In the story “The Sky is Gray”, by Ernest J. Gaines, the typical boundaries of a mother and son relationship are tested with the sacrifices they endure. The story moves from the image of Octavia as a mother and later a leader teaching James to survive. She teaches him to survive in the society surrounding them through many different lessons of life.
The lessons that Octavia teach James are imminent for the survival of an African-American family facing minimal opportunity and hardships without a man in the family. Octavia shows James how to survive in life by not showing weakness, making hard decisions, and never letting anything or anyone lower your pride. Throughout James’s life it is clear that he has learned from his mother that if he wants to survive he cannot show any weakness. It is clear that the story surrounds James growing up, and that he has already learned a lot from what he has gone through in the past. The story implies James has already been shown that sacrifices for the well being of the family need to be made and that he must set an example for his younger brothers. James shows this by not saying anything about his tooth ache, “cause I know we didn’t have enough money to go and have it pulled” (476).
This shows how James realized that he must not only set a good example for his brothers but he knows that it is either his discomfort or hardship for the family. Later James shows his responsibility about the family’s money by not mentioning his hunger because he doesn’t want the small amount of money that his mother has to be spent on him. This can be shown in the following passage: “She takes a quarter out the handkerchief and ties the handkerchief up again. She looks over her shoulder at the people, but she still don’t move. I hope she don’t spend the money. I don’t want her spending it on me.
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I’m hungry, I’m almost starving. I’m so hungry, but I don’t want her spending the money on me” (490).
It is very apparent that James has a firm grasp on understanding that sacrifices in life need to be made without weakness. James’s brothers, however, do not completely know about how everything operates and Octavia clearly shows them what isn’t acceptable.
“She don’t want you to be scared, either. ‘Cause Ty’s scared of ghosts and she’s always whipping him” (475).
Octavia shows her children at a young age that weakness isn’t an option in life because she knows that nothing in life is going to be easy. It is clear that Octavia has shown James that not being weak is a way to survive; James still needs to understand that life is still faced with harder decisions. As James begins to understand the importance of surviving in the world around him the hard decisions of life are shown to be sacrifices. It is clear that James sees the position and responsibility that Octavia has over her family, yet she still hasn’t shown him how difficult decisions are just another part of life.
James states: “me and Ty was go’n play with them and let them go, but she made me kill them ’cause we needed the food” (479).
This clearly shows that Octavia made James kill the birds because the family needed to eat and teaching him that surviving is a very important part of life. Octavia then disciplines James in the following passage: “Octavia”, Auntie say, “explain to him. Explain to him Just don’t beat him. Explain to him.” But she hit me and hit me. I’m still young-I ain’t no more than eight; but I know now; I know why I had to do it…
I didn’t know it then, but I know it now. Auntie and Monsieur Bayonne talked to me and made me see (480).
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This shows how Octavia shows the children that not only do sacrifices need to be made, but in life there are never options. Octavia beats James because she is afraid of what could happen to her family if something were to happen to her. James is the next one in line to take over the responsibility of the family and Octavia must teach him to take care of the family. After James learns about why the birds needed to be killed he states “Suppose she had to go away? That’s why I had to do it.
Suppose she had to go away like Daddy went away? Then who was go’n look after us?” (480).
This clearly shows that although he thought of the bird as a pet, the sacrifice to kill the bird for the family is a tough decision, but one that needs to be made without question. Octavia is showing James that hard decisions are mere sacrifices for the family and that by taking responsibly for decisions requires a lot of pride. Even though Octavia has responsibility to provide for her family, her pride will not let her lower herself even if it will benefit the family. Even though Octavia doesn’t have an adequate amount of money to support her family she will not let anyone else help her. She makes a strong point about her pride in a small section of the story: “There’s is food in the kitchen,” she says to Mama.
“I’ve been keeping it warm.” Mama turns right around and starts for the door. “Just a minute,” the old lady says. Mama stops. “The boy ” ll have to work for it. It isn’t free.”We don’t take no handout,” Mama says. “I’m not handing out anything,” the old lady says.
“I need my garbage moved to the front. Earnest has a bad cold and can’t go out there.”James will move it for you,” Mama says. “Not unless you eat,” the old lady says. “I’m old, but I have m pride, too, you know” (492).
In the story the old lady clearly wants to give Octavia and James food because she is considerate not because she feels sorry for them. Octavia refuses however, and wont let anyone else look down on her and lower her pride.
The old lady tries again to help out Octavia when she offers her extra salt meat. “You sell salt meat?” she says. “Yes.”Give me two bits worth.”That isn’t very much salt meat,” the old lady says. “That’s all I have,” Mama says. The old lady goes behind the counter and cuts a big piece of the chunk. Then she wraps it up and puts it in a paper bag.
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“Two bits,” she says. “That looks like an awful lot of meat for a quarter,” Mama says. “What?” the old lady says. “Weight it,” Mama says. “What?” the old lady says. “Are you telling me how to run my business?” …
Me and Mama stop again and look at her. The old lady takes the meat out of the bag unwraps it and buts ’bout half of it off. Then she wraps it up again and juggs it back in the bag and gives the bay to Mama. Mama lay’s the quarter on the counter. “Your kindness will never be forgotten,” she says.
“James,” she says to me (494).
Octavia and the old lady only share a couple of lines of conversation, yet completely communicate with each other that there is mutual respect and that Octavia has pride. Octavia can clearly get away with taking the extra meat but she understands that if she does, she is potentially letting the woman look down on her as if she cannot take care of her family. Octavia understands that she has responsibility for her family and she will not let anyone else take her pride because she is proud that she works for everything her family has.
At the very end of the story James learns a little more about pride: “The sleet’s coming down heavy, heavy now, and I turn up my coat collar to keep my neck warm. My mama tells me to turn it right back down. “You not a bum,” she says “You a man”” (494).
Octavia is demonstrating to James that holding your head up high and having class shows ones pride.
She teaches him that by holding her head up high because she is proud to have everything that she has and that she can take care of her family. James understands from Octavia that he must earn everything and that nothing is worth lowering his pride for. Within the story we learn a lot about Octavia and James. We venture into their harsh lives of survival by which Octavia holds the family together.
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Octavia is a very caring mother who puts James in fear and pain but overall shows him that he must struggle to become the man in the family. James is growing up and learning to survive in their society with Octavia’s guidance. Octavia shows James that in order to survive he must not show weakness, face hard decisions, and always have his pride held up high.