A Guide to the Ernest J. Gaines Center
Of Love and Dust
In numerous interviews and speeches, Ernest Gaines mentions that part of the inspiration for Of Love and Dust came from a song by Lightnin' Hopkins entitled "Tim Moore's Farm." In 1969, Gaines said, in regards to writing the novel, "I was listening to one of Lightnin' Hopkins records one day entitled 'Mr. Tim Moore's Farm.' . . . [O]ne of the verses of the song struck me. It went something like this: 'The worst thing this black man ever done, when I moved my wife and family to Mr. Tim Moore's Farm. Mr Tim Moore's man never stand and grin, say if you keep out the graveyard nigger, I'll keep you out the pen'" (Fitzgerald and Marchant 3-4). Gaines also speaks about an incident he experienced at a local nightclub and about the system of bonding out individuals who have been arrested to work off their time instead of staying in prison. To get a better understanding of the bonding out system, watch the video below for Slavery By Another Name.
See the full film at PBS.
Questions to consider:
- Of Love and Dust begins with a journey, Marcus coming to the plantation. Thinking about other works by Ernest Gaines, and Of Love and Dust, what is the importance, or purpose, of beginning a text with a journey? Or a road? Think about other things you have read. Do any of them start off with a journey on a road? If so, why?
- Dust is recurring throughout the novel. Gaines mentions, in the quote below, that dust is the opposite of love. Matthew Spangler in "Of Snow and Dust" speaks about symbols like snow, dust, and fog in the works of James Joyce and Gaines. To you, what does the "dust" in the novel symbolize?
- Above, I mention that Lightnin' Hopkins' song "Tim Moore's Farm" partly inspired the novel. How does the song relate to the novel? What are some other works of fiction or poetry that were inspired by pieces of music? How does music affect literature and vice versa?
- Throughout Gaines's works, he presents readers with strong female characters. Looking at Of Love and Dust, does he present the reader with any female characters that could possibly compare with say Madame Bayonne, Tante Lou, or even Miss Jane? If so, what makes them similar? If not, what can they not compare?
- Gaines has stated that Nick Carraway in F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby served as an example of the narrative voice he wanted to achieve with James Kelley in Of Love and Dust. Both novels use the first person point of view. What does Kelley's first-person narration add or detract from the novel? Look at the center's blog for some more information on this question.
- When Marcus comes to speak with Marshall Hebert, Bishop tells James that Marcus stuck his foot in the door after Bishop told him to leave. Bishop says, "The house his great-grandparents built. The house slavery built. He pushed his foot in that door" (215). Bishop wants James to know that someone who would do that would do anything. Why is the phrase "the house slavery built" important? In that section, it is repeated three times in two pages.
- We've all heard the old adage "You can't judge a book by its cover." However, we routinely do that when it comes to books, music albums, movies, and other things. To the bottom, you will notice different covers for various editions of Of Love and Dust. The first two are French and the bottom two are American. Take a minute to look at the covers. When done, discuss whether or not the covers are true representations of the narrative. For a project, find various covers or poster for a book, album, or movie and explore the information they relate to the audience and whether or not they represent the actual book, movie, or album accurately. Then, design your own cover or poster.
- Since Gaines uses the first person of view in the novel, we do not see certain scenes that occur, say between Louise and Marcus. Based off of what you know from James's accounts of incidents, rewrite a scene that James does not see either in first person point of view through the eyes of another character or in third person limited or omniscient. Think about the fight between Marcus and Bonbon at the end of the novel, the scenes with Marcus and Louise in Louise's bedroom, the scene with Bonbon and Pauline in Baton Rouge, or about Marcus's fight at the bar. These are only a few of the scenes that could be used for this activity.
- Have students watch the documentary Slavery by Another Name. Then, have them research and present on the practice of bonding African Americans out of jail only to have them work off their time for free on a plantation or factory somewhere. As well, have students explore how Of Love and Dust sheds light on this practice, which continued, as Gaines says, well into the 1960s.
- The unwritten "rules" of the South continually appear in Gaines's works. Think about Mary Agnes and Tee Bob in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. Those "rules" allow Bonbon to carry on his relationship with Pauline, but they also keep Marcus from being able to publicly maintain his relationship with Louise. Gaines compares the end of the novel to Romeo and Juliet, saying, "[Marcus and Louise] feel like they can get away with it and that there's nothing to harm them. Whereas the people who have lived longer cannot conceive of any other life than the one they have been living. But after the lovers have died, then - and only then - can the others see a future that permits change" (O'Brien 34-35). Have students discuss whether or not they agree with Gaines's assertion. Then, have them continue the novel, either by having Marcus and Louise escaping, by showing the community after the murder, or something else.
Gaines on Dust in Of Love and Dust
You're [John O'Brien] absolutely right that dust is the opposite of love. I think that dust is death. When a man dies he returns to dust. If you lived on a plantation you would find that there's no value to dust at all; it's just there. Dust is the first thing Jim sees when he's sitting out on the porch at the beginning of the novel. When the dust finally settles, Marcus is walking toward the house. So the dust brings finally settles, Marcus is walking toward the house. So the dust brings Marcus to the plantation. The dust is always there. Whenever Marcus goes by Louise's place the dust rises, or whenever Marshall Hebert moves around in his car, the dust starts flying. Louise realizes at the end that it is the opposite of love. It is a symbol of death.