Like many novels, Catherine Carmier is about change and its effects. It is a young man’s novel asking questions of place and purpose that young people in particular wrestle with: Why aren’t things the way they were? What am I going to do with my life? Where is my life? Should I feel guilty for rejecting the truths of those I love? This novel goes further— much further—than the personal, however. It looks at culture, seemingly protected from the changes transforming the United States in the 1960s, and dissects its economic and social hierarchy.
After a ten-year absence from his home in south Louisiana, Jackson Bradley returns to the plantation where he was raised by his great aunt Charlotte. He had left Louisiana to join his parents in California and has recently graduated from college there. The time is the early 1960s, when the Civil Rights Movement in the United States is gathering momentum. Jackson encounters his childhood friends; Catherine Carmier, the Creole daughter of Raoul and Della Carmier; and Brother, his closest male friend. Stepping off the bus, Jackson at first fails to notice many differences, but in the coming weeks of his visit he will slowly recognize the limits of tradition. Change has transformed Jackson physically from boyhood to manhood, and it has also transformed the plantation’s landscape, with more and more land being farmed by the Cajuns, thus changing the economic fortunes of black residents who have tried to make a living off the land. Some readers may not understand the agricultural practice known as sharecropping. This system was instituted after slavery, when white landowners parceled out their property for farming to a variety of farmers, both white and black, on ‘‘shares,’’ or percentages of crop harvest. Since the landowner usually controlled not only the land but also housing, seeds, machinery, farm implements, work animals, and often food supplies, and since the poorest people generally engaged in sharecropping, only landowners could profit. It was a system that ensured—at best—subsistence for those who worked the land. Reflecting a hierarchy of value based on skin color, sharecropping often portioned off the least productive land to black farmers, ensuring their continuing poverty.
Shortly after exiting the bus, Jackson notes changes in the landscape as Cajuns and mechanization have turned farming into a business, replacing what he remembers as a slower moving, pastoral way of life. Bud Grover, the plantation owner, has given more and more land to the Cajuns to farm, dispossessing black farmers, many of whom have left for jobs in Baton Rouge and New Orleans. Gaines uses the competition among the various social castes of Louisiana culture to dramatize the strains of social change that seem to surround but have not yet come to this area, and he employs the particular cultural nuances of south Louisiana, with its four-tiered system. The people on the plantation claim different cultural heritages. Bud Grover, the owner, is white, European descended, with some claim to English descent. Beneath him are the Cajuns, also white people, but of French descent, emigrating from Nova Scotia in the 1700s. Having called Nova Scotia ‘‘the New Acadia,’’ and themselves ‘‘Acadians,’’ the word became shortened to ‘‘Cajuns.’’ ‘‘Creole’’ is a term to suggest a mixed cultural heritage, and in Louisiana, distinctions may be made between Creoles of Spanish, French, and Italian descent and those who may also come from Africa. Gaines’s use of ‘‘Creole’’ generally focuses on people of mixed heritage, with some link to Africa. This class, represented in Catherine Carmier by Raoul Carmier and his family, served as a social buffer between European-descended whites and African-descended blacks. Neither black nor white, many of these very light-skinned people made their own culture in the past, enjoying more privileges than their darker kin but not the full civil rights of their white relatives. But with social barriers eroding over time, the Creoles (of color) now stand alone, as isolated as Raoul Carmier and his family.
POINT OF VIEW
Catherine Carmier demonstrates many of the difficulties of first novels and shows the promise of its author. Gaines chose to write this novel in third-person omniscient, often shifting into an approximation of first person as he moves among his characters. But Gaines hasn’t yet developed full control, so there are instances of editorializing, of the author’s intrusion into the text, to make sure that readers will fully know what his characters are thinking and feeling. Third-person omniscient can be quite effective because it allows the author to know what every character feels, thinks, and says. But Gaines also shows the influence of Ernest Hemingway, who perfected third-person dramatic, recording dialogue and gesture as if he were a camera. Because this narrative perspective is so objective, readers must draw their own conclusions. At this point in his career, Gaines had not yet found a balance between omniscience and dramatic rendering. The result in Catherine Carmier is an occasionally awkward joining of the two points of view, sometimes telling the reader precisely what to think and sometimes leaving the readers to draw their own conclusions. Gaines’s characters frequently need to convey a sense of paradox and uncertainty, but because he cannot trust his characters to accurately dramatize this, he adds to the text, piling up questions and contradictions instead of paring them down and using only gesture and implication. Though he uses gesture, especially eye contact, he also tells his readers what the gestures say, and this can at times lead to writing that Gaines himself would now find somewhat absurd. At one point, as Catherine and Jackson gaze upon each other, they share the following: ‘‘Then a little smile came on her mouth. It seemed to say—All right, nothing can come of our love, but we can like each other, can’t we? They can keep us apart but they can’t make us stop liking each other, can they?’’ (125).
Of course, this awkwardness is entirely unintentional. It indicates a writer still finding his own way. At this point, Gaines was still very much under the influence of writers like William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, and Ivan Turgenev. Gaines chose to model his first novel on Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons, whose structure, point of view, and plot line are repeated in Catherine Carmier. But having also come under the influence of Ernest Hemingway, with his use of simple sentences, repetitions, gesture, exploitation of silence and subtext, and sense of irony, Gaines cannot fulfill his ambitions. The result is a distance and lack of character development that cannot dramatically support his demanding thematic needs.
Jackson feels distant—as if he’s moving in a familiar yet strange landscape. Now twenty-two, he consistently checks his reactions—part of him recalling a sense of connection to the plantation and the people who have known him, especially Aunt Charlotte; and part of him rejecting a place where black people continue to be at the bottom of a social and economic scale, where there are few opportunities and skin color plays such a major role in dividing one member of the community from another. Because he has been gone for ten years and because he is college educated, he sees his home from a different perspective. It seems frozen in its old ways. At the same time, his experience in California has taught Jackson that while the forms of discrimination in Louisiana are open— if often unspoken—the same forms persist in California, where they are less direct. Jackson is looking for a place and a purpose, though he agrees with Madame Bayonne’s use of ‘‘dignity’’ and ‘‘truth’’ (81) as the objects of his search. In Louisiana, he can find neither. But at the same time, he recognizes that he won’t find them in California, either.
Catherine, like Jackson, is also estranged from her community, though for different reasons. Skin color has kept her separate from both white and black communities. Like her father and mother, Catherine is very light skinned, and because she will not be accepted by the white community, and her father opposes her relationship with anyone out of their extremely small Creole class, Catherine literally has no place other than the farm where she has grown to maturity. Still, she shares impulses with all young adults, desiring to find her own life while firmly tied into her parents’ relationship. Catherine, like Jackson, is full of contradictory desires.
Gaines attempts to give us insights into the minds of many of his characters in this novel, a technique he will perfect in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. But in Catherine Carmier he never establishes complete control, trying to maintain authorial distance and simultaneously bringing his characters’ hopes, desires, questions, and insecurities to his readers. While Gaines works hard to give his main characters individual voices, Jackson and Catherine actually speak in similar cadences and tones, with very few contrasting grammatical markers. The result is intermittent immediacy. When some of his characters speak, it is with authentic sounding approximations of colloquial language. At other times, the language will be quite formal, moving readers to the periphery of the action. The result is a distance between character and reader and some confusion as to the source of their inaction.
PLOT DEVELOPMENT AND STRUCTURE
There is little movement in this novel, all of the action taking place within a month. Elements precipitating action, however, lie in the region’s and characters’ past. Divided into three parts, Catherine Carmier moves in a linear progression, from Jackson’s arrival to his climactic fight with Raoul. Part One focuses on Jackson’s return, setting up the racial and economic tensions of the novel, especially through the comments of Lillian, Catherine’s sister, who maintains that Raoul’s world is dead, and Jackson, who concludes this section by rejecting the submissive religious notions he has been taught as ‘‘bourgeois farce’’ (100). This section ends with an image of death, as Jackson notes the effect of drought on the bean crop.
Part Two involves the painful wavering of both Jackson and Catherine as they struggle with their feelings for one another. Torn by loyalty to those who have raised them, they nevertheless manage to leave the plantation for brief periods. Away from the plantation, they can be intimate in a way that neither feels when at home. Jackson strives to find a way to tell his Aunt Charlotte that he doesn’t plan to remain on the plantation while she maintains hope that Jackson will return to the church. Instead of discussing their perspectives, both Jackson and Charlotte avoid conversation— even physical contact. Jackson also contends with feelings of emptiness, wanting to feel something. When he looks at the church/ school building at the end of this section, Jackson still lacks a sense of resolution and direction.
In Part Three, Raoul Carmier admits that he made a ‘‘mistake’’ in sending Lillian away to be educated by his family, but this does not mean he has abandoned his belief in caste distinctions. Indeed, in his climactic fist fight with Jackson, Raoul imagines that Jackson is Marky, Della’s son by her former lover, and his intensity suggests his level of desperation to maintain a status quo. While the male characters engage in the action, the female characters set it in motion. Lillian arranges for Jackson to meet Catherine, and Gaines gives Della the final word, telling Jackson that Catherine will eventually join him. This ending, however, is ambiguous, suggesting a union of Jackson and Catherine only as a possibility. Gaines has stated in subsequent interviews that Catherine ‘‘couldn’t exist outside of the South’’ (Lowe, 32), denying this textual possibility. Regardless of the novel’s ambiguities, Catherine Carmier is imbued with a sense of fatality, its characters terminating in counterbalance. In the end, Jackson, who signals change, stands at the Carmier house waiting for Catherine who ‘‘never comes’’ (248).
From the very outset of his career, Gaines has expressed a belief in form. Again and again he has stressed a novel’s structure over imaginative narrative. Certainly we see evidence of this in Catherine Carmier, which seems almost classical in its clean and simple structure. The few critics who have commented on this novel, however, note a certain imbalance between Jackson Bradley, the main character, and Catherine, the title character who plays only a supportive if highly significant role. Of course, Catherine represents important issues to her lover and father, but she carries little textual weight. This difficulty seems more a result of a novelist in the making than a thematic problem. Gaines has stated that initially the novel tended to focus more on the Carmier family and Catherine than on Jackson, and that her name became his title more out of a last minute decision than as a result of deliberation. (Lowe, 32).
Dialogue helps readers see and know characters. As many professional writers will say, dialogue is character. Jackson Bradley seems particularly tongue-tied during his visit, literally having nothing to say to most of the characters except for ‘‘How’ve you been?’’ (123). Much of this inability to speak derives from his confusion, and is thus a major means of conveying character. His return to Louisiana is literally and figuratively a crossroads, as he compares one region and all it represents to an unknown future. Setting his novel in the early sixties, with the Civil Rights Movement gaining momentum throughout the South, Gaines suggests a general state of flux. His references to Freedom Riders (black riders who affirmed their civil rights by refusing to sit in the back of the bus on interstate routes) implies that change is coming—even to this remote area of Louisiana, where traditions die slowly. Thus, Jackson notes changes in landscape, hears that the Cajuns have almost complete control over the farmland, and sees few opportunities for his contemporaries. Knowing that he will be held accountable for his language and knowing that what he says may be hurtful to people he cares about, he relies on silence.
Gaines gives us a profound sense of a character who is ‘‘empty,’’ (191) unable to feel a deep sense of connection to anyone or anything. Though modeled on Bazarov of Fathers and Sons, Jackson is not quite a nihilist, someone who believes in nothing. Although he has abandoned Aunt Charlotte’s religious convictions and lost faith in the myth of the North as a place where African Americans can be treated as equals, Jackson clearly wants to believe in something. Ironically, Jackson may represent change, as the Cajuns fear, but he never actually states his position. He talks to few characters, holding his lengthiest conversations with his former teacher, Madame Bayonne—conversations we are told focus on social and political changes but which we do not often hear. The result is reader speculation resting on very little firsthand evidence.
Aunt Charlotte represents the past, and here Gaines’s ability shows to better advantage. A devout woman whose life has conformed to her community, Aunt Charlotte has lived for Jackson, pinning all of her hopes on her great nephew, dreaming of his return which will reflect favorably on their family. Gaines will often have a character designated by the community as ‘‘the One,’’ usually a male character selected and groomed to become a leader. Though there is little evidence that the community has selected Jackson, there is no doubt that Charlotte has decided in his absence that Jackson will become the center of her community. Certainly, Charlotte affirms that he is the center of her life. Jackson, however, has decided not to remain in Louisiana even before he leaves California, but he cannot muster the courage to disappoint a woman he loves. And though she probably suspects the truth, Charlotte clings to her hope that Jackson will stay to teach school. These two characters, living in a small house, consciously time their exits and entrances to avoid discussion of what the other suspects. Charlotte’s character is profoundly conservative, valuing a continuation of the status quo rather than inviting change. The four-year-old calendar she places in Jackson’s room depicting Christ kneeling in the garden of Gethsemane summarizes her belief in submission to a higher power. Charlotte cannot challenge authority. Thus, she is alarmed when she momentarily believes that Jackson might be bringing a white woman home, and she is equally upset about Jackson’s love for Catherine. Like Raoul, she respects the caste system and works to perpetuate it.
Equally conservative is Raoul Carmier, a man whose social position is evaporating before him. Neither black nor white, Raoul is literally working himself to death on land he loves and simultaneously trying to retain his status based on color. The last remaining farmer who isn’t a Cajun, he has continued working the land at the expense of his family, from whom he is almost entirely estranged. Raoul scorns his wife and sisters, though they are the only acceptable company he can keep. He claims to love only Catherine, having emotionally abandoned his wife Della more than twenty years in the past. The tortured story of Della’s love affair with a dark-skinned man, the son from their relationship, the son’s death which is blamed on Raoul, and the disappearance of Della’s lover provide a formidable backdrop and constant warning to the black community. They should stay away from Raoul’s family. The community believes that Raoul has made Catherine his ‘‘wife,’’ noting his devotion to her and his jealousy of any suitors. What becomes increasingly clear is that Raoul is fighting a losing battle. He cannot compete with the Cajuns’ tractors, which allow them to efficiently farm more (and more productive) land, just as he cannot continue to compete with Catherine’s young suitors. Gaines has Raoul’s character equate Catherine to the land, so that in losing one, he appears to lose the other. In this complex equation resides one of the most delicate of Gaines’s thematic concerns dealing with intraracial prejudice. While Raoul’s reasons for maintaining a separate and exclusive status are clearly racist, his Creole status is the source of personal pride which forms the basis of his courage, determination, and tenacity, which are admirable. This fine distinction is pointed out to readers through Catherine and Della, whose love and admiration for Raoul remain constant, despite his obsessive behavior. Raoul’s climactic fight with Jackson shows a desperate move to prevent change, for in doing so, he is battling to maintain a clearly obsolete social system. But in fighting Jackson, Raoul also struggles to maintain what he knows to be the most admirable part of his character.
Catherine’s character is similar to Jackson’s in that she doesn’t tell us much about herself. We know from her actions that she sees herself as a buffer between her estranged parents and between her sister Lillian and her parents. This latter rupture has occurred after Raoul’s family insisted on raising Lillian as a Creole, having first assured themselves of her color. Taken away from her immediate family, Lillian has been taught to ‘‘hate black’’ (48) and to despise her mother for having violated the strict caste system. Unlike Lillian, who has already told Catherine that she plans to go north and pass for white, Catherine feels a deep if sometimes contradictory connection to her parents, the land, and even the black community. Even as a child, she has not fully accepted her father’s racist ideas. Though forbidden, she had made Jackson a guest in her house when they were children, and she shows few compunctions about resuming their friendship after his return. Indeed, she makes opportunities to have contact as their passions grow. Moreover, Catherine flouts Raoul’s authority by borrowing his car so that she and Jackson can escape the plantation and their families’ restrictive attitudes. Perhaps the most significant sign of Catherine’s rebellion from her father’s beliefs is her son Nelson. Her rejection of hatred suggests her largeness of spirit. Loving her parents and knowing their need for her presence, Catherine realizes that she cannot remain with Raoul and Della indefinitely, though she admires her father’s determination so much that she refuses to abandon him. We see a degree of loyalty in her character, a loyalty others rely upon and that binds her to some practices in which she clearly doesn’t believe, namely status based on color. Above all, Catherine wants people to care for each other, but she never directly expresses personal desires.
Since she is the title character, we tend to look closely at Catherine, for she suggests the thematic and narrative center of this novel. Gaines clearly wants us to admire Catherine, who has not succumbed to Raoul’s racist attitudes. Even as a child, Catherine has moved easily among both Creoles and blacks, cultivating friendships at a distance. Partly this is self-protective, since she doesn’t want to anger her father. But in protecting Raoul, in ensuring his devotion, is she self-destructive? Does she perpetuate a caste system in which she doesn’t believe? Is she in danger of remaining her father’s child though she is a grown woman? Lillian, who clearly believes the time has come for her sister to have her own life, encourages Jackson’s attentions because she wants to undermine Raoul’s seeming control of Catherine. And Catherine clearly plans to leave with Jackson as she steps over the threshold of her parents’ home with Nelson in her arms. Only her father’s knocking her aside stops her until Jackson shows signs of fighting Raoul. And in his inevitable defeat,Raoul relinquishes Catherine, telling her to go with Jackson. Then, she refuses: ‘‘It’s not over with, Daddy. You have stood this long. You can keep on standing. I’ll stand beside you’’ (244). Her language tells readers that Raoul stands for more than maintaining attitudes; he inspires his daughter’s loyalty because of his pride.
Gaines invests yet another female character with an important role in this novel. Madame Bayonne, Jackson’s former teacher, seems to possess almost omniscient knowledge about plantation people and events. Named for the nearby town, a town that will come to occupy a central position in Gaines’s fiction, Madame Bayonne tells both Jackson and readers almost everything we know about Raoul. She not only has insight into his relationship with Della and Catherine, she also recognizes the socioeconomic ramifications of Raoul’s Creole status. Moreover, she is unequivocal in pointing out the responsibility of white men. Able to read characters at a glance, Madame Bayonne possesses an understanding so formidable that many characters avoid talking to her. With her almost comprehensive grasp of both her community and the larger world outside, Madame Bayonne offers Jackson an alternative means of dealing with the realities he encounters, in other words a means of living within a confining system without surrendering himself to it (Byerman, 69). He might come to occupy, as she does, a central place within the community, even while maintaining a distance. Readers might note how Gaines suggests Madame Bayonne’s detachment by looking closely at her house, separated from others by a wall of flowers and shrubs.
This brings us to the thematic heart of Catherine Carmier, for while Gaines may not have full control of point of view, he may be too much under the shadow of Hemingway, and though his characterization sometimes seems thin and his control heavy handed, his thematic development is extremely complex. With his opening scene in Catherine Carmier, Gaines gives readers a deep sense of social stratification, with Brother entering a store/post office and accepting as a matter of course the rude behavior of Claude, the white man behind the counter. The Cajuns outside have shared in the rudeness, attributing it to heat, but Brother must endure a sweeping kind of anger, one directed not so much at him as an individual but at an entire class of resident. Claude looks at Brother, swears, and says, ‘‘Why the hell can’t y’all come out here the same time.Look like the hotter it get the more you niggers want to bother people’’ (3–4). This scene efficiently establishes a number of issues Gaines will weave into his narrative: racial stratification and its effects upon his characters, regional economic issues, and attitudes toward social change.
Racial stratification is never simple, and Gaines does not treat this issue in only black and white terms because racial mixing is such a significant part of Louisiana heritage. Nineteenth-century America was a rich stew of nationalities which were often termed ‘‘races.’’ Thus, the Irish were considered an inferior ‘‘race’’ by the English, and Mediterranean people such as Italians also occupied a position in a racial hierarchy which involved virtually everyone—willingly or not. Because the population of south Louisiana was so diverse—already inhabited by Native Americans, it was explored, claimed, and settled by both Spanish and French before its purchase by the United States from France attracted the Acadians and other nationalities—a good deal of mixing went on. The presence of Africans merely increased the possibilities. Miscegenation, the mixing of races, was, in fact, commonplace in the American South, often occurring when white property owners raped or simply appropriated black women for sexual purposes. The children of these relationships were deemed ‘‘black’’ because in a legal anomaly practiced only in the United States, children of slave women followed the ‘‘condition of the mothers.’’ Everywhere else, of course, children belonged to their fathers. Children of interracial relationships did, too, only more literally than other children. They were the legal property of their fathers. Sometimes, though, relationships between owner and slave were based on love, with white fathers freeing their children and giving them property. This class grew and became known as ‘‘free people of color,’’ or Creoles.
In a culture placing such value on skin color and parentage, everyone is bound to be affected. When Gaines injects the story of how the Carmiers came to inhabit the large house of the white overseer, it is to personalize what has happened and emphasize its meaning. Robert Carmier, Raoul’s father, asks Mack Grover for the house. ‘‘What color are you?’’ Mack asks, and Robert claims that he is ‘‘colored’’ (8). Mack offers another, presumably smaller, house, and Robert engages in a standoff: ‘‘He had come up there as a man would come up to a man, and he had asked for the house as a man should ask for a house’’ (9). Robert, in fact, engages Mack as an equal, not as a subservient, as the emphasis on the word ‘‘man’’ suggests. Because he is dealing with the ‘‘best’’ of the Grovers, meaning the one most tolerant in his racial views,Robert gets the house and selects the moving date. But all residents of the plantation do not share Grover’s views, as two subsequent acts dramatize.
Robert’s belief that he is equal to a white man plays a role in his decision to separate himself from the black community. If he cannot be white, he refuses to be ‘‘black,’’ determined not to accept the inferior status it carries in the South. Thus, he separates himself from the entire black community from the very beginning. On moving day, when the bridge to the house breaks, Robert refuses help from the black community, using only family members to haul furniture. His insistence upon his family’s separation is reinforced by two subsequent images that will play a role throughout this novel: the trees and shrubbery isolating the Carmier house and the gates that must be opened and closed when any family member enters or exits the property. These physical barriers alert Robert’s immediate neighbors to stay away, and indeed there are almost no uninvited guests at the Carmier home. Robert’s actions, however, are self-defeating, just as they are in the wider community, because in rebuffing assistance, he becomes an easy target for the Cajuns, who look upon Robert as their most threatening competition.
When Robert beats a Cajun to the cane derrick, he disproves the widespread belief that all white men are superior to all black men. Indeed, Robert’s sense of competitiveness publicly illustrates what the men of the quarters privately admit: that he is a very capable man. But since black people keep Cajuns from the bottom of the social scale, Cajuns cannot publicly recognize equality. Thus, the Cajun reacts violently when Robert insists that he ‘‘come in front’’ (13), again establishing equal ground. Since the Cajun doesn’t operate that way, he works secretively to murder Robert. Robert’s ‘‘disappearance’’ and the hasty move by his survivors out of the big house suggests the terrorist tactics of the Ku Klux Klan and other organizations that worked to maintain a subservient status for African Americans. There is no investigation, suggesting official collusion and reinforcing the belief that black claims to equality, of whatever shade, will result in death.
Raoul inherits his father’s position, standing apart and working very hard to assert a manhood that will be denied him, not for what he can do but for what others perceive him to be. As in his father’s case, the separation that Raoul insists upon changes no attitudes; it isolates him. Obsessed with proving his manhood, he becomes self-defeating. Alone, he tries to make his farm as productive as the Cajuns’. This obsession becomes a repetition of the John Henry story, pitting man against machine. Raoul has almost become an automaton, a human machine, working from light to light in a losing contest, driven by pride to prove his ability in a culture that will judge by skin color first. More importantly, as subsequent novels by Gaines will dramatize, Raoul’s inability to see any value in the black community will escalate his defeat. Raoul’s claim to racial superiority mirrors that of the white community, and in so doing suggests not merely the internalization of white values but their self-destructive capability. What Gaines will do in all of his work is to insist on ‘‘the democracy of color among African-Americans’’ (Griffin, 44).
The black community shows a willingness to accept the Carmiers, despite their solitariness. Aunt Charlotte’s disapproval of Jackson’s relationship with Catherine seems to rise more from her fear of Raoul’s reaction than a sense of social separation. Just as the white community punishes sexual transgressions with lynching, Raoul has apparently murdered Della’s lover, and Charlotte rightly fears further violence. But this nevertheless serves to reinforce a belief in a social hierarchy. Unwilling to analyze the end results of continuing to make social and racial distinctions, she is fearful of change.
Racial stratification is a part of southern economics, rising as it does from slavery. For labor intensive crops such as rice, sugarcane, and cotton, large human work forces were needed, but machines developed to supplant or increase human efficiency make substantial work forces obsolete. Still, for a long time after the Civil War, the southern agricultural economy remained dependent upon a large, low-wage labor force. The people, already in place, developed into communities that reflected much the same values as they had during slavery. Gaines’s novels will often direct reader attention to social changes that occur in the wake of mechanization, charting the death of a way of life that had its own rich beauty despite its economic poverty. With tractors making the Cajun farmers more productive, black farmers are literally dispossessed of the only way of life they have known. Worse, they are forced to leave their families for work in urban areas. This, in turn, depletes the rural community of its youth, the old people remaining much as the novel suggests. The way of life that in part draws Jackson home is dying, and along with it the traditions of communal values that allowed people to survive.
Gaines is not sentimental about an economic system that perpetuates poverty for a large segment of people. But he does paint a landscape in which shared labor created strong human bonds, a sense of communal responsibility, such as we see in Mary Louise’s caring for Aunt Charlotte and Brother’s voluntary collection of welfare checks. As rural jobs disappear, so will successive generations, depleting the communities of their vigor until they quite literally die, and with them the intimate understanding that comes with sharing a common heritage. More significant, though, is the perpetual issue of human value in the face of technology. What happens to humans and human values when confronted with unfeeling efficiency?
With the economy changing and the accompanying population shifts, the characters of Catherine Carmier are forced to confront their own attitudes toward social change. Much of this is done indirectly, since there is considerable resistance to any acknowledgement of civil rights activities. The Cajuns speculate on whether Jackson might be one of ‘‘them demonstrate people’’ (7), and Brother is cautiously evasive for good reason. But the novel’s focus rests on the Carmier house and its inhabitants. When Lillian first arrives, she asks Catherine ‘‘what’s wrong’’ with their house (46), and continues by exclaiming over her education in hating because they derive from the same cause: discrimination on the basis of color. Lillian’s plan to ‘‘pass’’ for white shows a recognition of the passing of Creole status, but it nevertheless remains a part of racial distinctions. She aligns herself with Raoul, Charlotte, and Raoul’s sisters in continuing to make distinctions.
Jackson and Catherine, on the other hand, move more easily among all groups. In fact, when they are off the plantation, they are quite easy with one another, suggesting it’s the continuation of obsolete attitudes that restricts their language—and love. This freedom, as Jackson knows, is relative, and it is not limited to the South. Wherever he goes, Jackson seeks ‘‘dignity’’ and ‘‘truth,’’ but he has recognized that he’s not alone in this quest, that all races are seeking the same goal.
In writing about a common human struggle for truth and dignity, Ernest Gaines stands apart from many African American writers of his generation such as John A. Williams, James Baldwin, and John O. Killens, who generally focused their works of the l950s and 1960s on the ‘‘terrors and hopes’’ of being a young black male in America (Baker, 16). These fears increased to a literary militancy that Gaines’s fiction includes but does not emphasize. Instead, his fiction will come much closer to the ordinary reality of human existence by expressing a variety of attitudes toward social change. The two educated characters of Catherine Carmier, Jackson and Madame Bayonne, clearly grasp the inevitable if slow onset of change. Madame Bayonne tells Jackson that she can remain on the plantation as long as she ‘‘keeps her nose clean’’ (78), suggesting howwell she understands the role of silence in maintaining the attitudes of the past. The characters’ preference for living with secrets rather than acknowledging truth plays a significant role in this novel and is an insightful comment on human resistence to change. Unlike his contemporaries, who largely condemned those who resisted social change, Gaines shows remarkable understanding and sympathy to characters fearful of and knowledgeable about the often violent consequences of altering the status quo. His fictional treatment is marked by nuance and ambiguity instead of militant rhetoric and violence. By embracing all the races, Gaines distinguishes himself from his contemporaries, who largely depict America in stark black and white terms. Recognizing the complexity of racism and its insidious effects upon everyone, Gaines’s rendering of his ideas brought him criticism which he largely ignored in favor of his own artistic vision.
A FEMINIST READING
It’s very unlikely that Ernest Gaines was writing for a literary critic when he wrote Catherine Carmier, and he certainly was not writing with a feminist critic in mind. Like most theoretical approaches, feminist criticism can be both complex and difficult to define. What follows is a brief history and working definition. Some feminist critics trace its beginning as a critical approach to Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own (1919). Woolf points out that men, who control political, economic, social, and literary institutions, define what it means to be female. But great minds, she maintained, share both male and female characteristics. A female literary genius, Woolf maintained, would be possible if women writers had not only financial resources and a room of their own but also teachers, scholars, and critics to show the way (Bressler, 104). Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex (1949) is often held to be another important text in feminist criticism. Beginning with the premise that French culture and, in fact, all western cultures are patriarchal, Beauvoir reiterated Woolf’s observation that males get to define the female. But she went further, pointing out that because they get to define the meaning of women, men see women as Other and thus hardly see women at all. Women, then, become nonexistent in cultural institutions, including religion, government, and education. Beauvoir went on to encourage women to define themselves, to become significant human beings in their own right (104). Ultimately, feminist criticism would draw upon both texts and develop three differing strains—French, American, and British—each reflecting the intellectual training of the academic system.
While French feminists primarily concentrate on the exploration of language as it reflects and influences the way we think about ourselves and our world, American feminists tend to focus largely on such textual issues as voice, tone, and theme. British feminist critics often find the American approach too text bound. Their approach tends to pay more attention to political and historical details. They want to place texts within the historical conditions that create them. Thus, their critical approach features an interest in historical process as it promotes social change. Because of his recreation of a unified society within a particular time frame, because he often focuses on the theme of change as it affects all aspects of life, and because he often features female characters, Gaines’s work lends itself more to a British theoretical approach than an American one, and less so to a French one. But adding an American theoretical perspective to the British one can only add to the richness of a discussion.
We can begin with Gaines’s use of female characters and the attitudes expressed by and through them. In selecting Catherine as his title character, Gaines—however accidentally—throws readers’ focus on a remarkably passive character. Admired throughout the community for her beauty and her kindness, Catherine seems bound to the traditions that limit both her role and place. She appears to have little independent sense of Self, contented to remain with her parents, though she is twenty-two years old and the mother of a two-year-old son. In this respect, she represents the middle-class values of her parents and the larger society of the early 1960s. Were it not for the living reminder of Nelson, readers might accept her as a conventional female character. But Catherine’s sexual maturity and her rebellion from middle-class sexual values are explicit in her son.
Catherine finds herself in a dying world, one in which she serves both supporting and symbolic roles. To Raoul she is a reminder of his life before his love for Della mutated. She is more his child than her mother’s. Indeed, he gives her the ‘‘easier’’ housework while Della works alongside him (like a man) in the field. And to Jackson, Catherine becomes a ‘‘light,’’ a symbolic guide for his lost soul. That both men see her in stereotypical and dependent terms says much about their time and society. Catherine wears a pink dress selected and purchased for herby Raoul, the color and style suggesting both her immature dependence on him and his gender stereotyping. Later in the novel, Jackson, trying to decide on a gift for Catherine, determines a doll as an appropriate token of his love. Both dress and doll underscore male notions of female immaturity. Further, both Raoul and Jackson assert possession of Catherine, as if she were chattel, with the winner of their climactic fight claiming her as a prize. When Gaines has Della call Jackson the ‘‘hero,’’ he emphasizes a belief in male privilege.
This kind of stereotypical and conventional treatment of female character is undercut, however, by their rebellion. All of the Carmier women, seemingly submissive and passive, determine their lives. Della has chosen to remain with Raoul out of love instead of economic dependence, as she makes clear to Jackson at the end of the novel. Her extramarital love affair with a dark-skinned man suggests a woman capable of flouting convention. Della may conform to Raoul’s commands that she separate herself from the black community, and she may accept his punishment of her infidelity, but her presence also serves as a continual reminder of Raoul’s deficiencies as a man and father.
Lillian has also determined her future. Though she has been a hostage to Raoul’s racist attitudes, raised by his family in New Orleans, she has already seen that the Creole world is obsolete, though not before internalizing its values. Thus, she finds herself actively hating the black community and suspicious of the white. Her character reflects the damage that racist values inflict, but she is redeemed by her candor. More than any other character in Catherine Carmier, Lillian expresses her views and is active in promoting her agenda, especially in trying to separate Catherine from her parents. The text insists, perhaps too much, upon Lillian’s ‘‘sincerity.’’ But the repetition of this word also implies that Lillian acts not merely in her own interest. Lillian therefore becomes not merely a supporting figure in this novel but one to be examined very closely.
While Gaines may use female characters in fairly stereotypical ways, he nevertheless imbues them with strength and integrity, characteristics relatively atypical of fictional females of the early 1960s. Jackson and Raoul’s limiting ideas of the roles women play in their lives accurately reflects the patriarchy of the South and its effects upon the whole, for these male characters know all too well their place and the personal effects of social hierarchy. Members of the white power structure, suggested by characters racing a speed boat up and down the river merely for entertainment and by the drunken figure of Bud Grover, seem oblivious to the struggles for survival of those beneath them. But the creator of Catherine Carmier remains sympathetic to the whole of the community. Instead of a polemic message, Gaines leaves readers with a profound sense of loss, not because of lost innocence but because of lost opportunities. In this respect, he stands above many of his peers.
Davis, Thadious M. ‘‘Headlands and Quarters. Louisiana in Catherine Carmier.’’ Callaloo 7.2 (1984): 1–13.
Griffin, Joseph. ‘‘Creole and Singaleese: Disruptive Caste in Catherine Carmier and A Gathering of Old Men.’’ Critical Reflections on the Fiction of Ernest J. Gaines. Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 1994.
Review of Catherine Carmier. New York Times Book Review, 14 June 1981: 86.
Review of Catherine Carmier. New York Times Literary Supplement, 10 February 1966: 97.
Stoelting, Winifred L. ‘‘Human Dignity and Pride in the Novels of Ernest Gaines.’’ College Language Association Journal 14 (1971): 340–58.
WORKS ABOUT ERNEST GAINES
Babb, Valerie Melissa. Ernest Gaines. Boston: Twain, 1991.
Bevers, Herman. Wrestling Angels into Song: The Fictions of Ernest J. Gaines and James Alan McPherson. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995.
Bryant, Jerry H. ‘‘Ernest J. Gaines: Change, Growth, and History.’’ Southern Review 10 (1984): 851–64.
———. ‘‘From Death to Life: The Fiction of Ernest J. Gaines.’’ Iowa Review 3:1 (1972): 106–20.
Byerman, Keith E. Fingering the Jagged Edge: Tradition and Form in Recent Black Fiction. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1985.
Estes, David C., ed. Critical Reflections on the Fiction of Ernest J. Gaines. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1994.
Folks, Jeffrey J. ‘‘Ernest Gaines and the New South.’’ Southern Literary Journal 24.1 (1991): 32–46.
Greene, J. Lee. ‘‘The Pain and the Beauty: The South, the Black Writer and Conventions of the Picaresque.’’ The American South: Portrait of a Culture. Edited by Louis D. Rubin, Jr. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1980.
Hicks, Jack. ‘‘To Make These Bones Live: History and Community in Ernest Gaines’s Fiction.’’ Black American Literature Forum 11 (1977): 9–19.
Lowe, John, ed. Conversations with Ernest Gaines. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1995. Rowell, Charles H. ‘‘Ernest J. Gaines: A Checklist, 1964–1978.’’ Callaloo 1.3 (1978): 125–31.
———. ‘‘The Quarters: Ernest Gaines and the Sense of Place.’’ Southern Review 21 (1985): 733–50.
Shelton, Frank W. ‘‘A Gaines Gold Rush: A Review Essay.’’ The Southern Quarterly 34.3 (1996): 149–51.
Source: Carmean, Karen. Ernest J. Gaines: A Critical Companion. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, 1998