The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman by Ernest J. Gaines, written from 1967-1970, is set from slavery through the 1960’s, and is based in different parts of rural Louisiana . Jane Pittman is a 110 years old, and the story is about her past, as she along with a group of friends narrate it to a local school teacher. Jane Pittman is born into slavery on a plantation somewhere in Louisiana. The book follows her struggle through extreme racial discrimination, and a ruthless civil war. Different characters come and go, but they all leave a deep impact on the reader. Jane Pittman, the protagonist is a determined woman.
Her mother passes away when she Jane was very young – she is beaten to death. When the slaves are freed, they start traveling to Ohio, headed by Big Laura to find Mr. Brown, a colonel who offered them help. The story follows her and Ned’s (Laura’s son) rough journey to Ohio and through life from hereon. They never reach Ohio. The book brings out the horrors of one of the worst massacres in history. Many were killed based on color and creed. Many, like Jane were born into slavery. Many took there own lives. The purpose of the book is to highlight the struggle of this era, which was ominously close to our time.
Even till as late as the 1960’s discrimination was widespread. It documents the wrongdoings of that time, an in attempt to preserve the struggle thousands went through, just to restore their basic human rights. The book definitely provides a positive experience for the reader, even though it is heart-rending in many places. It gives a message of resilience and defiance to stand up for one’s basic rights, and to stand up for one’s basic freedom, a right to which every man, woman and child is entitled too, regardless of color, caste, age or creed.
The book also provides strategies for success. One of the most major strategies to success is that of resilience. The book shows Jane’s resilience, and her defiance. She is determined, even though there are so many obstacles in her path. Many of her fellow friends are killed. When Laura is killed Jane narrates: “I didn’t cry, I couldn’t cry. I had seen so much beating and suffering; I had heard about so much cruelty in those ‘leven or twelve years of my life I hardly know how to cry . ” What is worse is that those who stood up for the cause were cruelly killed, like Ned and Tee Bob.
Ned is killed by a man Cluveau. Jane flies into a mad rage. “Mr. Albert Cluveau, when the chariot of hell come rattling for you, the people will hear you screaming all over this parish . ” Cluveau eventually goes mad. Their deaths make her all the more defiant, because now it was not only her own fight, but the fight of those who lost their lives unfairly. Ned was determined to instill basic due rights in the minds of children. He opens a school to teach these principles. He continues – till he is killed. Tee Bob too reflects another type of determination.
He is white, and is the heir to the Samson plantation. Being brought up with his black half-brother Timmy, he could never understand why there was a difference between the two. Eventually, when he falls in love with a black woman, and is told that he can never be with her; he takes his own life – another attempt to show that he did not stand for these rigid conservative ‘values. ’ “We tried to make him follow a set of rules our people gived us long ago . ” All these characters use different ways and attitudes but all achieve success.
Jane survives through the ordeal, to tell her story. Ned is killed for a genuine cause. And Tee Bob’s suicide leaves a lasting impact. If the world around him was this shallow, he’d rather die. The book also presents immense obstacles in the paths of the major characters. From the very beginning, we see that Jane is born into the institution of slavery, along with several other children. She has to work for a shockingly small amount of money. But there were not just these racial problems that Jane dealt with.
She is also had personal problems. Her husband dies most tragically, and she is left alone. Later another man too deserts her. Ned and Jimmy are also killed. Jimmy Aaron was another man who stood for the cause. Yet Jane does not give up. “People’s always looking for someone to come lead them . ” Jane, Jimmy, Ned and Tee Bob all were leaders. It is very clear that everything stemmed from the one main problem – racial discrimination. Tee Bob cannot be with his love. Ned is not able to teach the children. Jimmy does not lead his march.
But even though all die, they are undoubtedly, successful. Ernest J. Gaines’ perception of success is definitely not like our contemporary definition. His success meant living a life of respect, and happiness, and basic freedom. The achievements which qualify as success do not include anything material or monetary. All the characters can hardly make ends meet, but at the end, they are all successful – because they changed the rigid beliefs of the world, and changed the lives of their future generations to come. Tee Bob is a special character in the book.
He also gains particular sympathy from the readers as he never understood the rules and laws of racism. As a child, he never knew why his brother Timmy was sent away. Later, when he wants to marry Mary Agnes, reality begins to dawn on him. These were not the beliefs he would follow. These were the distorted beliefs of the world around him, and he was not going to be a part of it. The book is also admirable because it is a preservation of what one can call ‘recent history. ’ It is a deeply moving and disturbing picture of the American south.
It is chilling to know that something as irrational as racism was so rampant even till the mid -1900’s. Gaines writes: “In closing I wish to thank all the wonderful people who were at Miss Jane’s house through those long months of interviewing her, because this is not only Miss Jane’s autobiography, it is theirs as well . ”
1. Gaines, Ernest J, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, Bantam; Reissue edition (July 1, 1982), English 2. Sparknotes, from Barnes and Noble, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, retrieved from http://www. sparknotes. com/lit/missjane/