Literary Analysis: The Sky Is Gray by E. J. Gaines

Pages: 6
Words: 1640


For many centuries, literature has been a crucial part of society as a means of education and a lens through which society’s conditions are seen and analyzed. Many literary theories have been formulated to answer the how and why of literature and its connection to society. Stougaard-Nielsen (2019) notes that the corpus of concepts and methods utilized in the actual reading of literature constitutes a literary theory.

In essence, literary theory does not imply the meaning of a piece of literature but rather refers to the theories that indicate what literature might signify. Euron (2019) asserts that literary theory is an explanation of the fundamental ideas, or tools, used to try to understand literature. All literary interpretation has a theoretical foundation, yet it can be used to justify a wide range of critical activities. Ernest Gaines’ “The Sky is Gray” demonstrates a connection between the author’s thematic presence and the society in which it was constructed, as demonstrated through the structuralism theory of literature analysis.

Structuralism Theory

All literary forms are composed by authors living in societies with certain structures specific to those social systems and eras. According to Euron (2019), structuralism, which was based mostly on Ferdinand de Saussure’s linguistic theories, saw language signs and meanings that could only be understood in connection with others and the entire system. Structuralism disputed the notion that a literary text mirrored a specific reality; rather, a text was made up of language rules and placed amid other writings. Structuralist critics looked at material by looking at the underlying structures, including characterization and plot, and attempting to demonstrate how such trends were universal, allowing them to draw sweeping conclusions about individual works and the structures from which they arose. Using this theory, Gaines’ story can represent racial segregation and its consequent impacts on society during the Jim Crow era.

The “Sky is Gray’s Literary Analysis

Literature is comprised of elements such as plot and character choices, which authors use to communicate their theories and reflect social concerns. In Gaines’ story, the plot indicates not only the author’s life but also that of fellow countrymen during the time of writing. In his work, Gaines says the sky is gray, ironically showing the conditions in his life. Gaines lost his father during the war and was forced to endure harsh conditions while growing up with his mother, siblings, and aunt (Gale, 2016). The choice of the story’s title was symbolic of the present turmoil and people’s psychological condition at the time. It hints at the story’s grim mood at first but also at optimism for the future. On his journey to Bayonne, James discovers that the gloomy clouds that have engulfed his life are dispersing to allow some brightness to shine through (Gaines, 2002). The story is told in a rather depressing tone throughout.

The tone was synonymous with the political and social climate. The gloominess is aided by the environmental conditions and human interactions seen through the experiences of James. The concept that many of the scenes are colorless is another indicator of the gloominess of the story. For example, the road in this story is quite gray: “It’s a long old road, and as far as the eye can see, there’s nothing but gravel” (Gaines, 2002, p. 309). Even the clothes they wear are incredibly dark in color, as James comments about his mother’s “black cloak and black cap” (Gaines, 2002, p. 306). The gloom illustrated in the story is synonymous with the post-war conditions from which the community was trying to recover. Many may have lost their loved ones during the war, leading to hopelessness. Linking this to the structuralist theory, the author used the sad tone throughout the story to help readers comprehend the political system in which James and his family were living.

Racial discrimination has always been synonymous with human suffering and national disintegration. Gaines’ story shows how racial prejudice during the World War caused families and communities to crash. According to Stougaard-Nielsen (2019), literary theory creates the concept of race, social stratification, and sexual identity for literary criticism from the point of view of the author’s life story and an assessment of their thematic appearance within texts. The structuralist theory takes a variety of approaches to comprehending the importance of linguistic and psychological parts of the text, as well as the significance of historical background in interpretation (Euron, 2019). James and his mother catch the bus to Bayonne because he has a toothache, which is emblematic of the festering wounds of prejudice.

James, the first-person narrator, clearly conveys his almost intolerable feelings of pain, cold, and hunger, as they travel in the rear of the vehicle, meant for blacks and stroll the streets of Bayonne. Notably, only his admiration and affection for his mother prevented him from complaining. Initially, James had tried hard to conceal his toothache until his aunt knew about it and told his mother (Gaines, 2002). The idea of pain and concealing it are synonymous with the tough conditions in which the community lived due to racial discrimination. However, they continued coexisting as if nothing was wrong since they had been accustomed to such suffering. This instance relates to the structuralist theory’s premise that human behavior is not associated with personal choices but rather with the conditions to which they are subjected.

Indoctrination and forced beliefs are demonstrated through the discourse between Christian believers and blacks who refuse to follow the white man’s religion. James’ journey to the dentist includes a dispute between a black pastor who accepts the Christian idea of suffering and tolerance and an upset young black boy who encourages questioning and action (Gaines, 2002). The conversation between the two showed how racism had caused fellow African Americans to develop philosophical and religious differences so significant that they resulted in violent interactions. The old preacher could not tolerate the young boy’s inquisitive nature and behaved like a brutal colonialist by slapping the boy twice to reinforce his questionable religious ideas (Gaines, 2002).

James understands instinctively that he would rather emulate the young black man than follow the old preacher. The personal connection to the young boy shows that James felt the need to preserve his freedom and native ideals, a concept that further proves the structuralism theory’s premise of systemic influences on human behavior.

Gaines depicts the transformation of a boy whose inquisitiveness and his mother’s toughness transform him into a decisive, strong man. Through James’ interactions with his mother and the white women on his trip to the dentist, Gaines shows how different human perspectives reinforce moral standards in society. The theme of growth is clearly seen in how society expects James to behave and how his mother continuously shows him the kind of man he is expected to be. For instance, when James tried to raise his collar to cover himself from the rain, his mother admonished him, saying “You, not a bum, you a man” (Gaines, 2002, p. 326). Consequently, James grows from a boy who is unable to interpret the world and social expectations into a man who comprehends the concepts of masculinity and integrity, becoming the head of the household.

Structuralism theory gives a basis on which James’ transformation can be understood. In every community, the social constructs of gender and behavior dictate how men and women are expected to conduct themselves and direct their growth patterns. In essence, James and his mother had to act not as they wished but according to the social systems in operation. The author demonstrates that growth is an inevitable process.

Initially, James must rely on whatever he is told to navigate the things surrounding him due to his incapacity to comprehend what he sees. Nevertheless, what he hears from everyone around him, combined with the widespread quiet and lack of justification from his mother, helps define and shape his notion of manhood as he travels to Bayonne (Gaines, 2002). James can finally decide who he wants to be and is ready to defend his family, although he is only an 8-year-old black boy living in a racially segregated community.

Structuralism theory reveals that while social systems may be old, they shape human life through consistent practice. Gaines demonstrates this premise through Octavia’s toughness in raising James. She understands better than him that only by fortitude, endurance, and integrity will he climb above rather than succumb to his environment (Gaines, 2002). While her parenting may appear brutal to those who have never had to teach or master such demanding survival skills, she is committed to molding James into a man who can face any adversity with a straight face. The hardship and pain partly influence this parenting style she has undergone after losing her husband in the war. In this story, love is expressed more through harsh words, strict instructions, and chastening as opposed to hugs. By the end of the story, it is clear that James will never consider himself less than a warrior as a result of his mother’s training.


Literature has existed in many forms, teaching, instructing, and shaping society. Although the authors may portray different themes and apply various writing styles, their writing is motivated by the social systems in which they live. Literary theories have been formulated to aid in understanding literary works, of which the structuralism theory is one. Structuralist theory supporters believe that a piece of literature can be understood in reference to its individual elements and its connection to the social systems in which it is constructed. Gaines’ story demonstrates how political instability, economic challenges, and racial discrimination influenced James’ life. James eventually learns to stand up for himself and his family. Through James’ interactions with his mother, aunt, and doctor, Gaines shows that according to structuralism theory, a person’s life is more impacted by socially constructed systems than personal preferences.


Euron, P. (2019). Structuralism. In Aesthetics, Theory, and Interpretation of the Literary Work (pp. 147-153). Web.

Gaines, E. J. (2002). The Sky is Gray. Nobel Goal Pub.

Gale, C. L. (2016). A Study Guide for Ernest J. Gaines’s” Sky Is Gray”. Gale, Cengage Learning.

Stougaard-Nielsen, J. (2019). The author in literary theory and theories of literature. Cambridge University Press.