Academic journal article Studies in the Literary Imagination

"Whitemouth": A Bakhtinian Reading of Narrative Voice in Ernest J. Gaines's Transitional Novel 'Of Love and Dust'

Academic journal article Studies in the Literary Imagination

"Whitemouth": A Bakhtinian Reading of Narrative Voice in Ernest J. Gaines's Transitional Novel 'Of Love and Dust'

Article excerpt

Ernest Gaines's narratives of the rural South in transition record African-American experience in the voices of its people, voices he became attuned to on the porches of the River Lake Plantation quarters in Louisiana where he lived and worked as a child. In a talk delivered in 1971, Gaines recalls listening to those voices:

There were the people who used to come to our houses.... In summer they would sit out on the porch, the gallery--"the garry," we called it--and they would talk for hours.... Sometimes they would sew on quilts and mattresses while they talked; other times they would shell peas and beans while they talked. Sometimes they would just sit there smoking pipes, chewing pompee, or drinking coffee while they talked. I, being the oldest child, was made to stay close by and serve them coffee or water or whatever else they needed. In winter, they moved from the porch and sat beside the fireplace and drank coffee--and sometimes a little homemade brew--while they talked. But regardless of what time of year it was, under whatever conditions, they would find something to talk about. I did not know then that twenty or twenty-five years later I would try to put some of their talk in a book. ("Miss Jane" 24-25)

It was this talk that Gaines needed to connect with again when he returned to Louisiana in 1963 and "tried listening--not only to what they had to say, but to the way they said it" ("Miss Jane" 31). He returned annually "not as an objective observer, but as someone who must come back in order to write about Louisiana. ... to be with the land ... to go into the fields ..., to listen to the language" ("This Louisiana Thing" 39). Though Gaines situates his attempt to incorporate the voices of the quarters in his perhaps best-known work, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, his return to the language, which he experimented with using in short fiction, happens in a sustained way much before he writes Miss Jane's story. This return, in all its political significance, is reenacted in Gaines's transition from the distanced, third-person narrative voice dominated by standardized English of his first novel, Catherine Carmier, to the narrative voice embodying the tensions among racial groups of his second novel, Of Love and Dust.

Gaines incarnates the narrative voice in Of Love and Dust in an African-American man, Jim Kelly, who accesses the language of the landowning whites, the Cajuns aspiring to the status of plantation owners, and African Americans inhabiting a Louisiana plantation. Jim tells the story of a rebellion against white authority initiated by Marcus Payne, a young African-American man recently jailed for killing another man in a bar fight. Marshall Hebert, the white landowner, has bonded Marcus out of jail but created another kind of prison by requiring Marcus to work off his bond in Hebert's fields for years. Marcus, however, challenges the system of control by daring to love the wife of the Cajun overseer, Sidney Bonbon. Marcus dies in a confrontation with Bonbon orchestrated by Marshall Hebert, who wants to dispose of both men, but Jim Kelly, serving as the younger man's unofficial guardian, is forever changed by what he witnesses and vows to tell the story. Jim is well-situated to tell this story because, as a resident of the quarters, he has access to the talk that goes on there--often in whispers and veiled speech--among the African Americans who generally observe a code of silence outside this distinct space, and he maintains a good rappori with the whites, particularly Sidney Bonbon and Marshall Hebert, thereby providing insight into the class struggles among whites who assert power by manipulating the African Americans. During his three years on the plantation, Jim has been entrusted with such responsibilities as operating the farming machinery and reporting progress to the overseer; this trust depends partly on Jim's ostensible recognition of the power of wealthy whites, symbolized effectively in the pervasive dust that signals their presence. …

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