The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman

by: Ernest J. Gaines

Book 2: Reconstruction


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.