A Guide to the Ernest J. Gaines Center
Catherine Carmier is Ernest J. Gaines first novel. When reading it, one can see the themes and locales that populate all of his works in this novel about Jackson Bradley and Catherine Carmier. There is not much online about the novel, apart from some of the sources below and images on this site. However, there are some sites and media that will help with information about Gaines's life and career. Joseph Sanford directed Ernest Gaines: an obsession of mine, a documentary on Gaines's life and work. On his site, you can find videos, images, and information about Ernest Gaines. Below is a conversation with Dr. Keith Clark (George Mason University) on Ernest Gaines's work and legacy.
Questions to consider:
- In the first chapter of Catherine Carmier, Brother talks with Claude and François while he waits for Jackson's bus to arrive. What themes appear in the chapter? How do these themes appear throughout the novel? Can the same themes be found in other works by Gaines? Provide examples.
- Catherine Carmier employs a third person omniscient narrator. Gaines has continually said that writing a third person narrator is difficult, and early drafts of the novel contain multiple first-person points of view. Thinking about this, what benefits do you see in having a third person omniscient narrator in Catherine Carmier? What detriments do you see? Think about other texts you have read as well.
- Structurally, Catherine Carmier contains three parts. Two other Gaines novels, Of Love and Dust and The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, contain parts. What is the purpose, or usefulness, of separating the novel in this way? Think about how the separation possibly affects a reader of the novel. At what point do the parts end?
- Catherine Carmier contains strong Southern Gothic undertones. Can the novel be viewed as a Southern Gothic novel alongside works by authors such as Flannery O'Connor, William Faulkner, and Walker Percy? If so, what aspects of Catherine Carmier can be described as Southern Gothic and why? Does the original cover of the novel (on the left) display any hints of gothicism?
- Jackson Bradley in Catherine Carmier and Grant Wiggins inA Lesson Before Dying can be seen as similar characters. What are the similarities between the two? What are the differences? Are there any other characters in the two novels that can be seen as similar? If so, who are they and why?
- Some scholars view Gaines's work in the pastoral tradition. How does Catherine Carmier fit into that tradition? Do any of Gaines's other works contain elements of the pastoral?
- From 1935-1945 the United States Farm Security Administration sent agents all over the nation to take pictures of the people and the land. Some of those photographs were taken in Pointe Coupée Parish. Using the Photogrammar website, look at the pictures from Louisiana, and specifically from Pointe Coupée. After examining the pictures, discuss how they reflect the period that Gaines writes about in Catherine Carmier and his other works. When looking at the pictures, pay attention to the captions. Why are the captions important?
- Research the history of the term Creole in regards to colonization, and specifically Louisiana. Today, the term means something different than it did during the colonial period and after the Louisiana Purchase. Have students present on how the meaning of Creole has changed over time and how Gaines uses the term in his own writing.
- Mary Louise is a minor character in Catherine Carmier. In earlier drafts, she played a more prominent role. Have students look at a section of the novel narrated by Mary Louise from an early draft. As well, have them look at the short story "Mary Louise" in Mozart and Leadbelly. After reading the selections, students can discuss how the finished novel differs from the excerpts, and they can discuss the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of the changes.
- Early drafts of the novel contained numerous references to food, both the preparation of food and the eating of it. The finished novel contains food as well. Have students find food items that appear in the novel. Students can then do a research project on the food: what it is, how to cook it, it's social importance, and why Gaines incorporates it. As well, students could prepare the food and bring it to class while they discuss the novel.
- Have students research The Great Migration. After they have researched it, have them explore how Jackson Bradley possibly fits into the narrative of The Great Migration. They can also research and present on other African American novels that deal with migration.
- As they read the novel, have students draw visual representations of the quarters and the surrounding areas. After they draw the images, have students think about who resides within each specific area and who controls each area. Are there certain places where Jackson and Brother cannot go? Are there certain places where Claude and François cannot go?
Gaines on Catherine Carmier
Jackson also seems to be trapped. By leaving the plantation when he did, he is not able to adjust now that he has returned. This theme of the black becoming alienated from his own culture is a common theme in many black novels and short stories. Were you aware of Du Bois' treatment of this theme in The Souls of Black Folk or of Toomer's, in Cane?
No, I was not aware of this theme running through black literature. I've never really read all of Du Bois' The Souls of Black Folk and I did not read Toomer's Cane until long after I had written Catherine Carmier. But just as in any race of people, when a young man leaves an area to go to a more enlightened area it is hard for him to come back to his home. Thomas Wolfe said it, and it's been said since the beginning of time. Once I left the South, which I did when I was fifteen years old, it was hard for me to go back and act the same way with my friends and people. Oh, I could drink and talk with them, but when it came down to accepting certain things as they did, it was just about impossible for me to do. (31-32)