Critical Analysis of Ernest J. Gaines’s Of Love and Dust

Of Love and Dust (1967) continues Gaines’s favorite themes, including the unequal distribution of wealth, race and caste, and the conflict between the past and change. Marcus Payne, awaiting trial for killing a man in a knife fight, is ‘‘bonded out’’ to plantation owner Marshall Hebert. Defiant from the outset, Marcus recognizes the practice as another form of slavery and announces his intentions to escape after his trial. Meanwhile, he is put to work in the fields and harassed by Sidney Bonbon, the white overseer who attempts to break his spirit. Marcus believes himself to be equal— if not superior—to Bonbon, an uneducated Cajun. To prove this to himself, he attempts to seduce Pauline Guerin, Bonbon’s longtime mistress and love.

But when Pauline rebuffs his attempts, Marcus determines an alternate means of illustrating his manhood. He turns to Bonbon’s neglected white wife, Louise. This act is the ultimate violation of race codes, which freely allowed white men sexual liaisons with black women but sentenced any black man to death for having been accused of sexual transgression (imagined or real) with a white woman. Marcus’s actions threaten plantation order. Only the narrator, Jim Kelly, seems to grow into understanding the delicate situation before him and what really motivates Marcus. If white culture denies him status as a worker, Marcus will demonstrate his masculine superiority through his seduction of his tormentors’ women.


For his second novel, Gaines chose a first-person narrator, thirty-three-year-old Jim Kelly. He says that the story needed ‘‘a guy who could communicate with different sides, with the most conservative as well as the most militant. And . . . he must be able to learn to love, to try to understand’’ (Lowe, 107). Kelly’s voice unifies, explains, edits, and directs reader attention. Because he cannot be present throughout all of the story’s action, his narrative is supplemented by eyewitness accounts of others. This tactic enriches the novel by adding voices and drawing on Gaines’s rich use of colloquial language. Thus, Kelly becomes the spokesman for everyone—black and white. His humane, often comic commentary, brings a fresh perspective to a potentially melodramatic situation.

Kelly, a plantation tractor driver, becomes an initially unwilling monitor for Marcus when Bonbon assigns him to drive Marcus to Baton Rouge to pick up his belongings. Bonbon also assigns Marcus the room adjoining Kelly’s. But the person most responsible for making him Marcus’s caretaker is the elderly lady who raised him, Miss Julie Rand. A former cook at the Hebert plantation, Miss Julie has asked Hebert to pay Marcus’s bond, and now she asks Kelly to watch over him. Affirming that Marcus is a ‘‘good boy,’’ despite his rude behavior, Miss Julie draws an unwilling but honest commitment from Jim.

Critical Analysis of Ernest J. Gaines’s Catherine Carmier

Unlike Jackson Bradley of Catherine Carmier, Kelly changes during the text as he grows to understand Marcus’s position. And it is not an easy position to understand since Marcus seems completely self-centered, stubborn, and obstinate to the point of stupidity. Rude and arrogant, he shows contempt and suspicion when Jim feeds him and gives advice. He insults Jim and others, completely ignoring plantation conventions as if he is exempt from all rules. Marcus threatens the order of the plantation community, which remains both incredulous and censorious of his actions. But because Jim is a man of his word, and because he is ultimately influenced by Marcus, he perseveres and attempts to put the whole story together in a retrospective. Wherever he is and whatever he is doing when he tells his story, Jim respects the potential for change that Marcus inspires.

Gaines further enriches the point of view by stressing silence. Again, what people don’t say, or what they think as opposed to what they say, plays a significant role. Often, Jim will listen to one speaker and interpret an alternate meaning, having learned to read nuance and indirection. And when Jim hears nothing, he must tell us its particular meaning, for the absence of sound also shifts with its context. Thus Gaines’s novel is remarkably economical, spare in its use of words, but rich in the implication of language.


As in his first novel, Gaines structures Of Love and Dust in three parts, the first establishing character, setting, conflict, and major images. Sitting on the front porch (gallery) of his house, Kelly sees dust coming toward him, and with it the injection of Marcus into his life. Part One takes place during the first week of Marcus’s residence on the plantation. It details his rebellious—often contemptuous—attitude and the responses of other plantation residents as they anticipate the trouble he will cause them. Ending with a comically recalled fistfight, Part One also concludes with a small but significant shift of Jim’s attitude. Instead of believing in Marcus’s ultimate conformity, he now believes that Marcus’s spirit will not be broken.

Part Two begins by noting the day and time that Marcus first looks at Bonbon’s wife, Louise, before Jim backs up his narrative to fill in some information. This strategy, which approximates spoken language by circling back to let readers know background, signifies that Jim is ‘‘telling’’ his story to someone. Another indicator that will recur is his question, ‘‘would that have done any good?’’ (135). We know that Jim is haunted by Marcus, that he feels as if he should have done more to help him. And yet his recurring question also suggests his sense of futility, that nothing would have changed events. In this section we begin to see Marcus’s character change, along with Jim’s, whose character becomes fuller, more introspective, and less self-satisfied. And Gaines also raises the levels of complexity in the two love affairs, illustrating Bonbon’s devotion to Pauline and the shift from lust to affection between Marcus and Louise. Frightened by what he sees, Jim continues to encourage conformity to the system of interracial relationships, the complexity and hypocrisy of which few challenge.

In Part Three, the focus broadens, like a pullback camera shot, and readers come to recognize the full ramifications of Marcus’s rebellion and the nature of the society he threatens. Thus far, throughout the story, Marcus has inspired anger and fear; now readers see that he challenges an entire social system. Marcus and Louise, emboldened by their love, plan to escape. Meanwhile, Marshall Hebert offers to assist them if Marcus will kill Bonbon, who, having murdered two men for Hebert in the past, has been stealing from him since. Marcus must seem to agree with Hebert, though he doesn’t plan to murder Bonbon. By now, Jim begins to see not only the role of conformity in perpetuating the plantation system but also the heroic possibility of Marcus and Louise’s actions. More significantly, he doesn’t blame Marcus any longer. Instead, he comes to see the active—if subtle—role Hebert plays in pitting black against white, Marcus against Bonbon. He correctly sees Hebert’s role in orchestrating both the court verdict of justifiable homicide at Marcus’s trial as well as Bonbon’s execution of Marcus. In other words, he recognizes Hebert’s control not only of the legal system but also the extralegal system that works to maintain the status quo. Jim’s final action of the novel suggests his refusal to collude in continuing this unjust system.

The novel’s title signifies its major tensions, with dust taking on organizing, suggestive possibilities. Gaines has said that to his mind dust suggests the reverse of love: ‘‘Dust is death’’ (Lowe, 35). Marcus arrives and dies in a cloud of dust. All of the dust in the quarters implies the lack of value placed on its residents, who seem as common and as constant as dust. Plantation owner Marshall Hebert generally arrives and departs in a cloud of dust, signaling the deaths for which he is responsible. Moreover, dust literally and figuratively impairs vision. As long as enough dusts stirs, no one can see Hebert’s real role. And since Gaines believes that his characters are determined by society and their environment, dust clouds the thinking of the residents, making Marcus, the outsider whose vision has not yet been blurred, able to see more clearly than people who exist on the plantation (Lowe, 34).


Jim Kelly’s character is important because as the story’s narrator, he needs to establish his honesty. At thirty-three, he’s old enough to have experienced much of what life has to offer a black man in the restrictive South; yet Jim has learned to move within the system. He describes himself as a man with an eighth-grade education and a sitting-down job. Having established a degree of trust with Sidney Bonbon, Jim nevertheless understands the limits of Bonbon’s tolerance. He knows all too well how Bonbon will interpret certain behavior, and he can anticipate with accuracy what Bonbon will do. In fact, Jim’s position in the community is central without being an integral part. He has only been on the plantation for three years, giving him something of an outside perspective. But the Hebert plantation is run no differently than other southern plantations in 1947, and thus is a microcosm of the South. Jim sees quite a lot, much of which he disapproves. But he has the good sense born of caution that makes him withhold his judgment—at least around other characters.

He gives readers (and listeners) a good deal of information in drawing the characters involved in his narrative, his insight powerful, his implication clear, if only one listens closely. For instance, he doesn’t say that John and Freddie, who work with him in the field, are homosexual, but their actions—giggling, slapping one another, whispering—are quite revealing. Moreover, Jim makes a distinction between ‘‘looking at’’ and ‘‘watching.’’ The former suggests overt eye contact, noticeable but without intended action; the latter implies a continuous action with some intent. Thus, readers will be well-advised to look closely at Jim’s language because the meanings can be subtle and significant. These language subtleties suggest an intelligence to be admired.

Still, Jim doesn’t have a very high opinion of himself. This is due partly to his having accepted his place on the Hebert plantation and the denial of human value his place implies. Everywhere he turns, Jim is reminded that he is less than a white man. He calls attention to the entrances and exits restricted according to color and status, as well as a strict code of behavior. Though he resents going to the ‘‘nigger room’’ in the plantation store, he does not actively protest it. Instead, he will rationalize his acceptance of this racist practice by saying he’s too thirsty or tired to do otherwise. Jim’s relatively low opinion of himself may also relate to having been abandoned by his wife, Billie Jean, when he couldn’t afford the material comforts she demanded. Jim’s tender, sexual reveries suggest a level of passionate engagement absent from his present life. But his passive response of her actions also suggests his sense of fatality.

Jim’s hopeless acceptance of the system causes Marcus to accuse him of being a ‘‘whitemouth,’’ in other words, voicing the opinions of the people in charge. While Jim hotly denies this, Marcus’s words sting with truth Jim hasn’t yet confronted. To his credit, he takes into consideration Marcus’s accusation, and his level of comfort shifts. When he accompanies Bonbon and Pauline to Baton Rouge, he refuses to secure a room for them, admitting that he participates in events: ‘‘The Old Man [God] didn’t have a thing in the world to do with it. It was me—it was my face’’ (148). But while rejecting the situation as part of a Divine Plan, he sees himself as a cosmic target: ‘‘Anybody who sees this face feels like he ought to use it’’ (148). Jim’s sense of fatality suggests his sense of helplessness, that he has no power to alter events.

But while he has a fatalistic view, Jim nevertheless progresses to accepting some responsibility even while he continues to caution Marcus to follow the direction of others, accept his status, and serve his time. When Marcus challenges Jim with the question, ‘‘Where would people be if they didn’t take a chance?’’ (248–49) followed by the story of his education, Jim finally connects with Marcus: ‘‘I felt empty because I doubted if I believed in anything, either’’ (253). Now able to see how much they share, Jim begins to admire Marcus’s differences, particularly his ‘‘great courage’’ (270). Marcus’s challenge to authority, which has inspired fear and anger, now makes Jim ‘‘more proud of Marcus’’ (271). Thus, when Hebert encourages Jim to leave the plantation and offers a letter of recommendation as payment for silence, Jim refuses. He no longer wants a white warrant of approval, particularly not one from a morally corrupt source. Jim strikes out in his own direction.

President Obama presents the 2012 National Medals of Arts to Ernest J. Gaines in a ceremony in the East Room of the White House.

He owes his liberation from the shackles of a slave mentality to Marcus, whose example seems problematic at best. Gaines sought to create in Marcus a character who would send shock waves through the system. We see Marcus’s rebellious nature overtly through his dress and behavior. Jim’s patience is tried over and over by Marcus’s unwillingness to conform to plantation life, beginning with his clothes. Against Jim’s advice, Marcus refuses to change his city clothes for sturdy khaki work-clothes worn by plantation field hands. By refusing the uniform, Marcus announces his conviction that he is unlike other workers. And he is. Marcus’s constant refusal to dress like everyone makes his individuality conspicuous, and his actions are consistent with his dress.

His choice takes considerable courage because Marcus is subjected to what can only be described as slave breaking (Babb, 70). Frederick Douglass was perhaps the first to accurately describe the practice which attempts to break the human spirit through demanding physical labor in his Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. Marcus’s experience is similar to Douglass’s in that he is told to perform a task for which he has neither experience nor instruction. And then he is put under very close scrutiny. Anticipating the level of physical discomfort that will come with the assigned labor, Jim makes sure that Marcus has the easiest row of corn to pick, not that there is such a thing as a truly ‘‘easy’’ row on a plantation. All the work is hard, and the physical conditions only make it worse. The weather can be particularly oppressive. In fact, the intense heat of a late south Louisiana summer becomes an active character in this novel. Throughout the novel, Gaines calls careful attention to the reality of physical conditions, and shows how it is used to control behavior.

Marcus manages to maintain a diminished pace during the morning harvest. Just as his energy is exhausted in the afternoon, when the temperature is most intense, Bonbon arrives to remind Marcus of the realities of their relationship. Placing his horse behind Marcus, close enough so that Marcus can feel the horse’s breath on his neck, Bonbon stays behind him, not giving him a chance to recover from exhaustive, repetitive labor. Bonbon’s tactics are designed for maximum intimidation, as his position atop his horse suggests. And just in case Marcus has any doubts about his authority, Bonbon shoots a hawk to illustrate his power. Marcus struggles through his first week and looks forward to a day of recovery. But he is assigned Saturday afternoon labor which Hebert indicates might continue on Sundays, too—at least until Marcus decides to do Hebert’s bidding. Hebert’s attempts to turn Marcus into some form of work animal bring tears, suggestive of Marcus’s struggling feelings. They do not, however, alter his character.

Marcus’s character is perplexing to everyone. From the very first, he offends. Jim is especially put off by his refusal to accept responsibility for the murder he committed. Marcus has killed another black man over a woman, and firmly maintains that he acted in self-defense. Gaines focuses our attention on two key issues here: Marcus’s shallow, purely sexual valuation of women, which is in keeping with all of his other selfserving actions; and his accurate interpretation of a social system in which the lives of black men have no value. When Marcus affirms that his victim ‘‘was nothing,’’ he is simply stating the obvious and accepted attitude. And he consistently notes the hypocrisy of the legal system that chooses to punish him for eliminating someone who doesn’t hold status as a man. But while the social system denies his manhood, Marcus finds a means of affirming himself.

Intent on living as a man, he finds the most obvious way of doing so through his sexuality. Thus, he sets out to seduce Pauline Guerin because she is the most desirable woman on the plantation. Later, he will strike Pauline, not because she refuses him but because she responds to Marcus like ‘‘she had seen the devil himself’’ (118). In other words, Pauline does not respond to him as a man but a monster—something less than human. Only then does Marcus begin thinking of seducing Louise as a means of revenge on Bonbon. Though aware that his choice probably means death, he chooses to live as a man on his own terms. What he doesn’t anticipate, however, is learning to feel for a human being other than himself. To his own surprise, Marcus actually falls in love, valuing Louise’s devotion and seeing her situation similar to his: ‘‘She much slave here as I was’’ (261). He tries to free Louise at the cost of his own life.

Marcus’s heroism is partly due to sheer stubbornness, a quality that can be both irritating and heroic. Gaines emphasizes Marcus’s individual stature in many ways, but they all come together in a key scene when Marcus goes to see Marshall Hebert. Though he uses the back door, Marcus omits the ‘‘Mister’’ when asking to see Hebert. Refused entry by Hebert’s valet, Bishop, Marcus pushes ‘‘his foot . . . in the house slavery built’’ (215), and conducts his conversation with Hebert as an equal. The outrage that Bishop expresses suggests how deeply he has internalized Hebert’s values as well as his blindness to the damage of continuing this system. Somehow, maintaining the house ‘‘slavery built’’ has become as important to Bishop as to Hebert—perhaps more important since Bishop’s anger is fiercer than Hebert’s.

But Hebert needs Marcus and knows how to use him. As has been mentioned, Hebert is most often seen in a cloud of dust, part of a deliberately vague strategy of characterization. Everyone except Marcus and— much later—Jim is unable to see him and his actions clearly. What we come to understand about this character is through interpreting actions witnessed at a distance and often obscured by obstacles. Gaines’s use of distance and indirection increases the sense of ambiguity about Hebert, but this character’s association with dust suggests his true nature. We know Hebert to be manipulative, not because of established fact but rather through rumor. Noting that he is an alcoholic and his brother, Bradford, a gambler, we grasp a sense of the family’s moral decay, a deterioration that seems to accelerate with time. Late in the novel, we will be told that Hebert has probably arranged for Bonbon to murder a gambler who has insisted on collecting Bradford’s debts. Though Bonbon is responsible for only one murder, we are given the impression that he also orchestrated the fight which killed the gambler threatening Hebert. Through the years, Bonbon has used Hebert’s debt as a license to steal, with Hebert allowing the theft as the price of Bonbon’s silence. Bonbon’s presence eats on Hebert, but all his efforts to get Bonbon to leave have been futile. In Marcus, however, Hebert sees another opportunity to rid himself of Bonbon. Hebert uses Bonbon to punish Marcus, expecting and later encouraging Marcus to direct his hatred at Bonbon. During their interview, Hebert denies any responsibility for Bonbon’s actions. Like Iago in Othello, Hebert claims to befriend Marcus. He acts as if he is innocent of the way Marcus has been treated and seems unabashed by Marcus’s plans. In fact, he assures Marcus that he will help him escape. Hebert’s denial of responsibility suggests his moral bankruptcy.

Gaines’s characterization of Bonbon, Pauline, and Louise is deceptively simple. All might easily become stereotypes, but thanks to Gaines’s ability to evoke complexity with remarkable economy, all reveal themselves to be deeply human. Bonbon, particularly, might be read as a simple, brutal man. To Hebert he is a liability, to Marcus an unyielding taskmaster, to Jim a problematic boss. A Cajun with a third-grade education, Bonbon has followed the expected code of behavior. But he walks a fine line between seeming to observe the strict race codes while emotionally violating them. He takes a black woman for his sexual pleasure, but then he moves from sexual exploitation to genuine devotion. And while his culture endorses—in fact encourages—the former, it strictly forbids the latter. Thus, Bonbon can live only on the periphery of his community. Gaines underscores this by pointing out his limited contact with his nearby family as opposed to his closeness to Pauline. Bonbon is rarely at home and most often on the road or in the fields, in transit with no recognized space for himself. Louise occupies his house, and Pauline claims her own home.

That Bonbon is emotionally closer to the very people he has been encouraged to devalue than to his own family is also made plain through his relationship with Jim Kelly, whom Bonbon calls ‘‘Geam.’’ In mispronouncing his name, Bonbon seems to denigrate the person and thus undercut their relationship. Ironically, Jim is the only man on the plantation with whom Bonbon can converse and he knows it, revealing his trust when he asks Jim to accompany them to Baton Rouge. Jim’s purpose is as a shield, to pose as Pauline’s husband. But Bonbon also needs Jim as a guide, to recommend a comfortable place where the three of them can be together. Jim takes them to a bar where people of mixed blood congregate and where Bonbon and Pauline will not be out of place. In fact, Kelly comments that Bonbon is darker than several of the mulatto bar patrons. Gaines depicts the many and complicated paradoxes of established race codes, indicating the mutual dependence of both black and white. While he seems to pay attention to differences, Bonbon recognizes that he shares more with the black residents of the plantation than with the white: ‘‘We little people, Geam. They make us do what they want us to do, and they don’t tell us nothing’’(258).

Even more than her husband, Louise undergoes a transformation of ideology. An abused child, fifteen-year-old Louise is given to Bonbon as a wife. In the subsequent ten years, she has tried to escape her loveless marriage only to be returned to Bonbon. Small, ignorant, and wholly dependent, Louise is depicted as a child; her choice of skirt and blouse as opposed to the dresses adult women wear emphasize her lack of development. Dependent upon Margaret to care for both her and her daughter, Tite, Louise seems to embody the febrile white woman of stereotype until she decides upon her course of action. Having absorbed the mythology of black male sexuality and the contradictory conviction of black male monstrousness, Louise is both terrified and determined. As long as she can look at black men from her porch, she is safe. But when she begins watching Marcus (and he returns her look), she begins to act. Louise progresses in stages, literally touching Marcus to assure her of his humanness, and, later, requiring some sort of bruise as a mark of his presence. But Marcus becomes her true lover, and his sweet talk meets a need that has never been acknowledged, much less met, by other men. Thus, Louise falls in love with a man who treats her with tenderness. Still, she wonders about her own feelings, asking Margaret if it’s possible for a white woman to love a black man. As her devotion increases, Louise begins taking chances, risking their lives as they become more public. That their relationship is more than sexual heat is shown in their nakedness before Margaret. There is a genuine innocence in their natural comfort with one another, complementing their naive belief that they can escape the confines of their social system.

Pauline Guerin is given even less voice than other principal characters, part of Gaines’s strategy of characterization. Single, black, and female, the physically enticing Pauline is valued by the men on the Hebert plantation primarily for her sexual charms. Because she ‘‘belongs’’ to Bonbon, however, Pauline is marginalized. She must live in the black community, but she’s unable to freely interact with its residents as they are with her. Pauline’s reputation for courtesy is more than illustrative of her kindness; it’s also a form of distance. And her limited speech underscores her social position. But her tasteful dress, graceful walk, and erect posture suggest a substantial woman, and her rambunctious twin sons signify her vitality, particularly in contrast to their frail half-sister, Tite, Bonbon’s daughter by Louise. Late in the novel, readers become aware of Pauline’s comprehensive understanding of the situation with a simple gesture, when Jim tells her that Marcus and Louise plan to elope: ‘‘Pauline covered her mouth with her hand’’ (257). Her lack of voice indicates her social position at Hebert, where she has little say in what happens to her. Once again, Gaines’s use of dress, gesture, and body language says as much or more about characters as their language.


Gaines’s exploration of paradoxical racial distinctions exposes its many and complex ramifications. What makes his dramatization of interracial love affairs different from most fictional treatments is that other novels generally focus on the offspring of interracial love, not the affair itself, the latter being a source of considerable social discomfort (and interest). In fact, an entire fictional sub-genre about the ‘‘tragic mulatto’’ exists (see Clotel, Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, Passing). Novels that did focus on the love affair often explored its more sensational elements (see Light in August). These novels rarely dealt with the effects of interracial relationships on the community other than the violent mob action. And most—if not all—of these novels failed to indicate the cost of these artificially thwarted relationships.

That white men have sometimes loved black women and their children by them is an inescapable fact of American social history. But the cost of these affairs to the individual and the community is a subject social histories cannot explore. Of Love and Dust details the reluctance with which Bonbon and Pauline fall in love. Neither wants to because of its emotional price. Pauline must sacrifice not only possible liaisons with black men; she must observe a high degree of discretion with her community, indeed with her closest neighbors, Aunt Caline and Pa Bully. Living next door to Pauline, with no physical barrier on their shared front porch and only a thin, uninsulated wall between rooms, Aunt Caline and Pa Bully must negotiate a selective deafness and self-willed blindness to Bonbon’s arrivals and departures. Other characters must also remain aware of Bonbon’s plans precisely so they can disappear at the appropriate moment. In fact, there is a good deal of comedy in the continual interest in Bonbon’s plans as well as elaborate avoidance of open acknowledgment. Everyone on the plantation knows about them. Certainly, Bonbon’s loving Pauline more than Louise is widely acknowledged. Yet everyone also makes some effort not to directly speak of this love on the plantation. Off the plantation, discussion is more open. That’s why Miss Julie asks Jim if he thinks ‘‘there will ever be a time’’ when Pauline and Bonbon can live together (14) and why Jim can now tell the entire story.

The impetus for silence over interracial relationships begins in the white community, which has created the restrictions and invented the sanctions. As a devalued female, Pauline may suffer no more than being marginalized by the black community. And this is difficult because everyone recognizes that Pauline has no choice in the matter. She must remain Bonbon’s mistress as long as he wants her. For Bonbon, the price of his relationship beyond the purely sexual is extreme. Jim tells us that Bonbon’s own brothers might murder him to salvage their family reputation. But the community has considerable practice in ignoring this kind of relationship, so it remains undisturbed.

Marcus’s affair with Louise, however, is another matter because it threatens the entire community. While white men allowed themselves the privilege of crossing a color line, they created mortal sanctions against black men who did the same. Whenever Marcus is linked to Louise, the response is that he will be lynched. Lynching involves not simply hanging but burning a man alive, usually after considerable torture and dismemberment. Sexual mutilation also played a major role in this collective act of murder. The corpse would then be hung from a tree as a warning sign to the black community. Blues singer Billie Holliday’s‘‘Strange Fruit’’ recalls this action in tragic detail. There need not be any actual contact between black man and white woman. Nor would there be much effort to conclusively identify a particular suspect. Often, a mere allegation would be sufficient provocation for black men to be hunted and lynched. Mob rule is always indiscriminate, its waves of violence reverberating through the community. That’s why Jim and Margaret work so hard to deter Marcus and why everyone dreads the outcome of their act. Sexual relations are the ultimate violation of white rule, at once disproving the myth of black male monstrousness and endangering white lines of descent. Bonbon may not own property, but any child born to Louise while they are legally married would carry his name. However, disproving the myth of black male inhumanity is the more important issue, because refusing to recognize black men as men is the fundamental premise of slavery. Thus, when Marcus enters Louise’s bedroom at her invitation, he creates a fissure that will weaken this ideological foundation.

Ernest Gaines/

Gaines emphasizes this by showing Louise’s physical reticence. First she watches Marcus, then she timidly touches him. Even after her feelings have deepened, Louise has doubts since she has been taught to believe that such feelings are impossible. Though she recognizes Bonbon’s love for Pauline and sees daily evidence of Margaret’s love for Tite, Louise cannot extend the similarity to her love for Marcus. But instead of remaining imprisoned by that idea, she determines to free herself from the illusions of the past.

Above everything else, Of Love and Dust focuses our attention on what Charles Rowell has termed the ‘‘struggles of a static world fiercely resistant to change,’’ that is, on the tension between ideological bondage and freedom (735). If we look closely at the characters Bishop, Margaret, and Jim, we see their differences. Bishop’s very name tells us that he is a guardian. He watches over Hebert’s house as both sentinel and housekeeper, working to maintain its order and all this implies. His personal attachment to the house is so deep that when Hebert orders Bishop to leave the kitchen, Bishop refuses, reminding Hebert that he has been promised his place as long as he remains a ‘‘good boy’’ (236). More than a residence, though, the big house has become a symbol of the Old South. Gaines’s use of the big house recalls the way William Faulkner uses the house Thomas Sutpen designs in Absalom, Absalom!. As the emblem of class and authority, its size and position announce the status of its owner. Thus, Bishop’s position as guardian means that he believes in the rightness of the system that constructed and maintains the house. The househas, then, become his ideology, Bishop’s means of interpreting and reacting to events. Jim tells us that Bishop’s faith rests more in the big house than in church (222), and his observation is borne out when Bishop prays to the old people for forgiveness after Marcus desecrates the sacred space by not observing the proprieties. In fact, Bishop is outraged when Marcus violates ‘‘the house slavery built,’’ (215) suggesting faith in a system that will not recognize him as a man (Hebert still calls him ‘‘boy’’). His self-willed bondage binds Bishop more securely to slavery than any legal system. Though he is a daily witness to the Hebert family deterioration and has direct knowledge of Marshall Hebert’s arrangements, Bishop remains blind to the truth. To sustain the illusion of order, perpetuate tradition, and support his belief in white superiority, Bishop must believe Hebert deserving of his position. And to support his faith, he must absolve him of all responsibility. To the very end, Bishop blames Marcus for all the trouble on the plantation. Thus, in the end, Jim appropriately sees Bishop as a ghost, a haunting spirit of a dead past.

Margaret’s attitudes echo Bishop’s, though in a slightly different way. Like Bishop, she witnesses many actions illustrating human frailty and thus lack of superiority. Because of her daily closeness to the helpless Louise, Margaret has every reason to know of her superior skills, wisdom, and judgment. And she doesn’t mince words about Marshall Hebert’s alcoholism. Still, Margaret does choose to forget his role in order to achieve a level of safety for herself. She indicates this when she tells Jim, ‘‘When you live long as I done lived, you learn to forget things quite easy’’ (279). She ultimately denies Marshall Hebert’s role, an act that can allow her to return to the only world she has known. As she turns back toward the plantation, Jim sees her going ‘‘home,’’ the last word of the novel and a word resonant with meaning.

Jim, however, moves in another direction. Throughout Parts One and Two, Jim’s position resembles Margaret’s. He doesn’t challenge tradition, fearing violence. Paradoxically, Jim wants to strike Marcus much of the time, literally wanting to knock ‘‘sense’’ into the young man, using violence to force him to conform. But Jim changes his mind when Marcus shows him what he already knows, that Marshall Hebert orchestrates what happens on the plantation, not Sidney Bonbon. At this point, Jim considers the futility of preventing disaster: ‘‘But where did you go when it was the rich white man? You couldn’t even go to the law, because he was the law. He was police, he was judge, he was jury’’ (198). Marcus guides Jim, challenging his belief in the system and urging him to see a possibility for difference. His ultimate challenge comes with his question,‘‘Where would people be if they didn’t take a chance?’’ (249). But he already knows the certain answer to his question, ‘‘Right here in this quarter the rest of they life’’ (249).

In setting up an opposition between the past and change, Gaines challenges readers to consider the value of the past. The most revered portions of southern tradition emanate from the plantation system which is wholly dependent upon slavery. There is, of course, an illusion of security in this system. Highly structured, authoritarian, with distinct notions of place and role, the plantation system appears safe—even beautiful—especially from distant time and experience. To Bishop and Margaret, it is familiar, its patterns deeply etched in repetitive actions and learned responses. Their need to protect what they know reflects a level of comfort each has created within the system. Despite its demeaning attitudes toward workers, exploitative wage scale, harsh working conditions, and crowded and impoverished quarters, the plantation system has paradoxically created a close and rich community. Charles H. Rowell has explored the implications of place in Gaines’s work, calling attention to Gaines’s use of the quarters as a ‘‘center of meaning’’ in his novels (749). When Bishop and Margaret defend the old system, they associate it not directly with slavery but with the rich culture slavery engendered. They are defending the recurring rhythms of life that take place after work: making music, visiting with neighbors, holding house parties, going to church. Ultimately, they simply try to hold onto their world, with its shared intimacy. Jim respects their position, though he no longer shares it.

Jim’s departure from the plantation at the novel’s end suggests a new direction in his life, a life less compliant and fatalistic. Marcus has shown Jim that individual acts can matter, that refusing to be like everyone else is admirable, requiring courage. Of course, Jim has little choice about leaving since Hebert tells him he’d be safer elsewhere. Hebert’s implied threat underscores his undiminished power, and it also suggests his fear of Jim. What does Jim know that Hebert wants kept secret? Mostly Jim sees through the artificial restrictions of race to the power that refusing to be limited can offer. He understands that refusing to cooperate with a corrupt system has the potential to damage it. Jim’s understanding is identical to the conclusion Henry David Thoreau writes of in ‘‘On the Lessons of Civil Disobedience’’ and to the strategies employed by Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. in their civil rights struggles. Marcus does not change Hebert or the plantation’s inhabitants, but he does change Jim and thus opens a possibility for change. Some characterswill ignore this opportunity; others will take notice. The end result, though, is movement, not stasis. The plantation is altered by Marcus’s presence. Gaines’s novels dramatize the slow, incremental shifts that occur in enduring communities, a strategy coming much nearer to actuality than rapid shifts of behavior and opinion or no shifts at all. In one sense Of Love and Dust is tragic, with Marcus winding up dead and Louise placed in a state institution for the insane. Somewhere, though, Bonbon, Pauline, and presumably their children are making a different life for themselves. The people at Hebert will resume their daily rhythms, but though they will seem to forget, memory lingers. True, Marcus challenged the underpinning of slavery and personally lost. But in the process he showed people at the plantation that taking chances and affirming individuality are a means to freedom.


Marxist criticism, based on the principles of German social critics and philosophers Friedrich Engles and Karl Marx, is a set of political, social, and economic ideas that people use to interpret their world. This theoretical lens did not originate as a means of interpreting literature. Rather, it began in the nineteenth century as a practical interpretation of human history, one including the role of the working classes, and would become the basis of socialism and communism. In The Communist Manifesto (1848) Marx and Engles begin with the premise that reality is material; that is, what we see, hear, feel, taste, and touch comprises reality. Since people live in social groups, Marxists believe that cultural and social circumstances determine who we are. In other words, our cultural and social circumstances tell us how to think about ourselves and others, they determine our values, and they instruct us in what to believe. Dividing people into the ‘‘haves’’ (capitalists or the bourgeoisie) and the ‘‘have nots’’ (the working class or proletariat), Engels and Marx showed how the ‘‘haves’’ enslaved the ‘‘have nots’’ through economic policies and control of production. Further, they argue that the ‘‘have nots’’ should rise in rebellion, take the economic control from the ‘‘haves,’’ and invest ownership of all property in the hands of the government. Only then will material wealth be equally distributed (Bressler, 116).

In a later work, Das Kapital (1867), Marx presented his predictably economic interpretation of history. When people engage in manufacturing goods, for example weaving cloth, making plows, or growing food,they form social relationships. The many, who actually produce material goods, have little control over the few people who employ them. Thus, the few (the ‘‘haves’’) gain not only material but social and political control of their society. The ‘‘haves’’ influence more than economic policy and production, however. Because they control such human institutions as government, education, and religion, they also control the artistic expression of any culture, including its literature.

Marxist ideology played some role in literary interpretation during the 1920s and especially the 1930s, when many American and European intellectuals believed that Marxism held the key to bringing their nations out of a deep economic depression. These critics often attacked authors on the basis of their ideas, not their literary art, and were particularly judgmental of authors whose writing ignored working-class sympathies. But in the wake of the Cold War, this ideology fell into disrepute. In the politically restless days of the early 1970s, however, both European and American critics found in Marxism a way of understanding and interpreting social discontent. Viewing society—even a fictional society— through a Marxist lens means, first of all, understanding the motivating ideology behind human action and its effects on society. Secondly, Marxist critics seek to discover which phenomena actually dominate life. This is why Marxist literary critics focus on an author’s world view and the sociological implications of a text as opposed to conventional literary devices. Such an analysis of ideology, Marxist critics believe, will expose the concerns (and thus the agenda) of either the ‘‘haves’’ or the ‘‘have nots’’ (Bressler, 174). Ira Schor offers a series of questions Marxist critics ask in a College English article, questions referring to the kind of social critique a novel raises, the origin of a work’s conflicting sources, and the values of specific social classes. These principally thematic issues guide readers in seeing a work’s relation to society (179).

A Marxist reading of Of Love and Dust will focus on the implications of the plantation system depicted by Gaines. Clearly it is a corrupt system, depending upon the underpaid labor of many for the comfort of the dissolute Marshall Hebert. Hebert’s secretive movements, his control of other people, manipulation of the legal system for his own benefit, lack of conscience and sense of responsibility, and unchallenged authority are exposed in Gaines’s novel, clearly not written by a member of the ruling class.

The novel’s conflicting forces seem embodied in Marcus and Bonbon, with each man attempting to express the values of his race and class. Bonbon, however, is revealed as a mere shield for Marshall Hebert. Notonly does Bonbon not share Hebert’s social class, his values are shown to be similar to those of Jim and Marcus. He is, as Jim will point out, ‘‘only a tool’’ for Marshall Hebert, like Marcus, like Jim, and all the other plantation workers. Looking at this story, one might explore both educational and economic opportunities of Louisiana, exposing the built-in limitations. Or one might examine the socioeconomic conflicts between poor whites and poor blacks. Another reading might direct reader attention to the legal system and its effects in the text.

Marshall Hebert, then, representing the ruling class, would attract particular scrutiny, with emphasis on his value system. One of the principal claims of southern aristocracy is its high valuation of manners and gentility. Above everything (and everyone), Marshall Hebert is supposed to be a gentleman; it’s both his status and his value system. Among the genteel skills valued by the old South are riding, drinking, and gambling with skill and good manners. Hebert’s refusal to honor his brother Bradford’s gambling debts violates the ruling class code of honor. Moreover, it reveals the true nature of Hebert’s value system—inherently greedy and self-centered. The length to which Marshall Hebert is willing to go to preserve his status is extreme, as we see in his arranged murders of the gambler, Bonbon, and Marcus. Clearly, he values no life beyond his own. Thus, Hebert’s claim to any form of superiority is revealed to be invalid, his rule corrupt and deserving of revolution.

Marcus Payne threatens Hebert and the exploitative system he represents through the simple and heroic affirmation of his own human value. In refusing to become Hebert’s tool, first as a field worker and later as a hired killer, Marcus poses a direct threat to the authority Hebert claims. Unimpressed by social conventions, Marcus determines his own value system, but only after he is properly educated in how the system works. Though he begins by believing what adults tell him about the power of the white man, Marcus changes his mind when he is cheated and threatened, his prayers and confidence unrewarded by faith. When his church congregation breaks into laughter after hearing his prayers that Big Red stop taking his money, Marcus changes his strategy and attacks Big Red. But the legal system simply takes his education a step further, duplicating the kind of extortion Big Red practiced. Everywhere he turns, Marcus is victimized by representatives of the ruling class (the white man) through the ‘‘white man’s nigger’’ (252), suffering physical abuse in the process. He chooses to resist the system, rather than contribute to it, because he sees that ‘‘it don’t add up to nothing but a big pile of shit’’ (253). His value system becomes entirely self-centered and self-directeduntil he falls in love with Louise. Though not a classic Marxist hero— that is, one who might be an inspiration to oppressed workers and leader of revolutionary actions—Marcus nevertheless exposes the corrupt nature of the plantation system.

Key to this system is denial of human value for virtually everyone but the land owners. Every character in the novel is therefore reduced to a level where Hebert thinks no more of interfering with their lives than he would breaking a glass. Their only value is in his particular use for them as cook, overseer, field worker, or murderer. Hebert’s means of control to encourage conformity to his system are pervasive, as we see through his ability to orchestrate not only Marcus’s trial date but also the verdict. When the legal system cannot meet his needs, he can manipulate working-class whites as terrorists. Death and exile continue as threats to anyone failing to conform to the system, their presence so imminent they shadow basic human impulses of love and justice. Whatever solidarity exists among the field workers is quickly eclipsed by fear for their own lives.

Discussion of the love interests would doubtless focus more on the implications of caste as a means of control than on the social response each couple inspires. Marcus and Louise’s growth in learning to care for each other might be less important to a Marxist critic than the unjustness of a system that first enslaves them and then mercilessly disposes of them when they fail to conform. And Jim Kelly’s key role as narrator would have less significance than his role as inheritor of Marcus’s rebellious legacy. Of Love and Dust readily lends itself to a Marxist interpretation because its narrative focuses in such detail on the prevailing social system in south Louisiana during the 1940s, a time of slow transition, with oppressive nineteenth-century values retaining hold on many residents. In setting up the dichotomies between worker and owner, Gaines gives readers an opportunity to see a system from a differing perspective.

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Blackburn, Sara. Review of Of Love and Dust. Nation, 5 February 1968: 185.
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Source: Carmean, Karen. Ernest J. Gaines: A Critical Companion. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, 1998

Categories: Literature, Novel Analysis

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