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The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman

Ernest J. Gaines

Study Questions and Suggested Essay Topics

Key Facts

Quiz

Study Questions

The novel opens with a description of the editor who located Miss Jane Pittman and recorded her story. Is this account true or fiction? Discuss the importance of the editor's introduction.

According to Ernest Gaines, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman is completely fictional. With it, Gaines retells approximately one hundred years of American history with attention to the African-American experience. Gaines wanted to personalize this experience, which is why he has a woman who lived through it retell the story. Originally, Gaines entitled the book "The Biography of Miss Jane Pittman" and had her story retold by different narrators. The multiple narrators, however, did not create the effect that he wanted, so after studying actual recorded slave narratives Gaines shaped Jane's unique voice. Despite his assertion that Miss Jane is fictional, many readers and even reviewers refer to her as a real person. The idea that Jane is real is important, because it helps makes her experiences believable. Since the novel was published in 1971, just after the Civil Rights movement, credibility as to the truth behind accounts of racial violence were very important. By using a fictional, yet realistic narrator, Gaines is able to capture the experience of many blacks in one novel. Her tale is her own, but it also reflects her community.

Why does Tee Bob's love for the teacher Mary Agnes kill him? What does the dialogue about Tee Bob's death mean when Jules Raynard explains that Tee Bob died for their sins?

Tee Bob's love for Mary Agnes is not acceptable in a culture that demands racial segregation. The genuine nature of his love kills him because it makes no sense to him that the world will not accept his pure love for Mary Agnes. Tee Bob has already once been crushed by the idea of racial segregation, when his friend and brother Timmy is forced off of the plantation by their own father. Tee Bob did not understand why Timmy's race necessitated his leaving. Although Tee Bob is able to relate to Mary Agnes and Timmy outside of race, not everyone in his community, whether white or black, can. No one, not even Jane or Mary Agnes, can understand how Tee Bob falls in love with a black woman. Mary Agnes herself is not willing to take the risk involved in their relationship and has not felt any emotions for Tee Bob because of his race. As Raynard explains, Tee Bob died because he could not cope with the harsh world that divided people because of race. Because no one dared to be courageous like him, they all hold equal responsibility for his death.

Why does the author spend so much time discussing Albert Cluveau and his relationship with Jane? In what way does this affect the way that you view the murder of Ned?

By developing the character of Albert Cluveau, Gaines demonstrates the complexity of the men who often performed violent acts in the south. Cluveau and Jane essentially are friends who speak on almost a daily basis, drink coffee together, and even share food. The social mores of their society—particularly segregation—do not allow them to be genuine friends. This stifled friendship makes Cluveau's act particularly cowardly and despicable. Cluveau knows, from his friendship with Jane, that black people are real human beings with ideas and feelings. Still, Cluveau will immediately obey the request of the higher-ranking whites and kill Ned. After Ned's death, Cluveau hides from Jane. His unwillingness to see her indicates that he knows that he did something wrong. After she tells him that the Chariots of Hell will come for him, Cluveau transforms into a complete coward. He rants and raves for years because he thinks that the devil is coming for him. He beats his daughter brutally because he claims that her sins, and not his, are bringing the chariot. He finally dies after days of screaming in the most cowardly fashion. It is only by articulating Cluveau's character over the course of several chapters that Gaines is able to illustrate the cowardice that underlay much racial violence in the south. Cluveau's cowardice is akin to members of the Ku Klux Klan who only are willing to strike down blacks when hiding behind a mask.

Suggested Essay Topics

Discuss the importance of names and naming in the book.

Why does Ned Douglass choose to return to Louisiana? Was this a mistake or not?

What effect does Jane's conversion to religion have on her?

Why does Jane give up her dream of living free in the North to settle down in the south for the rest of her days?

What does the hoodoo Madame Gautier mean when she tells Miss Jane in the chapter "Man's Way" that "slavery made you barren" and that's why Joe must ride the horses to "prove he is a man"?

What do Miss Lilly, Mr. Hardy, and Mary Agnes have in common? Why are they important figures in the quarters?

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