The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman
Book 4: The Quarters
Jane opens the final section of the novel with a theoretical discussion about how people have always been searching for "the One" who will save them. This search existed even in the times of the Old and New Testament. The elders on the Samson Plantation search for the "One" with each new child who is born. Finally, they believe that a boy named Jimmy Aaron might be the "One." Jimmy was born to Shirley Aaron, although the identity of his father is not known. When Shirley Aaron moves to New Orleans in search of work, Jimmy's great aunt Lena raises him with help from some of the elders, including Jane.
Jane wanted to move back to "the quarters," where the other blacks live, after Tee Bob's death, but she stayed in the house because Mr. Samson wanted her to be with Miss Amma Dean. After five years, she requested to move again. Although Miss Amma Dean and Robert want her to stay, mostly they say because of her health, she insists upon leaving so that she can have her own place. She moves back sometime in the 1940s.
Because Jimmy appears to be the One, the community pays special attention to him. By the time he is nine, he can read better than anyone except the schoolteacher. As a result, Jimmy often reads the paper to the old people, like Jane, and also writes their letters. Jimmy is especially talented with words and always seems to express things perfectly. When he reads the paper, he shows that he is gifted in making people happy as well. Jackie Robinson recently has been inspiring blacks all over, especially Jane who loves baseball, so Jimmy will often lie slightly if Jackie did not have such a great game in order to make everyone feel better. Jane also has recently acquired a radio on which she listens to the baseball games and philosophizes on the importance of Jackie Robinson and also Joe Louis who came before, because they inspired their people by their bravery and defeat of white men.
Occasionally Jimmy gets into trouble especially as he reaches puberty and wants to fool around with girls. The elders strictly punish him for minor infractions, because they want him to stay on the right path, since he is the "One." They also want Jimmy to be involved in the church, but he is not very devout. Jimmy always attends church, but he lacks fervency. Furthermore, although some other children his age have been transformed, Jimmy does not seem to have "gotten religion." One day however, Jimmy finally tells Jane that he thinks that he has found God. During the next Sunday at church, he explains his vision to everyone. The elders are elated that Jimmy, the One, has found God, and they want him to become a preacher. Jimmy does not want to become a preacher however and although he attends church, he never preaches. The old people do not entirely understand this as they assumed that "the One" would become a preacher.
The plantation has changed since Tee Bob's death, as Robert Samson has leased his land mostly to Cajuns. The Cajuns brought in tractors for farming and reduced the need for black labor. As a result, most of the adult population has left the plantation with only the elderly and children remaining. Many of the houses have become decayed and abandoned, and the plantation lacks some of the life from its earlier days.
Eventually, Jimmy starts attending school in New Orleans and staying with his mother on a partial basis. As time passes, he comes back more and more infrequently. Over time, he begins to change. He attends church for example, but he seems more interested than talking about the ideas on race he has heard in the outside world than describing mystical visions as the old folks do. Jimmy may still be the One, they are not sure, but he is not acting as any of them expected.
The final section of the novel is called the "Quarters" and focuses almost exclusively on the black community that lives there. Jane has been living in the Big House, but she wants to return to the Quarters because of its community. Both Miss Amma Dean and Robert Samson try to get Jane to stay by saying that they are concerned about her health. In truth, they need Jane for support more than Jane needs them. Although Miss Amma Dean is younger than Jane, she is more frail, more isolated, and needs comforting. Both women have lost their sons, but Jane is still physically and emotionally tough. While the Big House may hold more physical comforts, Jane prefers her freedom to them. Jane's desire to leave the security of the house recalls her much earlier departure from the secure orphanage that she and Ned found after slavery. These parallel moves show that the end of her life is as it was in the beginning: Jane still prefers freedom to docile comfort. Jane's desire to leave the house also contrasts with the contrary desire by the character Molly, from the ranch where Joe and Jane lived. Molly could not envision life outside of the Big House and died soon after leaving it. Jane relishes in being separate, which indicates that she never internalized the servant status as Molly did.
The community's fixation upon "the One" takes up the entire final book of the novel. With it, Gaines continues the messianic theme seen earlier, most notably with the character of Ned. Jane uses strong religious imagery in discussing Jimmy as "the One," and the elders in the community definitely contend that Jimmy's role as a savior will have a religious bent. As Jimmy ages however, he does not become highly interested in church as they expect. By the end of this section, Jimmy thinks more about politics than religion. The old people are not sure what to make of his ideas, since it does not fit within their expectations of how "the One" should act.
To some extent the older blacks should not be surprised, since times have changed on the plantation, and they all are almost outdated. The life and spirited culture of the quarters is diminishing as the Cajun farmers push the need for black labor away. Most people of adult age have moved to cities for work, and only the very old and very young remain. The time of the civil rights movement is almost upon them, perhaps appropriately. With the advent of civil rights, the ideas believed by whites and blacks of the older generation will slowly die. The old people themselves will become outdated because of their adherence to these ideas, unless they change.
The question of whether Jimmy Aaron truly is a messiah or simply became one out of pressure pervades this chapter. Clearly, Jimmy is a smart child with certain aptitudes and certain yearnings. Still the community shepherds him relentlessly. Their disapproval of his pubescent sexual experimentation seems most important because it returns to the idea of his masculine expression. As a young teenager Jimmy wants to try sex, but the elders disapprove because of religious reasons. Their denial of Jimmy's yearning for masculine expression in sex can be compared to similar emasculating efforts seen throughout the novel. While they mean well, perhaps the older community is not benefiting Jimmy best by denying him the very thing that black men have been seeking for generations: an articulation of their manhood. The problems with the community's guidance, however, will change as Jimmy returns later, having grown into a man.
Jane's narrative changes in this chapter so that it is not loosely divided into titled sections anymore. As a result, her account flows more directly and follows a straightforward story mostly about Jimmy Aaron and the people who raise him. Jane seems increasingly humorous as she ages. She gets Jimmy to read the cartoons to her from the paper, and she develops a deep fondness for baseball. Jane sees the outside characters of Joe Louis and Jackie Robinson as men who have helped to save the black community themselves, by excelling at what they do. With these two sports heroes, the white world finally respects black men for their abilities in spite of their race. In this way, Jackie Robinson and Joe Louis are able to achieve what Joe Pittman tried to do years ago, but on a national level.
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