After John the Baptist baptizes Jesus Christ in the gospels, Jesus goes into the desert for forty days and forty nights before beginning his ministry. During that time, Satan tempts Jesus three times with food, display of divination, and dominion over the world. Jesus does not succumb to these temptations, and he rebukes Satan with scripture, ultimately defeating him. As I read through Ernest J. Gaines’s The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1971) a couple of weeks ago, I could not help but think about this biblical story in relation to the travails of Jane. At a couple of points, the parallels between the temptation of Jesus and Jane’s journey intersect, especially during her attempt to make it to Ohio and during the retelling of her travels to salvation.
While Jane and Ned try to make their way to Ohio near the beginning of the novel, they encounter a group of African Americans and their white mistress returning from Texas after the end of the Civil War. The lady speaks with Jane and tries to come across as a “benevolent” master who never beat her slaves and gave them everything they could need. However, Jane has no desire to return to the mistress’s plantation with her and her slaves. Instead, she and Ned eat the food that the woman offers and go on their way, but not before the woman tempts the duo to return to Rogers Grove with her and her caravan.
Three times, the mistress pleads with Jane to return to Rogers Grove with her. Each time, she says, “come back with me,” and each time Jane refuses. After Jane tells the lady that she plans to go to Ohio, the woman responds with, “Oh, child, child, there ain’t no Ohio. If there is, it ain’t what you done made it up in your mind. Y’all come back with me. Y’all come back. I’ll treat you right” (30). The white mistresses tempts Jane by telling her that the North is not all that she thinks it is cracked up to be, and that her and Ned will be better off at Rogers Grove where the mistress will treat them “right.” Jane does not waver, and she bluntly informs the white lady that her and Ned have started out for Ohio and they plan to finish their journey.
As Ned and Jane prepare to leave the caravan, Jane asks the woman whether or not there is a bridge over the river. The lady tells her about the ferry then intones, “Oh, child, child, come back with me. There ain’t no Ohio” (30). Again, the mistress tries to dissuade Jane by telling her that the North is not real, and if it is, it will not be any better than what she has in Louisiana. Jane refuses this temptation as well, asking the woman, a second time, to tell her what a ferry is. Jane learns that she needs money to ride the ferry, and she tells the lady that her and Ned do not have any money. This time, the mistress simply replies, “Come back with me” (31). Jane refuses one final time, thanking the lady for the food and waking towards the ferry.
Unlike Jesus, Jane does not start her “ministry” after this initial temptation; instead, she lives, and endures, various struggles throughout her life. It is not until she crosses over that her “ministry” within the community begins. In describing her travels, Jane mirrors Jesus because she counters each temptation with a question or further knowledge in the same way that Jesus counters Satan by quoting scripture. At the start of her travels, “a White Man with long yellow hair” tells Jane that in order to get rid of the load she carriers on her back she “must take it ‘cross yon river” (143). Travelling towards the river that the “White Man” points towards, Jane comes across “briers [that] sprung up” and “snakes [that] crawled round [her] bare feet” (143). Nature rises up to hinder Jane’s progress in the same way that it does when she tries to make it to Ohio.
A man stands before Jane, telling her that he will carry the load across the river for her, and Jane flatly tells him, “no.” When he hears this, the “jet black” man turns into Ned and pleads with her more. Confused, Jane finally claims, “I believe that’s nobody but the devil trying to fool poor Jane” (143). Just like Jesus in the desert, Jane experiences temptation from what she perceives to be the devil, tempting her to relinquish her burden before she crosses over. To test the apparition of Ned, Jane asks it what it carried around after the death of Big Laura. The figure of Ned does not respond and immediately vanishes into thin air.
Next, Jane sees her dead husband Joe Pittman. Like Ned, Joe tells Jane to give him the sack and he will carry it over the river. He asks her to give him the sack three times, and when she refuses three times, he vanishes just like Ned before him. Rather than questioning the apparition, Jane simply refuses, causing Joe to disappear. Finally, she sees Albert Cluveau riding the horse that killed Joe and holding a gun. Jane looks back over her shoulder and sees her surrogate son and husband beckoning her to return. Again, she refuses the temptation and carries on, confronting Albert who raises his gun but ultimately disappears when he realizes that Jane will not stop.
When she reaches the other side of the river, the “White Man” smiles at her and removes the load from her back. The savior appearing as a “White Man” is worth exploring, but that is not the point of this post. After her travels, Jane takes on a more central role in the community as a activist. In this way, she starts her “ministry” when Jimmy Aaron approaches her about helping with the demonstrations in Bayonne. Eventually, Jane agrees then leads the march to Bayonne after Jimmy’s death at the end of the novel.
Like Jesus, Jane encounters temptation, both physically and spiritually. These tests mirror those of Jesus in the gospels when he went into the desert and Satan tempted him there three times. After this sojourn, Jesus began his ministry, and after her travels, Jane begins her active role in the community working towards social change. These similarities deserve more attention than I can give to them in this post. As usual, what are your thoughts? Let me know in the comments below.
Gaines, Ernest J. The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. New York: Bantam Books, 1972.