The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman

by: Ernest J. Gaines

Introduction and Book 1: The War Years

Summary Introduction and Book 1: The War Years

The opening of the novel introduces the reader to Miss Jane Pittman's voice, which will persist throughout the novel. In order to find a realistic voice for Jane, Gaines studied texts of slave narratives that the government recorded after the Civil War. Miss Jane speaks in the southern dialect with which she was raised. Her tale proceeds with an occasionally circular motion, while neglecting the regulations imposed by the formal English grammar that she never learned. Miss Jane's tendency to use informal colloquial terms can be seen when she refers to the Confederate Army as the "Secesh." In the very first chapter, Jane also describes that the Confederate Colonel had a "sable" hanging from his waist, so that it almost dragged to the ground. This "sable" is obviously a "saber," a long sword used in battle, and Jane's confusion over the terminology provides a slightly humorous edge that also suggests the level of her formal education.

Jane's personalized history manages to retell classic events in a more vivid, real manner. The institution of slavery usually exists as an abstract concept that, while horrible, is removed from present-day life and reality. By describing slavery with a personalized view, the abstraction disappears since the way that slavery affected individual people comes forth more clearly. Since we feel drawn close to the narrator and the brutality that she sees or suffers—such as being whipped or seeing people killed—becomes very real and in its reality more painful. Jane's personal narrative also helps to point out the historical facts that few ever consider, such as the idea that the slaves had no idea what to do when slavery ended.

The motif of naming appears first in this section with Jane's renaming by Corporal Brown and then the renaming of the slaves by themselves. The ability for Jane to choose her own name, even though Corporal Brown suggests it, is a powerful statement against the slavery system that controlled all aspects of her person. In addition to Jane picking her own name, an act worthy of a human, she also initially refers to herself as "Miss Jane Brown." The "Miss" before her name is a title used only by blacks toward whites or by whites toward each other. Jane's use of it is akin to calling herself a free person, instead of a slave. Her master and mistress are well aware of the significance of her act. They beat her severely for it, contemplate selling or killing her, and finally send her to the fields. Jane's ability to choose her own name represents her first act of defiance.

Jane's defiance itself is a theme that will persist throughout the book. Its presence in these opening chapters foreshadows the obstinacy that will keep Jane alive and vigorous, despite the numerous hardships that will follow in her hundred years of life. As a child, Jane's obstinacy is almost too much as she fights not just with her master but with the other slaves as well just after the emancipation. Jane also picks a fight with the slow wit, who responds by trying to rape her. If not for Big Laura, Jane's aggressiveness could have led to physical trauma. While Jane's spunky attitude will motivate her through the years, as a child fleeing slavery it could have certain downsides if not governed by an equal sense of prudence.