends but only at a distance...I just can’t open my heart to them. “I haven’t opened my heart out to that white world either. But I’m going there because I must go somewhere. I can’t stand in the middle of the road any longer...Daddy and his sisters can’t understand that. They want us to be Creoles. Creoles. What a joke. Today you’re one way or the other; you’re white or you’re black. There’s no in-between.” (CC, 48)

27Personal option, like the individual drama, remains thus secondary in many respects and Gaines is cautious enough not to enclose his fiction in a whole psychological state. The character endlessly defines himself as an avatar, an incarnation, among other if certain forces or sociohistorical constants, and from here emerges the paradigmatic aspects of the roles and situation previously pointed out. Gaines’s character is marked by his immutability; he pursues his goal until the end, sufficiently conscious to know how little he will be able to change himself. Marcus’s example in Of Love and Dust could not pull Jim Kelly out of the rut into which Jim foresees he will fall someday. In Catherine Carmier, Jackson, in many respects the type of commentary black who is reflective and courageous, doesn’t escape from that condition. He is also for a time an “in-between” man too caught up by the North to return permanently to Bayonne. By itself, this lack of belonging becomes intolerable:

He did not like being empty—unable to recognize things, unable to associate himself with things. He did not like being unable to recognize the graves... If neither there nor here, neither the living no the dead, then what? (CC, 191)

28However, Jackson embodies the quest for meaning that each individual wants to find in life: “Dignity, truth—you want to make something out of a senseless world, “Madame Bayonne will tell him: “‘Is there anything wrong with that?’” she looked at him but did not answer (CC, 81). We immediately remember the skeptical remark that planter Laurent makes to his bastard nephew in “Bloodline”: “To think that you can carry the burden of this world on you shoulder is...old as man’s idea of justice...Since the beginning of civilization he has tried to do exactly what you want to you, but since it was as insane then as it is now, he had failed” (Β, 171). And to which he echoes Jim Kelly’s mediation on man without God:

So man has to do for himself now. No, he’s not going to win, he can’t ever win; but if he struggle hard and long enough he can ease pains a little. I mean he can spread it out more and it won’t hurt so much all at one. (LD., 49-50)

  • 3 In this connection, an analysis of the short story “Just Like a Tree,” whose narrative structure is (...)

29Is this to say Gaines takes up this skepticism? That he refuses to see the merit in the desire of a few to give a meaning to the South, to our own mad world? Like Faulkner, and unlike the black writers of his generation for whom protest constituted a ready-made answer, the author seems to abstain from taking sides; the multiplicity of viewpoints leaves the reader free to follow his own lead.3

30One point is necessary, however, to show just what Gaines refuses. All of the disillusioned and cautious philosophies are suggested by likeable but secondary characters, the confessor-narrators who are refused heroism in the name of prudence, and sometimes courage in the name of “realism,” as in the case of Jim, Madame Bayonne, or Felix. The discourse of planter Frank Laurent, according to Felix, reveals itself to be as inhibited as that of Raoul Carmier. The “great” white man takes the effort upon himself to talk with his nephew, because he is a Laurent even if he is black; he allows an individual exception but wouldn’t know how to change the rules that he did not create. To admit his share of responsibility leads him at best to mitigate its consequences:

My brother, your father, was wrong. Not only with your mother, but with many other women—white and black alike. White and black men he also destroyed...But as long as I’m here I’m going to do all I can to make up for what he did to these here in the quarters. I’m going to give them shelter and good, medicine when they’re sick, a place to worship God... I’m doing to defend this keep it exactly as it is. After I’m dead, laws won’t matter to me. You and Greta Jean can fight over this piece of rot as long as you both live. But as long as I can draw breath, it stays as it is. I did not write these rules and laws you’ve been talking about; I came here and found them just as you did. (CC, 171-172)

31This discourse oscillates between liberalism and conservatism where it congeals. This “I don’t-care-what-happens-when-I’m gone’ philosophy can only provoke the blood bath with which Christians threatens Laurent on the day when he and his people will claim their inheritance: the South must either change or be destroyed.

32Where does the answer lie? In an article entitled “Human Dignity and Pride in the Novels of Ernest Gaines,” Winifred L. Stoelting explores these two themes in Catherine Carmier and Of Love and Dust in order to discover a principle of coherence in the Gainesian world. However, to conclude as she does that “in the face of polarization, Gaines’s characters demonstrate human dignity and pride” shows some confusion, for it puts the pride of Raoul Carmier and that of Marcus of the same heuristic level without at all taking the situations into account.

33Certainly, the crucial scenes in Gaines’s fiction culminate in the slow confrontations of two groups through the action of two individuals: duels between Creole and white (Robert Carmier and Marc Grover), between “convict” and foreman (Marcus and Bonbon), between young black and planter (Marcus and Hebert, Christian and Frank Laurent). But it is important to specify that these confrontations hinge precisely on the revindication of the dignity of one against the arrogant refusal of the other. Pride and arrogance are not the same in the arrangement of episodes. In spite of the tiny moral and psychological difference that separates them, the polarization does not confuse its terms: it distinguishes the pride of a Marcus who for a moment forces open the door of the “house built by slaves” from the haughtiness of a Hebert; it opposes the conquering pride of Christian to the age old vanity of Frank. This leads us, once again, to envisage a Gainesian typology articulated on the normative levels proposed by the points of view of the narrators. It is Jim, hardly above the average, who judges Marcus’s behavior as scornful; it is Felix, still less courageous, who presents Christian’s attitude as haughty. However, neither directs his admiration to the younger audacious ones whom he dares not help.

  • 4 The truth that Della chose (the accident and not the murder of Mary) frees the narrative and permit (...)

34This referential system hinges, moreover, on an oppositional schema beyond the individuals. Robert Carmier’s dignity before the planter becomes ubris when Raoul wants to hold back the flux of history, when he refuses to see in Catherine someone other than the companion who will bear his cross and ease his solitude. Vanity is the inability for change, while accepting defeat can restore dignity which is also the recognition of other people. This fact is true for the South as for its inhabitants. This is the reason for the hope in the last scene in Catherine Carmier. As an individual Jackson does not reach heroism and Della stresses very well that he would have been beaten if he had been someone else. But since the beginning of his intimacy with Catherine and her mother, he was a possible substitute for Marky, whose death Della now decides, by a willful act of creating history, was accidental.4 Jackson metaphorically, asserts himself to Raoul, as a requirement for the Creole to rejoin the black group the temptation to “pass” or to die. Raoul’s defeat permits him to accept the compassion of his wife; Jackson will become symbolically the son he needs. That son would be there to lessen this load of loneliness [...]to continue whatever he has started and was unable to finish” (CC, 118) on the condition that he agree to modify his aim. All this is indicated between the lines in the hope of rediscovery of Jackson and Catherine.

35But does the idea, or rather the conception, of a world elaborated by an individual or a group include the potential for change? Gaines does not despair of that possibility. His fiction moves progressively along the ideological axes of those characters who stand for change and openness. In this perspective the lesson of perseverance given by Miss Jane Pittman orients retrospectively the dynamism in all of Gaines’s fiction.

36This fictional universe demonstrates that even in the South heroic transgressors stood up against rules erected as fate by generation there; they were blacks who have always proclaimed their humanity by rebellion. If these themes recur, if the situations repeat themselves, if the failure often annuls the attempt to unblock history, this appearance of immobility results more from the narrator’s lack of perspective than a cynical conception of the future. For Gaines, the recoils of history and narrative are recoveries, successive assaults of the monolithic South of white domination (accepted and suffered), that fiction itself slowly pushes back again into the realm of myths. It is important, perhaps, to conclude on the symbolic and individual tangent of Miss Jane Pittman whose autobiography, renouncing the effects of the static tension in Gaines’s style, presents a more humble narrative. It takes the drama away from the individual level, perhaps because the perspective reduces the individual tragedy to one episode among other of an embryonic history. It is a slow evolution of Louisiana where, since the killing of Big Laura after Emancipation and up until the killing Jimmy, power defends its privileges with the same brutality, but where the black man endlessly returns in order to reclaim his due. At the end of The Autobiography, a fight, almost fraternal, takes place between the white landowner and the centenarian black woman. It is at first a long confrontation of the eyes where the defeat of the former is read, for Miss Jane will pass beyond him and join the demonstration:

“Jimmy is dead, “Robert said. “Didn’t you hear me say Jimmy was killed at eight o’clock?”
“He ain’t dead nothing, “Alex said.
“You know better,” Robert said to me.
“Just a little piece of him is dead,” I said, “The rest of him is waiting for us in Bayonne. And I will go with Alex.”
(ALP, 245)

37Here bursts the tranquil exultation that Gaines takes from his racial background; for all of Faulkner’s compassion for Dilsey could not have made him write these words.


Works cited

Gaines, Ernest J. [1964] 1972. Catherine Carmier. Chatham, NJ: The Chatham Booksellers.

—. [1967] 1969. Of Love and Dust. New York: Bantam.

—. [1968] 1970. Bloodline. New York: Bantam edition

—. [1971] 1972. The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. New. York: Bantam.


1 Originally published in French in Recherhes Anglaises et Américaines (Université de Strasbourg) 9 (1976) and reprinted in Callaloo 1:3 (May 1978) 110-123. Reprinted here with the permission of the author and Callaloo’s general editor Charles Rowell.

2 A comparison with Uncle Tom’s Cabin and with the narratives of fugitive slaves is important here for it reinforces the irony of the passage where it is the white woman who must pass for black.

3 In this connection, an analysis of the short story “Just Like a Tree,” whose narrative structure is typically Faulknerian, would show that Gaines sets out to explode the fixed stature of “truth” by using competitive points of view about the same event. The farewell reception for Aunt Fe, threatened by white terrorists because her great-nephew works for the civil rights, is related fragmentarily, by two children, six adults, three old black men and a white woman; each narrative indicating the limits of the individual perspective.

4 The truth that Della chose (the accident and not the murder of Mary) frees the narrative and permits a solution while the one accepted by Aunt Margaret in Of Love and Dust (the responsibility of Bonbon and not of Herbert) preserves the established order and blocks the development of the narrative. The possibility of action thus serves as a justification of truth and history. Contrarily to our analysis bearing on the white rules of the game, in the end the action prevails over the word.


Professeur émérite de l'Université de Paris III - Sorbonne Nouvelle. Il est l'auteur d'une vingtaine d'ouvrages et est a à l'origine de la constitution d'un champ de recherche spécifique en études afro-américaines et des études sur les pays du Commonwealth en France (CETANLA, puis CEAA). Parmi ses nombreuses publications, on retiendra : The World of Richard Wright (1985), From Harlem to Paris : Black writers in France 1840-1980 (1991), The Unfinished Quest of Richard Wright (Urbana : University of Illinois Press, 1993), Conversations with Richard Wright (with Keneth Kinnamon, 1993), The French Reception of African American Literature from the Beginning to 1970 (1995), The Richard Wright Reader (1997), The Several Lives of Chester Himes (avec Edward Margolies, 1997). Il est également traducteur (Himes, McKay). En association avec le CEAA, le WEB DuBois Institute de Harvard lui a récemment rendu hommage, ainsi qu'à Geneviève Fabre, au cours d'une conférence internationale (Décembre 2004) réunissant universitaires européens et américains dont les recherches doivent beaucoup à son travail de pionnier.

Melvin Dixon (Traducteur)
Didier Malaquin (Traducteur)

© Presses universitaires François-Rabelais, 2005

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