Critical Analysis of Ernest J. Gaines’s A Gathering of Old Men

If The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman ends by signaling the beginning of a social revolution, A Gathering of Old Men brings this conflict to a logical conclusion. Set in 1979 on the Marshall Plantation, Gaines’s fifth novel focuses on a group of elderly men who come to terms with their regret over past passivity and decide to claim their manhood and dignity. The action begins when Candy Marshall, part owner of the plantation, calls a child to deliver several messages. Men are to come with twelve-gauge shotguns and number-five shells to Mathu’s house. Candy believes that Mathu, a black man who has helped raise her, has shot Beau Boutan, a Cajun farmer who has leased the Marshall Plantation. Trying to protect Mathu, Candy plans to confess to the murder, and she hopes others will claim guilt in order to obscure Mathu’s culpability. Long recognized for his clear sense of manhood and refusal to submit to white men, Mathu is certain to be arrested by Sheriff Mapes. Candy— and everyone else in the story—also fears reprisals by the Boutan family, known for its cruelty to blacks. Once men of the surrounding area hear Candy’s message, they consider their past and decide to take advantage of an opportunity to stand and be recognized as men. Mainly in their seventies, these characters seem an odd collection of defenders, but during the course of a day, most claim their position as men and earn respect from Sheriff Mapes.

Ernest J. Gaines/Jennifer Zdon for The New York Times

STRUCTURE AND POINT OF VIEW

This novel’s structure is almost classical in its attention to the unities of time, place, and action. Setting his work on a south Louisiana plantation in 1979 and having the action take place during an eight-hour day, Gaines gave his novel the feel of a Greek tragedy. While he was not conscious of alternating points of view between races, he was emphatic about balancing sections, working hard to counter the effects of tense, dramatic scenes with comic ones.

Divided into twenty chapters, the novel’s action moves forward through Gaines’s masterful weaving of fifteen different narrative voices encompassing an exceptionally wide range: black, white, male, female, young, old, educated, not educated, racist, liberal, and confused. All chapters are introduced by a character’s name in both its formal and familiar forms (Babb, Ernest Gaines, 114). The formal name, for example Cyril Robillard, reflects the name on documents like birth certificates and telephone directory listings. For most of the black characters, this official name merits little recognition by the white community, reflecting their lack of access to civil rights. It’s the familiar name that is known. The double identities indicate a dual consciousness. Both black and white characters are aware of the past in some form, with its lingering traditions and social customs, and the fact that these traditions are quickly fading. In some cases, the dual name may indicate continuing denigration of an individual, as is the case of Chimley. Names also reflect a social hierarchy. Thus, the ‘‘Miss’’ before Merle designates her as a member of the white ruling class. Community size and closeness are also reflected in name usage. That people cannot remember the formal names signals a level of physical intimacy experienced only by small groups in physically limited areas. Gaines plays upon the irony of this closeness in the final courtroom scene, when the national press laughs at the outrageousness of the men’s names. As outsiders, they will never see the affection implied by their use.

Three narrative voices occur more than once: Lou Dimes, a white Baton Rouge reporter and Candy’s fiance; Snookum, a black child on the plantation; and Sully, a white college student and close friend of Beau Boutan’s young brother, Gil, both students at Louisiana State University (LSU). In an early version of the novel, Gaines experimented with having Lou Dimes tell the entire story but soon discovered that this narrator couldn’t have access to the kind of information he would need to relate to other characters and that Lou wouldn’t express himself in the kind of language Gaines wanted to include. He therefore moved into multiple first-person narratives.

All of the narrators having more than one section share an ‘‘outsider’s’’ perspective, giving their points of view an emotional distance necessary for credibility. As a reporter, Lou remains both keenly observant and emotionally detached. His job, after all, is to record the scene before him. Aware of both the racial politics and the history of Marshall in particular and Louisiana in general, Lou instantly grasps the social dynamic before him. To Lou, the initial question isn’t who could kill Beau but which black family wouldn’t want to see him dead. Lou’s narrative perspective also works to defuse potential shock and anger. For example, Mapes slapping Uncle Billy around has less emotional impact because Lou expects it. Lou’s point of view often adds a comic perspective, as readers detect in his ironic observations of Deputy Griffin’s fear when encountering armed black men.

Snookum and Sully narrate two chapters each. A child, Snookum brings to his chapters an essential innocence, honesty, and curiosity. He’s bold, experimental, and adventurous, often disobeying his grandmother and every other adult present. Thanks to his disobedience, readers discover Beau Boutan’s body early in the novel. They can measure the degree to which Snookum has been sheltered from history and awareness of racist terrorism in the contrast between his relating what he has seen and Janey’s reaction to the news. Janey instantly panics, fearing immediate reprisals from Fix Boutan, while Snookum asks for something to eat. Snookum’s role is to complicate the story by providing a generational measure between the elderly, who have been subjugated through insults and beatings, and the young, who fail to show the deference demanded by custom. Snookum’s boldness is reflected in his speech when he omits to add the customary ‘‘Mr.’’ or ‘‘Miss’’ when addressing white people. This anticipates a different kind of future relationship. As a child closely observing the actions of adults, Snookum absorbs the lessons of manly behavior throughout this day. He will move from fearing his younger brother’s tale-telling to boldly offering himself for Sheriff Mapes to beat.

Sully also provides an outsider’s point of view. Of Irish instead of French descent, he enters the narrative initially because of his friendship with Gil Boutan. A football star, Gil is the white member of a racially mixed gridiron duo, paired with Cal Harrison. Poised to become an all- American, Gil is a state hero, a media star, and a model of manhood in a state that worships football. But Sully is Cal’s friend and teammate as well as Gil’s. Sully is shocked when, after learning of Beau’s death, Gil turns against Cal. His lack of awareness regarding the Boutan family’s history with regard to race serves to increase the reliability of his observations. He can relate what he sees with an accuracy unprejudiced by family ties and a heritage of racial reprisals. One of the few collegeeducated characters in this novel, Sully also introduces two significant comparisons. When he first enters Marshall and sees the old men, Sully says, ‘‘It was like looking into the Twilight Zone’’ (117). And he further compares his experience to a Breughels painting. Both the television series and the paintings are suggestive of the unexpected and the surrealistic. They underscore a new dimension of reality and force a recognition of a previously unnoticed element. Sully’s voice adds a metaphysical dimension which readers should not ignore.

The remaining twelve chapters are voiced by different characters, some of whom tell their own stories. While each chapter has a distinctive voice reflecting the thought processes of the character whose name introduces the chapter, many chapters allow other characters to voice their stories and some contain dramatic reportage which records what other characters say. These chapters illustrate Gaines’s skill in rendering character through narrative perspective. Particularly effective are those chapters belonging to Tee Jack, the owner of the liquor and grocery store where Jack Marshall and the Klan members drink; and Sharp, a Klan member apparently less driven to violence than Luke Will. Gaines is masterful in creating the self-serving excuses of bullies and cowards. Out of their mouths flows the ‘‘justification’’ for brutality and racist acts that continue to echo among Klan and Nazi admirers.

But as a counterpoint to these perspectives, Gaines inserts those of characters willing to abandon the self-serving postures of Sharp and Tee Jack. These chapters have an authentic ring in voicing the self-doubt many black characters feel and in the comic badinage that lightens their moments of tension. Even Dirty Red, one of the most marginal members of the community, is given a voice and an act of personal redemption.

PLOT DEVELOPMENT

Rather than using key scenes, recurring events, or dreams to further his narrative, Gaines engages point of view as his primary device of plot development. A Gathering of Old Men is deliberately crowded with characters who push the sequence of action forward even as some characters reach back in time more than fifty years to recall acts justifying their presence at Mathu’s house. In fact, as many as thirty-nine characters come to Mathu’s house during the course of this October afternoon and evening, and most remain until the climactic action. Initially, the plot line appears linear, beginning with Candy’s call to action at Aunt Glo’s house and culminating in the gunfight against the Klan representatives at Mathu’s. Lou Dimes’s trial summary serves as an epilogue. Reading this primary plot line, readers are led to believe that the principal source of conflict lies between Mathu and Mapes, representing a racial dichotomy.

But Gaines never intended this to be a simple narrative. From the first, he complicates the action and obscures the source of conflict by having Candy deliberately withhold information from Snookum. Then he misleads readers about the motivation and identity of Beau Boutan’s killer by having everyone deny the possibility of Charlie’s involvement and by having Charlie remain away from the scene until the end of the novel. Because Mathu remains silent, most characters assume that he has shot Beau, and the plot seems to focus on why all these old men gather to defend Mathu. That is only a portion of a complicated plot strategy. Like many of Gaines’s novels, what appears simple is a tightly woven plot. While separating all of the narrative threads would result in a lengthy discussion, isolating several may prove useful to readers.

Most of the black characters are connected to and by place, not merely St. Raphael Parish but Marshall Plantation. The graveyard scene in chapter 6 suggests more than a former physical connection to and displacement from the land. It evokes the conflicting emotions characters associate with Marshall. Out of their heritage of slavery and sharecropping, with its backbreaking labor and attendant poverty, grew a proud and tightly knit community, one now almost eradicated by the Cajuns’ tractors. Many of the characters pay homage to the memory of their families, recalling both the role their families played in creating Marshall Plantation and the price they have paid for survival. More than a reminder of family history or of their own deaths, the graveyard also helps characters recall a history of injury inflicted and condoned by the white community. In fact, during this day, many characters will remember an act seeming to typify racial relations: Mat’s son’s needless death, Cherry Bello’s sister’s murder, Coot’s deliberate humiliation as a returning soldier, and Silas Tucker’s murder for having the energy and determination to beat Cajuns and machines. These are recalled, not simply as sources of injury but as incentive for characters to act. As Rufe observes, all had ‘‘done the same thing . . . we had all seen our brother, sister, mama, daddy insulted once and didn’t do a thing about it’’ (97). In uniting with Mathu against what has heretofore been an unjust legal arrangement, Gaines’s characters come to terms with an infinitely more complex source of conflict, an interior conflict in which one weighs survival against integrity, safety against manhood. For the elderly men, Fix and Beau represent racial oppression in the many forms all have experienced. In confronting one, the men confront all forms of racial oppression and thus redress their past deficiencies.

Gaines, however, does not make this simply a racial issue. From the beginning, he sets up Mathu and Mapes more as colleagues than adversaries, indicating a mutual respect reaching into the past. Even when the source of conflict seems to fall along color lines, he indicates a more complex interior struggle. We see this in Mathu’s emotional separation from Candy throughout the text. As a white person in a prominent social position, Candy assumes that she should protect Mathu, ignoring the fact that this patronizing attitude suggests Mathu’s lack of ability or authority. Mathu sees this, though, and physically separates himself from Candy, suggesting not so much disaffection with her but unity with his contemporaries who have claimed their manhood. Mathu, like many of the black characters, must struggle with his own attitudes regarding race. He tells the men that he has been proud that his Senegalese blood is untainted by ‘‘white’’ blood. But he comes to see that personal dignity has more to do with acts of conscience and courage than with racial purity.

President Obama presents the 2012 National Medals of Arts to Ernest J. Gaines in a ceremony in the East Room of the White House.

Just as the black community seems divided against itself, so is the white community. We see this personified in Sheriff Mapes and Candy, who must compromise their sense of authority and accord the men at Mathu’s the respect they earn and demand. Mixed attitudes toward power and race are effectively dramatized in the bar scene in chapter 13. Here, readers encounter Jack Marshall, who bears a burden of guilt over his family’s slave-holding past even while he continues to support its social customs. Jack has chosen to drown his social responsibilities in alcohol rather than accept his responsibility as plantation owner and social leader. Then there is Luke Will and his group, trying to assert their power through terrorist tactics. When the professor from the University of Southwest Louisiana (USL) tries to engage Jack in some form of conversation in an attempt to have him voice a moral stand, he concludes, ‘‘The debt is never finished as long as we stand for this [violence]’’ (164). Jack denies any responsibility, advising the professor to return to Texas if he cannot accept what’s going on in Louisiana. This echo of regional chauvinism has a very hollow ring, as does Tee Jack’s empty appeal to racial solidarity. Ultimately, of course, acts of conscience ought to be color-blind, though this has not been true in the past, when appeals to tradition and racial solidarity seemed persuasive. Now, however, as the USL professor says, ‘‘That kind of thing is over with’’ (157).

Gaines illustrates the obsolescence of the attitude expressed by Luke Will and his friends in Tee Jack’s bar by injecting the subplot revolving around the football teamwork of Gil ‘‘Salt’’ Boutan and Cal ‘‘Pepper’’ Harrison. Here, he illustrates what everyone knows but few acknowledge: the interdependence of races and classes. This is best dramatized in the character of Gil Boutan, who represents a bridge generation between his father, Fix, and his nephew, Tee Beau. Though Gil initially claims kinship based on race with Candy, saying, ‘‘We’re all made of the same bone, the same blood, the same skin’’ (122), he understands that family isn’t sufficient. To succeed, he relies on the skill and ability of Cal. Soon after speaking to Candy, Gil says to his father, Fix, ‘‘I can’t make it without Cal, Papa. I depend on him’’ (138). He speaks for all the characters of the community. Cal and Gil’s teamwork merely reiterates that which has taken place on Marshall for over a hundred years. The difference, of course, is that Cal now gets equal credit for his accomplishments, and Gil acknowledges both Cal’s skill and his right to be recognized.

This is not true of the Marshall team of Beau Boutan and Big Charlie. When we finally get to the precipitating action at the end of the novel, we learn that Beau has refused to acknowledge both the worth of Charlie’s work and his status as a man. In fact, Beau is willing to kill Charlie rather than accept him as an equal, though Beau has worked closely with and profited from Charlie’s labor for more than twenty years. Withholding this information until the end of the novel has two major results. First, it skillfully directs readers’ attention away from the notion of a single cause and action to the shared issue of manhood. One by one, personal stories accumulate, illustrating a densely complex personal and racial history shared by many characters. Second, by suspending the immediate cause of Beau’s death, Gaines builds the relationship of seemingly different personal experiences. Thus, when Big Charlie finally reveals how and why Beau meets his death, readers can easily see a webwork of connections to the lives and experiences of other characters. In the end, Charlie’s fight is their fight, his decision to stand or die like a man is their decision.

CHARACTERIZATION

Readers might readily note that the ‘‘main’’ characters, seemingly Mathu and Candy, do not tell their stories. And if they are dominant figures in the novel, it is because their stories are integral to its central conflict. Orphaned at five, Candy, now thirty, has been primarily raised by Mathu and Miss Merle, a family friend, because her closest blood relatives, her Uncle Jack and Aunt Bea, are incapable of giving her any direction. Both seem to be alcoholics, more interested in liquor than in life. Shortly after Candy is left to be raised by Jack and Bea, Merle arranges a division of education. Mathu teaches Candy about ‘‘the people’’ while Miss Merle schools her in southern ladyhood. As we can see from Candy’s passionate attachment to Mathu and her patronizing sense of loyalty, both have been successful in imparting lessons. Trying to be true to her heritage, Candy takes charge, feeling responsible for the safety of ‘‘her people.’’ Certain of Mathu’s guilt, Candy orchestrates the gathering, anticipates Sheriff Mapes, and then steps forward to assume responsibility once Mapes arrives. Her color, gender, and social position provide all the protective armor she needs. Candy Marshall is clearly a character to reckon with, and she’s also one to observe closely. Her physical proximity to Mathu throughout the novel attests to her deep concern for him. It also suggests her emotional dependence. Much of their relationship, however, is not expressed through words. Here, merely a word or a gesture suggests volumes. Believing that only she can protect the black residents of Marshall against Mapes and the Boutans, Candy fails to listen to anyone else. Only late in the story, when Mathu speaks to her, does she begin to listen.

Their physical separation, indicating an emotional break, comes at the insistence of the old men, and it forces her to reluctantly recognize an already changed relationship. To Candy, Mathu embodies the soul of Marshall, with its history of work and sacrifice. To lose Mathu means losing Marshall, as Candy indicates when she says, ‘‘They [her father and grandfather] said if you went, it went, because we could not—it could not—not without you, Mathu’’ (177). In accepting her role as responsible owner, Candy has failed to grasp the fundamental inequality of their relationship that offers protection for submission. On this day, Candy will be forced to see Mathu as an individual capable of fighting his own battles.

Of course, one of the many ironies of this novel is that Mathu has been defending his honor throughout his life. All of the characters pay respect to him because of his absolute refusal to diminish himself for anyone. The story of Mathu’s fight with Fix Boutan rather than return Fix’s pop bottle has become community legend. One of the oldest living residents on Marshall, Mathu is proud of his pure Senegalese heritage, but he comes to characterize himself not as a hero but ‘‘a mean, bitter old man’’ who has placed ‘‘myself above all’’ (182). Characterizing his pride as a form of hatred, he has lived life hating whites for their refusal to acknowledge his citizenship and other blacks for their reluctance to become citizens. Mathu’s anger, as Daniel White has observed, has kept him from balancing his commanding influence with understanding (White, ‘‘Haunted by the Idea,’’ 173). But during this day, along with the other old men, Mathu changes. Perhaps he even changes the most, attributing his pride not to his acts but to those of the men around him.

Rather than individualize a single character to represent a group of people and/or idea, Gaines creates a group as his ‘‘principal’’ character. He wanted the men to be important, not simply a single character. Still, he individualizes his characters not only by color and nickname but through language and gesture. Dirty Red always seems to have a soggy, ash-laden, self-rolled cigarette hanging from his lip. Mapes rolls a Lifesaver around his mouth. Deputy Griffin pulls his gun when he feels safe and abandons it when he feels threatened. All of these gestures indicate something essential about their natures. Gaines heightens reader awareness of character differences through their nicknames: Coot, Rooster, Cherry Red, Rufe, Clabber, and Chimley. Some names, like Clabber, Cherry, and Chimley, suggest skin color, while others, like Rooster, suggest stature and temperament. Nicknames also draw readers into immediate intimacy, bypassing formalities. Just as he does in other novels, Gaines distinguishes each character through grammar, repetition, dialect, sentence structure, and tone. Janey’s panicked pleas to Jesus suggest more than fear; they indicate her religious faith and her sense of powerlessness. Lou Dimes’s ironic reportage in standard English indicates an emotional distance in addition to education and profession. A Gathering of Old Men is literally a tour de force of characterization through language, indicating Gaines’s genius in creating individual characters with remarkable economy.

THEMATIC CONCERNS AND LITERARY DEVICES

As the novel’s title suggests, A Gathering of Old Men has as its thematic center the subject of manhood. This is a recurring issue in Gaines’s fiction because of its personal and general resonance. Gaines’s story deliberately concentrates on men, with little space given to female characters or experiences. When women are a part of the narrative, it’s often to heighten a weak male self-image because one of the characteristics of manhood seems to be the privilege of ordering women around. Thus, Chimley derives some pleasure from commanding his wife to have his fish cleaned when he returns, and Lou Dimes gets ridiculed because Candy won’t obey him. But this definition of manhood—and many others— will prove false during the day.

Throughout the novel, various examples of ‘‘manhood’’ are offered. Despite their attempts to live up to these examples, most male characters have been denied status as men, primarily because of race. Many of the men relate personal tales suggesting their sense of failure. Most stories revolve around an inability to protect family members. Mat, Cherry, Billy, and Gable, for example, recognize their ineffectiveness against a social and economic system that denies them access and ignores their existence. Someone they love is denied hospital care, legal access, or humane treatment by social institutions charged with particular responsibilities. Coot, who believes he has earned status as a man through his military service, is threatened with injury if he’s seen wearing his World War I uniform. The standard of manhood has, for the most part, depended upon the subjugation of someone or something. And it has personal risk as its price. All of the black characters recall insults, threats, beatings—some form of humiliation carried out to diminish their sense of Self. But during this day, each character learns that being a man does not depend upon diminishing the worth of others. It does, however, mean demanding recognition of one’s worth—even when defense of personal dignity leads to violence. Most of all, manhood includes taking responsibility for one’s actions and a willingness to face the consequences of those actions. As Charlie says late in the novel, ‘‘A nigger boy run and run and run. But a man come back’’ (187).

What Charlie learns in the swamp is similar to the lesson the old men absorb in the graveyard. Here, the spirits of the past seem to speak to the men, reminding them of their mortality and the dignity of human endeavor. There’s more nourishment than that provided by the pecans, though the rich nuts signify the presence of life. In the graveyard, the men put aside their differences of color and status and engage in each other’s lives. Recognizing the possible price of their acts, they rise above personal concerns, committing both to each other and to the task at hand. Clatoo, who assumes leadership, gives everyone an opportunity to turn away, and when no one does, he shows his pride and confidence in the men by announcing that they are going in like soldiers, not tramps. Late in the novel, readers learn that the land has communicated a similar message to Charlie, who cannot leave Marshall because an invisible wall prevents his escape. Once Charlie stops to listen, he hears ‘‘a voice calling me back here’’ (193). Having sparked Beau’s brutality by insisting that Beau respect his age, if nothing else, Charlie comes to understand that he must fight his own battle instead of hiding behind his godfather, Mathu. Moreover, Charlie refuses to back away from the threatened actions of Luke Will, whose sense of worth, like Beau’s, depends upon Charlie’s fear and self-abasement. In fact, Charlie will take the lead in directing the shooting, as Luke Will acknowledges when he tells Sharp that Mapes isn’t in charge: ‘‘Charlie is. We got to deal with Charlie now’’ (206).

While the issue of manhood is one all of the old men come to terms with, Gaines makes sure readers understand that manhood is everyone’s issue, everyone’s fight. The reason why this is so important is that it moves to the core of social injustice. Gaines’s novel illustrates an overwhelmingly patriarchal social order, one dependent upon a diminished class of people deprived of both political and economic power, denied legal protection, and subject to culturally sanctioned acts of violence— at least this has been true in the past. As long as the men collude in their own abasement, they perpetuate a system, even though it has become completely ineffectual. Readers see this most clearly in the characters of Jack Marshall and Fix Boutan. Jack will have no part of any business, passing responsibility to Candy, who, as a woman, lacks authority in any patriarchal system. Try as she might to affect being male, with her khaki slacks and short hair, Candy wields less authority than Jack, though Jack is utterly passive. Fix also finds his strength diminished by time and change. Gil’s shame over his family’s reputation for brutal racist acts prevents Fix from supporting more violence, not because he believes his impulse wrong but because two sons express the obsolescence of his ideas. Fix believes that retribution against the black community defends his family honor and thus insists upon family unity before he acts. Without complete accord, Fix has no motive other than personal revenge, and he refuses to go against the decision of the male members of his family, despite his voiced contempt for their objections. Gil and Jean, motivated in part by personal costs, force their father to recognize that times have changed.

September 23, 2014: Ernest Gaines at his home library in Oscar, Louisianna. (Paul Kieu, The Advertiser)

In fact, change is another theme of this novel, a theme expressed through image and action. Once again Gaines’s fiction dramatizes the economic impact mechanization has on the black community. He places Beau’s running tractor in a prominent position and calls attention to its impact throughout the novel. For twenty-five years the Boutans have leased Marshall land, using tractors instead of people to work the cane fields. Given the most productive land to farm because of skin color, the Boutans have increased their productivity and economic security while the Marshall residents have lost theirs. Tractors, then, threaten the survival of the Marshall community, now populated by old people and children as young adults have left the land for jobs elsewhere. Moreover, tractors threaten the very memory of what Marshall residents have contributed.

When the old folks of Marshall look around, they see weeds, suggestive of untended land. Early in the novel, John Paul asks people what they don’t see. Then he recalls a vital community of the past, bound by work, stories, song, prayer, and four-o’clocks. A community that tended the land, drawing life from it and giving life back to the land. Now people see rotting houses and weed-covered plots. Even the graveyard seems threatened, and with it the memory of what Marshall residents have made. Thus, John Paul claims that he’s standing up for his ‘‘own people’’ and ‘‘for every four-o’clock, every rosebush, every palm-of- Christian ever growed on this place’’ (92).

A Gathering of Old Men deals with another, less visible change as well, a change in social and legal status. In short, the novel deals with changing racial relations. Everyone at Marshall assumes that Fix Boutan, with friends and relatives, will exact a violent revenge for Beau’s death. This includes Sheriff Mapes, who hopes to avert violence by making a quick arrest. Mapes’s initially brutal tactics suggest that little has changed regarding the legal status of black residents. Indeed, most characters, having been victims of an unjust system, assume that Mapes’s presence is to victimize, not protect. But Mapes changes during this long afternoon and evening, his respect growing as he hears their stories. Thus, in the end, he can call Charlie ‘‘Mr. Biggs’’ with genuine respect.

Mapes also points out a changed social status to black residents. When they learn that Fix is not coming, they feel deprived of an opportunityto assert their worth. Sheriff Mapes calls attention to an essential contradiction in their response, saying, ‘‘You told God you wanted Salt and Pepper to get together, and God did it for you. At the same time, you wanted God to keep Fix the way Fix was thirty years ago, so one day you would get a chance to shoot him. Well, God couldn’t do both’’ (171). This social change has been signaled first by Mapes’s efforts to protect the people at Marshall, and it is later reiterated in the courtroom when Judge Reynolds sentences black and white defendents equally. These actions signal a dramatic shift in the legal status of black characters who are finally recognized as citizens.

Readers should pay careful attention to Gaines’s use of three major images throughout the novel: guns, tractors, weeds, and cultivated plants. Candy’s initial order is for men to come with twelve-gauge shotguns and empty number-five shells. She insists that the men shoot before arriving. This makes sense from her perspective, since Candy hopes to frustrate the immediate arrest of Mathu by confusing both the sheriff and the forensic evidence. But the empty shotgun suggests a certain impotence as well. The men appear armed but really have no power to defend themselves or others while their guns are unloaded. Clatoo, however, has brought extra shells, and he orchestrates a means by which the men discreetly reload their guns without drawing the notice of Candy and Sheriff Mapes. Thus, Candy and Mapes see old men with unloaded guns and assume their ineffectiveness. When the men reveal that they have loaded their shotguns, they announce their readiness to defend their manhood. In the end, the men direct the action, literally calling the shots, while Candy and Mapes do nothing.

The tractor, as suggested earlier, emblematizes agricultural mechanization, a changed relationship not merely between people and the land but people and people. It condemns past practices, distances people from land, and threatens the past. Sitting atop a diesel tractor, Fix and Beau Boutan have a fundamentally different relationship with the land than they would working it by hand and mule. They cannot smell, see, or feel the immediate textures of fieldwork. Fix’s attention is on completing the maximum labor with the fewest workers. Workers, like machines, exist to labor tirelessly and merit neither respect nor praise. When they wear out, they are replaced. The tractor doesn’t merely displace people, though a major consequence of its use is to drive young adults on Marshall away from a way of life to find another livelihood. The tractor also changes the relationship between two competing groups, people who actually have much in common. Given the advantage of the best land tofarm, Fix, with his tractor, can believe himself a superior farmer. His machine increases his productivity—and his ambition. He wants to lease the entire Marshall Plantation, though the result is to drive off the people who have lived there and worked the land for five generations. Tucker’s story of his brother, Silas, the last black sharecropper at Marshall, illustrates the role of the tractor in distancing people from each other. Driving himself and his mules to exhaustion, Silas manages to beat Fix to the cane derrick. Because a human being isn’t supposed to win against machines, and no black man can appear superior to a white man, Silas is murdered, beaten to death by Cajuns. Technology, then, alters values. By changing the means of competition, Fix also alters the ends. Farming becomes a business instead of a life. Since the end of business is profit, nothing else matters—not the people and certainly not the past.

The past is largely recalled through cultivated plants, especially fouro’clocks. These late-afternoon bloomers, with their sugary lemon scent, characterize a time before tractors, a Quarters free of weeds, and a way of life when people related to each other as well as to plant and animal life. In recalling the four-o’clocks, Johnny Paul doesn’t sentimentalize the past. He respects the difficulty of the labor, but he also recognizes the value of a community bound by mutual care and respect. Their absence is measured in weeds, which indicate a lack of attention to the land.

A MARXIST READING

Most of Gaines’s fiction readily lends itself to a Marxist interpretation, but his novels set on a single plantation seem especially focused on a conflict between those who control the land, politics, and society and those who submit to this control. For a more complete definition of Marxist theory, one might review the critical interpretation section of Of Love and Dust. But a brief summary of some basic Marxist views should be helpful here. Marx claims that: (1) more than any other factor, economics— defined as our changing means of material production—determines human history, creating our social relations, institutions, and ideology; (2) changes in the means of production create changes in social class structures resulting in a struggle for political, social, and economic advantage; and (3) human beliefs—our ways of thinking, feeling, and explaining—reflect the particular interests of a specific class and work to both legitimize and perpetuate the interests of the dominant economic and social class. Marxist critics will generally focus on the author’s worldview, the time in which the text is written, and the time of the fiction, giving particular attention to sources of conflict. In short, a Marxist critic will examine a text, largely concentrating on its presentation of economic and social forces rather than paying attention to such aesthetic devices as imagery, paradox, or symbolism. Given the prominence of the tractor signifying a changed means of production in A Gathering of Old Men, a Marxist interpretation seems appropriate.

Ernest Gaines most frequently sets his fiction in the 1930s and 1940s, not only because he lived in south Louisiana during that time and was strongly influenced by the people around him but also because that period is so thematically rich. Gaines’s worldview offers readers a bridge between an essentially nineteenth-century way of life, with mules and men doing most of the labor, and a twentieth-century way of life, with its machines. His fiction focuses on the structure of society, a stratified system favoring some people over others on the basis of birth and gender, and it often reflects the changes that have resulted from technology. Most importantly, from a Marxist critic’s perspective, is that Gaines’s fiction encourages readers to discover the relationships among history, technology, social and political movements, and art. While a close reading of Gaines’s work will result in an understanding of its organic unity, a Marxist reading will draw attention to its historic and social dimensions.

Written twenty years after the peak of civil rights activities in the South, A Gathering of Old Men reflects changing social relationships. Mechanization has altered a lingering way of life—a way of life that persists in people’s memories and in social custom. Tractors have displaced an entire class of people, forcing them away from the plantation to make a new livelihood. Tractors have also changed the social structure, for as the Cajuns gain economic power, they claim an enhanced social status rather than accept their previous classification as field labor. A Marxist critic might look closely at the value system of the Boutan family, noting how it emulates the values of the Marshalls, with its essentially exploitative basis. Gil’s claim of kinship to Candy would have particular resonance, then, because they are alike in their belief of social dominance based on skin color. Though they express sympathy for the conditions of black characters, Gil and Candy have nevertheless operated on an assumption of privilege.

Certainly, a Marxist critic would concentrate on the values of the Marshalls, exposing their corruption. These decadent values, indicated through Jack and Bea’s childlessness, their inability to raise Candy, and their daily cycle of drinking and napping, are defunct. Nothing on Marshall Plantation claims their labor or care. Jack and Bea take responsibility neither for the raising of their own nor for the nurturance of others who depend upon them. Though the Marshalls seem to remain above conflict, they have really created it and support its continuance because it favors their dominance. As long as the central conflict seems to be between Cajuns and blacks, Jack and Bea Marshall can appear isolated and superior. Alcoholic and incompetent, they enjoy their position at the top of a social hierarchy, a position that accords them respect and service from others without their having to show any regard for other people. Jack Marshall’s character would merit more attention than Bea’s; as the last male Marshall descendent, he represents economic and social traditions based on the complete exploitation of human labor through slavery. Jack clearly is obsolete, his language revealing an inability to see blacks as human. To him, the people at Marshall ‘‘belong’’ to Candy (159), like any possession.

Candy Marshall would be exposed for sharing these values. One of the major conflicts in this novel is dramatized through Candy and Mathu. In one sense, Mathu is Candy’s father, literally raising her in a tradition separate from the one Miss Merle teaches. Mathu’s job is to teach Candy about the people on Marshall, but his admission to the men about his own scorn for them underscores his sense of elitism and separation similar to that of the Marshalls. Candy does have a sense of responsibility to everyone remaining on the plantation, especially Mathu. But, as the novel reveals, her ‘‘love’’ is conditional. When the men announce that Candy cannot be a part of their discussion, she threatens to evict them, a gesture indicative of her belief in the old system. Mathu will change his allegiance from Candy to the men, suggesting his discovery of and faith in their newly claimed individual power, but Candy will remain the same. In the end, she seems not to understand exactly what has happened, and she reaches for Lou’s hand in a gesture of need. What Candy fails to acknowledge are such historical factors as the Civil Rights movement.

The Civil Rights movement worked to eliminate laws specifically passed to limit the social interaction, education, and political access of black citizens. In other words, the movement worked to make Americans of African descent full citizens. Long denied a role in American politics, black citizens found a voice first in leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., then on a more personal basis, and began using their newly claimed political power. A Gathering of Old Men dramatizes the empowerment ofa small group. Part of the narrative’s momentum depends upon internal conflicts as various characters weigh personal safety against a claim of manhood. Gaines employs the metaphors of crawling under the bed versus marching in like soldiers to indicate a progression of physical (and psychological) stature for his characters. This gradual claim to place and voice is guided first by Clatoo, but it later assumes a momentum of its own. When Luke Will and his buddies announce their presence, all of the men step forward to fight, no longer needing a leader. Fanning out over the Quarters and taking turns hooting and shooting, they act independently instead of at someone’s command. In the end, the novel suggests a redistribution of power—or at least an initial recognition of its redistribution, one more equitable in its application of justice.

One question a Marxist critic will ask revolves around the social controls at work within each group. And that brings us to an analysis of Luke Will’s role in this novel. Luke Will is Fix Boutan’s apparent successor as an extralegal social control. Both seem to operate without fear of arrest or even social sanction, suggesting not merely the support but the approval of those in positions of social and political authority. Fix, however, limits his violence, using family as his rationale. Without family unanimity, he won’t terrorize the old people and children of Marshall. In contrast, Luke Will and his buddies have neither internal nor external controls, nothing, at any rate, that cannot be overcome by alcohol. Driven by blind hatred to support his feeble sense of manhood, Luke Will’s only claim to power derives from terrorizing others, and the legal apparatus proves ineffectual in controlling his actions. Thus, a wounded Mapes significantly sits in front of Mathu’s steps, unable to rise during the shooting. Luke Will becomes a logical extension of Jack Marshall. Underscoring the hollowness of Marshall’s social position, Luke Will represents an extremely decadent social system, absent of any moral responsibility.

Gaines’s focus on various social levels—and especially his characterization of the disenfranchised, his depiction of those who control the means of production, his portrayal of those who threaten the status quo, and his emphasis on a changing social system—mark him as an author whose fiction presents an alternative view. It invites readers to participate in various levels of a class struggle as it relates the seemingly unrelated. Fusing form to message, Gaines creates in A Gathering of Old Men a revolutionary novel, a perceptive social critique, and an exacting portrayal of gradual human improvement.

WORKS ABOUT ERNEST GAINES
Babb, Valerie Melissa. Ernest Gaines. Boston: Twain, 1991.
Bevers, Herman. Wrestling Angels into Song: The Fictions of Ernest J. Gaines and James Alan McPherson. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995.
Bryant, Jerry H. ‘‘Ernest J. Gaines: Change, Growth, and History.’’ Southern Review 10 (1984): 851–64.
———. ‘‘From Death to Life: The Fiction of Ernest J. Gaines.’’ Iowa Review 3:1 (1972): 106–20.
Byerman, Keith E. Fingering the Jagged Edge: Tradition and Form in Recent Black Fiction. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1985.
Estes, David C., ed. Critical Reflections on the Fiction of Ernest J. Gaines. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1994.
Folks, Jeffrey J. ‘‘Ernest Gaines and the New South.’’ Southern Literary Journal 24.1 (1991): 32–46.
Greene, J. Lee. ‘‘The Pain and the Beauty: The South, the Black Writer and Conventions of the Picaresque.’’ The American South: Portrait of a Culture. Edited by Louis D. Rubin, Jr. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1980.
Hicks, Jack. ‘‘To Make These Bones Live: History and Community in Ernest Gaines’s Fiction.’’ Black American Literature Forum 11 (1977): 9–19.
Lowe, John, ed. Conversations with Ernest Gaines. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1995.
Rowell, Charles H. ‘‘Ernest J. Gaines: A Checklist, 1964–1978.’’ Callaloo 1.3 (1978): 125–31.
———. ‘‘The Quarters: Ernest Gaines and the Sense of Place.’’ Southern Review 21 (1985): 733–50.
Shelton, Frank W. ‘‘A Gaines Gold Rush: A Review Essay.’’ The Southern Quarterly 34.3 (1996): 149–51.

Bibliography
Callahan, John F. ‘‘One Day in Louisiana.’’ Review of A Gathering of Old Men, by Ernest J. Gaines. New Republic, 26 December 1983: 38–39.
Forkner, Ben. Review of A Gathering of Old Men. America, 2 June 1984: 425.
Harper, Mary T. ‘‘From Sons to Fathers: Ernest Gaines’ A Gathering of Old Men.’’ College Language Association Journal 31:3 (1988): 299–308.
Luneau, Teresa. Review of A Gathering of Old Men. Saturday Review 9:61 (December 1983).
Price, Reynolds. ‘‘A Louisiana Pageant of Calamity.’’ New York Times Book Review, 30 October 1983: 15.
Rickels, Milton R. and Patricia Rickels. ‘‘ ‘The Sound of My People Talking’: Folk Humor in A Gathering of Old Men.’’ In Critical Reflections on the Fiction of Ernest J. Gaines. Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 1994.
Shannon, Sandra G. ‘‘Strong Men Getting Stronger: Gaines’s Defense of the Elderly Black Male in A Gathering of Old Men.’’ In Critical Reflections on the Fiction of Ernest J. Gaines. Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 1994.
Washington, Mary Helen. Review of A Gathering of Old Men. Nation, 14 June 1984.

Source: Carmean, Karen. Ernest J. Gaines: A Critical Companion. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, 1998.



Categories: American Literature, Literary Criticism, Literary Theory, Literature, Marxism, Novel Analysis

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Your feedback helps improve this platform. Leave your comment.

%d bloggers like this: