The title of the story "The Sky is Gray" by Ernest Gaines is ironic. It suggests at first the bleak mood of the story but also hints at hope in the future. Just as the clouds clear after a storm, James finds out on his trip to Bayonne that the stormy clouds that are his life are parting to let some sunshine through. Throughout the whole story, a very bleak mood is portrayed. The setting contributes to this gloominess.
For example, the weather is awful. James, seeing how cold it was, said, "I seen the smoke coming out o' the cow's nose". Later he says, "The sleet keep falling. Falling like rain now- plenty, plenty". Once James turns up his collar to protect himself from the very windy conditions that also exist throughout the story. Another sign of the story's gloominess is the fact that many of its scenes are without color.
For example, the road in this story is very gray: "It's a long old road, and far's you can see you don't see nothing but gravel", as James put it. James also lets it be known that "the sky is gray" and that there isn't much grass. Even the clothing that they wear is very dull-colored! James' mother is "wearing that black coat and that black hat". The story takes place during a war, which contributes to the overall gloomy setting of the story.
"I wonder when us go'n see him again... Look like he ain't ever coming home", James laments, showing that his father went into the war and most likely is dead. The father's absence leaves his family without adequate food, money, or manpower. The family's poverty (which is partially due to the father's absence) makes their future seem hopeless. The family lives in a poor, rural area, which was typical of black persons of their time. The family is crowded into a small, shabby home, so they must share rooms and beds.
The family's clothes are quite shabby too, for when James sees a mannequin in a store with new brown shoes, he looks at his own old shoes and thinks, "You wait till Summer... ". The family does not even have enough money for some of life's other necessities, such as food and medical care. For example, they eat bread and syrup every day for breakfast; and as James' younger brother, Ty, said, "I'm getting tired of this old syrup. I want me some bacon sometime". Beans are another bland food that James' family must eat every night for dinner; it is not very often that they have meat.
James was even forced as a young boy to kill two small birds against his will, for that was the only way his family could get meat. James' family cannot afford very good medical care, which is why he must go to the worst dentist (of the two in town) to get his sore tooth pulled. Prejudice against James' family (because they are poor and black) also creates great sadness for them. This story takes place before the Civil Rights Movement, which is quite obvious when you see how James and his mother are treated when they go into town. As James said, "When I pass the little sign that say White and Colored, I start looking for a seat [on the bus]", which was a common rule back then. James and his mother cannot go into buildings that are for whites only.
For example, James is not allowed in their "Big old red school, and them children just running and playing... Then us pass a caf'e, and I see a bunch of 'em in there eating". They had to walk halfway across town just to eat at a colored restaurant instead. Despite all the gloom and despair, the title also hints that "gray" (puzzling) events point to hope in the future (just like the sun comes out after a storm). James learns in the dentist's office that accepted ideas and traditions must be questioned and changed when he observes a preacher and a young student get into a debate. The preacher believes in acceptance that offers no hope.
For example, he believes that it is not our place to question life; that is up to God. Under this idea, then, he feels that they should not question how the Whites are oppressing them. The student, however, believes in questioning and changing. He feels that they should question everything -- the blacks' place in society, even God Himself!
He gives the example of "The wind is pink, The grass is black". To show that they should not just believe everything they are told, they should instead try to change and find out for themselves (You believe it's green because someone told you it was green. If someone had told you it was black you'd believe it was black". ).
As he says, "Things are changing because some black men have begun to follow their brains instead of their hearts". This shows that there is hope for the future black generations. James and his mother's miserable day is redeemed by an act of kindness from an unexpected stranger. A White couple, seeing what is going on, show compassion by letting James and his mom into their home for food and warmth. The couple also gets the two back into the dentist's office (probably because they are White). However, the couple also recognizes James and his mother's dignity.
The woman lets James take her trash to the corner in exchange for the food ("Ernest [her husband] has a bad cold and can't go out there". ). However, when James lifts the cans, he can feel that they are empty. When James and his mom are leaving, she asks the old lady if she sells salt meat (seeing that the old woman's house is also a store). The old lady does, and Mama asks for two bits worth. The old woman knows that this isn't much, so she tries to give mama more than her money's worth.
Mama notices this, so the old lady, trying to restore mama's pride, eventually gives her the correct amount of salt meat for her money. Throughout the story, James begins to pass his mother's tests for being a man of the household. For example, James doesn't show the pain of his toothache, trying to appear strong for his family. He's also learning to hide his fear, which shows in the "bird event". The biggest test of all perhaps is when James learns that dignity ("you " re not a bum, you " re a man") is more important than the chill wind. The reader is left hoping with James that soon the sun may finally peak through the clouds in his life.