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“Pray if you want to:” a reevaluation of religion in the fiction of Ernest J. Gaines

UNCG Author/Contributor (non-UNCG co-authors, if there are any, appear on document)
Evelyn E. Kelly (Creator)
Institution
The University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG )
Web Site: http://library.uncg.edu/
Advisor
SallyAnn Ferguson

Abstract: This study examines religiosity in Ernest J. Gaines’s fiction. Though some critics acknowledge the existence of religion in Gaines’s work, most of them gloss over the topic. Generally, they conclude that the author mistrusts religion, religion fails the characters, and his preacher personas are perfunctory. I argue that such criticism fails to address fully the role of religion in Gaines’s writing. Because of the ubiquitousness of religious circumstance, I argue that Gaines expresses neither rejection of nor ambivalence towards religion. Instead, I offer evidence that his stance is paradoxical. Characters who are atheists or claim to have lost faith are the characters who most epitomize Christian traditions and characteristics. Many use preacherly techniques such as speech and mannerisms, and others exemplify biblical characters through parallel lifestyles. Though several characters claim to reject religion, Christian principles impact and guide their behavior and thought. Additionally, Gaines inserts preacher personas whose words and actions seem to support the notion that the men are perfunctory; however, their roles as motivators and activists suggest otherwise. Gaines also acknowledges African American folk tradition with his insertion of folkloric preachers and conjurers. Though Gaines’s primary themes are manhood issues, I argue that religion plays a role in creating and maintaining a sense of manhood. To analyze Gaines’s treatment of religion, I discuss his use of four elements of narratology: the imagery of falling, rhetorical manipulation, the dismantling of stereotype, and the incorporation of biblical allusion and typological symbolism and archetypes. My primary argument is that Ernest Gaines promotes orthodox Christianity by presenting it in an acceptable modern form. Utilizing a range of characters who exhibit varied attitudes toward religion, from unquestioning acceptance to outright rejection, Gaines “seemingly” advocates negative attitudes toward Christianity, but this exploitation of the negative repeatedly serves as a segue to reveal a positive update. Located in the background of each story is a positive historical or cultural factor related to religion, proving that religion is an escapable, fundamental aspect of African American culture.

Additional Information

Publication
Dissertation
Language: English
Date: 2010
Keywords
African American, Christianity, conjure, manhood, preacher, tradition
Subjects
Gaines, Ernest J., $d 1933- $x Criticism and interpretation.
Christianity in literature.
Masculinity in literature.
African Americans in literature.