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DANIEL THOMIÈRES Université de Reims Man’s Way and Woman’s Way in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman ERNEST J. GAINES’S 1971 THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF MISS JANE PITTMAN interrogates the concept of fatherhood. Fatherhood with its multiple ramifications is here the “disease” from which the South suffers. In order to grasp the logic behind the disease, the novelist has assembled signs, or symptoms, that are all linked to the desires of the characters—four males and Miss Jane, the female protagonist. In the novel, desire becomes visible in these males’ attempts at transgression. These attempts lead them all to violent deaths, and clearly these men have to die in what seem to be scapegoating processes.1 The conjure woman Jane visits at one point speaks of “man’s way” (93). She refers to the form men’s desires assume in the Southern society of her time. It would also certainly be possible to imagine that there is a “woman’s way,” since the narrator and protagonist of the novel is a woman. Jane is not just a voice. She is telling us about what she did and what she desired or did not desire over the long century spanning the period between the Emancipation Proclamation and the Civil Rights struggles. What is the specific logic behind her desire or lack of desire? In what way is her desire, or lack of it, connected to the transgressions attempted by the men around her? 1 Some books can be seen as a sort of diagnosis. That Greek word means collecting symptoms and establishing distinctions between them (dia.) and then producing a body of knowledge (gnosis.) that can later be used critically in order to enhance life. In books like Gaines’s, readers encounter characters who suffer from a recurrent series of problems. The novelist organizes and connects the symptoms for us, so that we recognize that these people are the victims of forces beyond their control and, as a consequence, that they can’t make sense of their predicament. The reader is confronted with the characters’ confusion. At the same time, Gaines helps us discover patterns that help explain that confusion. Gilles Deleuze suggests that writers should be physicians in his Essays Critical and Clinical. See especially the first chapter, “Literature and Life,” in whichDeleuzebrieflygivessomeexamples:HermanMelville,ThomasWolfe,Kafkaand Céline. Gaines could certainly constitute a valuable addition to that list. 220 Daniel Thomières of time and the double consciousness The plot of the novel is simple enough. Given her freedom, Jane Pittman wants to leave Louisiana and go North towards Ohio, but gives up any idea of moving and settles in a place “right in the middle of Luzana” (54). From that point onwards, she travels very little, though she spends a number of years with her common-law husband near the Texas border before returning to central Louisiana. Symbolically, Jane’s story is about the former slaves who remained in the South and did not make it to the North. Finally at the end of the book, Jane changes her mind: she will start traveling again. This time, she goes to Bayonne, a nearby city. She joins a Civil Rights march. As she is about to die of old age, she reenters the mainstream of American history, at a time when African Americans at long last succeeded in asserting their rights. To a large extent, Jane has replaced space with time. Hers is journey through a hundred years of Southern history, from 1863 to 1963. The novel shows that it took the blacks a whole century to start reaching their goal. What was needed was patience: in order to go somewhere, you have to go there indirectly. That is the message Jane learned as a child from the old man that showed her a map when she told him about Ohio (46-54): if you want to head North, you first have to go East! That is not a paradox, that is a lesson. In the same manner, a social group held in bondage can make progress only if it doesn’t antagonize those who are stronger than it is. If it does, it will be destroyed...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2689-517X
Print ISSN
0026-637X
Pages
pp. 219-234
Launched on MUSE
2020-02-27
Open Access
No
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