The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman
Book 2: Reconstruction
From Albert Cluveau to The Chariot of Hell
Miss Jane lives next to the river and fishes everyday. A Cajun man, Albert Cluveau, frequently fishes right near her, and they often talk, even though all Cluveau likes to discuss is how many people he has killed. He and Jane have a fairly friendly relationship such that she often brews coffee for them and gives him some of her fried fish. One day Cluveau tells Jane that the men in town are not happy about Ned. Jane feels worried and later goes to see Ned, although she tells him nothing. About a week later, Cluveau tells her that the same men want him to kill Ned. Jane looks Cluveau straight in the eye and asks if he could do it. Cluveau tells her that he could. Jane faints in response. Later that day, Jane visits Ned and tells both him and his wife about Cluveau's threat. Ned refuses to stop teaching. His wife, Vivian, says that Ned warned her that he might be killed if he came back here.
The Sermon at the River
Two weeks before he is killed, Ned gives a talk by the river. His students, Jane, and his family are there, but no one else. Several white men watch and listen to Ned's talk from a boat on the river. Jane fears momentarily that the white men might shoot him then and there. Ned is wearing his Army uniform and turns his back on them before speaking. Ned tells everyone that they are true Americans and humans who are equal to all other American people of whatever race. He urges them to stand up and be true men—to pursue all of their dreams and not to simply take subservient jobs in order to conform to the social order, as Booker T. Washington suggests. He vigorously promotes the idea of social change that can be made if blacks take action. By the end of the speech, Ned is sweating, and, when Jane looks at him, she sees the look of death in his eyes.
A month passes and nothing happens. One day, Ned rides to Bayonne with two of his students to get some lumber for the school. As they are driving back the next morning, Albert Cluveau steps out of the sugar cane fields with a shotgun. Ned's students want to try and fight Cluveau, but Ned makes them stay seated. He then charges Cluveau. Cluveau shoots him once in the knee, since the whites wanted Ned to kneel before dying, and when Ned keeps coming he fires into his chest. Blood is everywhere. The students place Ned on the lumber and drive to his house. Ned later will be buried in the schoolyard, which the black community will finish and support for years until it is destroyed by a flood in 1927.
With news of Ned's murder, the community flocks to his house and all want to see his body and touch the lumber that held him. When Jane arrives, Vivian is holding Ned's body and sobbing. Jane soon takes Vivian's place but is eventually led away. The next day the sheriff in Bayonne questions the two students who saw the shooting, but he dismisses their accounts by asking them if they are calling Albert Cluveau a liar. No justice follows. After Ned's death, Vivian returns to Kansas, on Jane's advice. A new professor eventually arrives after the school is finished, but he teaches nothing about race relations. He stays until the flood destroys the school in 1927.
The Chariot of Hell
After Ned's death, Jane searches for Albert Cluveau, but Cluveau's daughter, Adeline, always says that he is not home. Finally Jane sees him hiding behind the house and knows that he is avoiding her. One day however, fate intervenes, and she meets him at a different part of the river. She tells him that when the Chariot of Hell comes for him, people all over the parish will hear him screaming. Cluveau and everyone around thinks that Jane put some type of voodoo spell on him. When he gets sick a year later, he keeps on hearing the Chariot of Hell. He beats Adeline in response because he claims that her sinfulness, not his own, has brought the Chariot (she is not really sinful). Adeline finally visits Jane and asks Jane to remove the voodoo spell because she keeps getting beaten. Jane insists that she never did any sort of voodoo on Cluveau. Cluveau does not die for almost another ten years. When he finally does however, he screams for three days before dying. In the end, he rises as if to shoot someone before collapsing in his daughter's arms.
Thematically this section contrasts two men, Albert Cluveau and Ned Douglass, who stand opposed to each other in regards to their moral fiber. Albert Cluveau is a weak cowardly character who preys upon other people. Ned Douglass is a brave black man who is willing to accept death for doing what he thinks is right—teaching students about their rights.
Gaines spends considerable time developing Cluveau's character, a move that may seem curious since Cluveau's deeds make him a villainous murderer. At the opening of the section, however, Cluveau seems to be a fairly decent guy. Although he discusses killing people, he is basically friendly with Jane. The segregation of their races would never permit them to openly be "friends," but they do talk almost daily and often share coffee. Cluveau even occasionally buys Jane things from the store if she needs them. Cluveau's early behavior places his terrible deed in an interesting context. Cluveau is not necessarily a bad man, but a man who does terrible deeds, mostly out of cowardice and a desire to be accepted. Cluveau is a relatively poor Cajun who proves his worth to the higher-class whites by killing blacks for them. Because he is deeply steeped in racist ideology, Cluveau seems to have no problem shooting blacks upon request. From the very beginning, Cluveau's matter of fact way of discussing the many murders he has committed suggests his failure to understand what he is doing as necessarily wrong.
The fear that Cluveau shows after Ned's murder reinforces the idea that he is a coward. First, Cluveau repeatedly hides from Jane, which shows a certain irony because although he is willing to shoot down a man in daylight, he does not want to be chastised for it. After Jane tells him that the Chariot of Hell will come for him, Cluveau almost loses it. When he falls sick, he beats his daughter and blames her for the chariots that he keeps hearing. Although he lives for almost ten more years, he wails for several days before he finally dies. Cluveau's inability to cope with his deeds, his need to blame and beat his faultless daughter, and his failure to stand up and accept his death, all indicate that he is a coward. Gaines's depiction of Cluveau underscores his general presentation of whites who commit violence against blacks as cowards. As Gaine shows, the perpetrators of racial violence generally are lower class white men want to show their self worth by ganging up against innocent blacks.
By contrast, Ned Douglas is a man of courage. Ned knows that the whites want to kill him, but he persists with his mission. The Army uniform that he wears to his speech by the river carries an implicit threat against the whites, since it asserts his equality with them and also reminds them that he once wielded a gun. The uniform seems suitable, too, because if Ned were to be shot in it, as he thinks may be possible that day, his status as a soldier fighting a war against racial injustice would be even clearer. Ned's speech itself urges the people around him to stand up as Americans and humans. Ned himself stands up until the very end of his life. When Cluveau arrives to shoot him, Ned calms his students and then charges toward the gun. Ned runs willingly into his death as an honorable and brave man. Even when Cluveau shoots Ned's knee, Ned still manages to rise again. Ned's bravery in the face of death contrasts greatly with Cluveau's weakness.
In addition to being brave, Ned is the first major messianic figure in the novel. Ned's attempt to change the society around him will be later replicated by Jimmy Aaron at the end of the novel. The "Sermon by the River" sequence uses strong imagery from the New Testament. Just as Jesus preached to his disciples near water, so too does Ned. Both Ned and Jesus also knew that their cause would lead to their death, but they both were willing to teach regardless. After Ned dies, the entire community wants to lay their hands on him and touch the blood stained lumber to honor him. They are searching for his courage and his bravery. Ironically, the community never supported Ned during his life even though he dedicated himself to serving them. Had they stood up then, his battle might have been much more successful. The fear felt by the community shows the extent to which the white-dominated social order has subjugated them into inaction. Like some of the earlier characters who internalized slavery such that they could not live outside of it, so too have many of these characters internalized the racist social order and are happy to live meekly inside of it.
Jane's narrative proceeds slowly during this section with careful attention to its events. Even Ned's sermon by the river is remembered almost in full. As she retells, Jane foreshadows Ned's death several times before it actually happens. The foreshadowing creates suspense about the exact time and place that he will be killed. Jane's ability to foreshadow her own story reminds us again that her autobiography is an oral narrative. Toward the end of the section, Jane also starts flashing back between certain events after Ned's death, such as the river flooding. Her ability to shift time as she sees fit demonstrates narrative control. She also begins to use the floods as benchmark dates, another technique common in an oral tradition when the speaker lives close to the land and has little access to formal timekeeping.
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