A Guide to the Ernest J. Gaines Center
In My Father's House
Gaines has stated that Ivan Turgenev's Fathers and Sonsimpacted his writing and the novel In My Father's House. At the Academy of Achievement, Gaines talks about the influence of Turgenev's novel on his own writing. In an interview from The Missouri Review, Gaines discusses the influence of Turgenev on his writing and the ability to listen to the speech of those around him.
Questions to consider:
- In chapter 5, Phillip looks at the Bible twice. The first time he looks at it and recalls the sermon he was going to preach the next day on John 14:2. The next time, he looks at Psalm 102 before praying. In each of these instances, he cannot finish the chapter and prays afterward. What relevance do these passages have to the novel as a whole?
- Looking at Gaines' prospectus for the novel, how does his original plan differ from the final novel? Do the changes that you see drastically affect the way that we read and approach the finished novel?
- In chapter 9, Billy tells Philip, “You see all them empty fields round here, mister? . . . Go all over this place—empty fields, empty houses, empty roads. Where the people used to be—nothing. Machines. Every time they build another machine that takes work from the people, they hire another hundred cops to keep the people quiet.” How does Billy's observation relate to what is occurring in the novel? How does it relate to the themes that Gaines explores throughout his works?
- Regarding the ending of the novel, Gaines has said, "I’ve been criticized a lot in bars for that. I go to a couple of my bars in San Francisco. We play dominoes together or shoot dice together. They read my books, you know, and complain. Now what the hell am I supposed to do? 'You stopped the book halfway. It took you seven years to write. Don’t you think you could have written another chapter?' That’s the kind of thing I’ve run into, but I felt it was complete once he [Martin] went back into the room, when she [Alma] tells him, 'We just have to start again, that’s all.' To me, it’s complete." Do you agree or disagree with Gaines' comments on the ending of the novel? Why or why not?
- When discussing the novel, Gaines recalls "an old Negro saying, 'God isn't always there when you call hum, but he's always on time.'" In the novel, does this saying prove to be true or not? Discuss the presence or absence of God in the workings of the novel.
- On the father-son relationship in the novel, Gaines has said, "The father and son were separated when they were brought to this country over three centuries ago. The white man did not let them come together during slavery, and they have not been able to reach each other ever since." How did the institution of slavery affect Philip and his family?
- Dorethea Oppenheimer, in her editorial comments for the novel, states, "There is a very good build-up to the Chenal demonstration. The minister, who is supposed to be leading it drops out because of his father-son problems which he considers more important than anything else. Ok. But the community has built up steam. Mills and Jonathan and probably many others, are determined. Perhaps they could keep going without the minister. They are not sheep. Even if they fail, they could make a valiant try, showing that what the minister has planted has taken root. In any case you cannot leave this hanging in the air." Have students look up demonstrations during the Civil Rights movement and discuss the Chenal demonstrations in comparison or contrast with those. Or, have students write out what would happen if the Chenal demonstration goes on as planned.
- On writing In My Father's House, Gaines said, "I wanted to write in some way something based on Greek tragedy. I wanted to write of a great man falling and then, some kind of way, coming back. I want to show father-son separated. As I've always said, father-son separated on the slave blocks when then came here, and they've never really come together since then, in the last three hundred years. The system has not allowed it." Have students research Greek tragedy and the separation of slave families then present or discuss their findings in relation to Gaines' novel.
- Gaines has said that writing an omniscient point of view is difficult because the characters do not take over. Instead, "it seems that [he] is always interrupting them." Only two of Gaines' works have been an omniscient point of view, Catherine Carmier and In My Father's House. Have students take a scene from the novel and rewrite it in the first-person point of view.
- In 1978, Patricia Rickels said that In My Father's House was a timely book. About the book, she says the novel asks, "Where is and what is the black leadership after the death of Malcolm and Martin Luther King?" Have students research Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. then present how these two leading African American individuals appear in the novel. What do students think will happen with the leadership at the end of the novel?
- Have students read the first chapter of In My Father's House then have them read the two drafts of the novel. The first one, entitled Revenge in St. Adrienne, does not have a date. The second one, entitled In My Father's House, appeared in the Massachusetts Review in 1977. After reading each version, have students discuss the strengths and weaknesses of each one. Also, have them talk about why Gaines may have made the decisions he did when drafting the opening chapter.
- The reviews for In My Father's House were rather mixed. Have students read the two reviews then have the students either write a response to one of the reviews or have them write a review of the novel themselves.