The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman

by: Ernest J. Gaines

Motifs

Slave Narratives

This motif is a textual one and refers to the fact that Gaines mimics a classic slave narrative with his novel. Slave narratives tell stories of enslavement, suffering, endurance, and escape. Abolitionists once used slave narratives in order to illustrate the cruelty of its practices. Most accounts remained oral, but several notable exceptions were published in the nineteenth century, especially the story of Frederick Douglass, The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass. Women's stories also fit into this literary tradition such as Harriet Jacob's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.

Man On a Horse

The image of a man on a horse is one of the novel's most dominant and recurring images. The image is an emblem of the old South and recalls the chivalric tradition that is part of southern mythology. Traditionally, the ability to ride a horse embodies southern manhood. Gaines both reinforces and alters the meaning of this motif in his book. Robert Samson, for example, uses his horse as a classic southern master would. He rides to a black woman's house on his plantation and seduces her. His son Tee Bob also uses a horse to court Mary Agnes. The noble idea of a man on a horse is inverted though with the role of the Patrollers, white men who do nothing honorably. Joe Pittman's obsession with horses testifies to his desire to claim a manhood that the southern culture denies him. As a black man, however, his playing with horses is a dangerous activity and will ultimately lead to his death.

Names

Miss Jane Pittman's name changes from Ticey, to Jane Brown, to Jane Pittman throughout the course of the novel. The repeated motif of naming oneself testifies to the importance of the act for the ex-slaves. The novel opens with a Yankee soldier naming Ticey, Jane Brown—a name that Ticey clings to even though she is beaten for it. After slavery, the other slaves all choose their own names: Ace Freeman, Abe Sherman, Job Lincoln. The ability to name themselves demonstrates their newfound freedom. Later in the book, the younger blacks often name themselves again. Ned becomes Ned Brown, then Ned Douglass, and then Ned Stephen Douglass, and finally Edward Stephen Douglass. Calling themselves by what they believe is their true name, is the ex-slaves' first symbolic act of defiance against the slavery system. In naming, the blacks assert their personalities, their wills, and their ability to use language—all of which had been denied them before. When Tee Bob proposes to Agnes Mary, he says that he will give her "his name" that very night, but she turns it down. At the very end of the book, Jane closes by saying "Robert and me" looked at each other and walked away. Here she has renamed him, from Mister Samson—the appropriate away she should refer to her white Master—to using his first name. With the civil rights movement, the ex-slaves appear to suddenly stand upon equal ground as Jane's terminology suggests.