Ernest J. Gaines was born into the fifth generation of a sharecropper family. Though born several generations after the abolition of slavery, he grew up in highly deprived conditions. His initial education came in a church when a visiting teacher came for the months when there was no cotton to pick. When he was thirteen, he moved to California with the rest of his family. He began writing when he was seventeen. His writing career was interrupted by the Second World War.
Relevance of the Title
Gaines had a way of hiding inferences in seemingly innocent statements. The title is one of them. This is no ordinary peaceful gathering of old men. They are gathered for a serious purpose, that of defending a member of their community. It is a reaction that comes from a life of suffering insults, indignities and violations like rape. Though they want to confuse the Sheriff by showing up in large numbers, all armed, all confessing to the murder, every one of them would have gladly killed Beau Baton. The feeling we get is one of community and cohesion. There is bonding and empathy here.
The redefinition of black masculinity is the main theme of A Gathering of Old Men. The old men who gather at the plantation have spent most of their lives running away from trouble. Facing up to it was filled with odds. It is in the sunset of their lives that they decide that fight and not flight is what they want. This transformation is best seen in the character of Charlie. Charlie had been castigated as a weakling all his life; he is servile to the extent of being considered despicable. But as the story progresses, Charlie grows in stature; he has killed Beau, he says, punishment for untold crimes committed in the past. Charlie becomes a character that the old men want to emulate, a legendary hero. When Charlie reclaims his masculinity, the men of the community discover theirs too.
Shifting Legal and Social Status
In spite of the changed legal status that governed racial relations in the South, the mindset of the people seem to be stuck somewhere in the 30s. Fix and the lynch mob mean to kill like they have done for years. Lynching had been a common crime which often went unchallenged in court as there were too many in the mob and no one clearly knew who had made the fatal strike. But here the blacks are more than match for them. The general notion is that Mathu had killed Beau but the old men are not giving him up without a fight. Finally, the changed legal status is reflected in the trial and punishment. Blacks and whites get the same quantum of punishment, something unthinkable till some years ago.
Candy Marshall has no role to play in the plot of the novel, nevertheless as the person who sets the ball rolling by summoning the old men to the plantation, her role is central. She discovers the killing, assumes that it is the work of Mathu, an old black man who is virtually her foster father. Though she loves him and wants to protect him from the charge of murder, she decides how to go about it. When she summons the men to her plantation with instructions on what to carry, she speaks as the mistress, not as an equal. She thinks of them as ‘her’ people, people who she owns. When the men start firing using the live bullets they had hidden in their pockets, she considers the act a violation of her instructions.
Though he is dead for the duration of the novel, it around his death that action revolves. Beau stands for the worst in racial relations. He thinks that whites are superior for their color and blacks can be killed, raped and bullied. He finally pays for this attitude by being by shot dead like a stray dog. But Beau has supporters among the Cajun community. Beau is also guilty of driving the blacks from the plantation by introducing tractors. He does not understand the machine well enough to use it intelligently so the land suffers.
Mapes is the typical Southern Sheriff. His questioning of the old men starts with violence. He thinks that hitting them will make them speak the truth. He had thought that all of them would deny all knowledge of the killing but here they all confess to it. The Sheriff does not hate the blacks (in fact he goes fishing with Mathu) but as a white man living in the South, he cannot but think of himself as being superior.
The story opens with the discovery of Beau Baton’s dead body by Candy Marshall, the part owner of Marshall Plantation. Beau Baton was feared and hated by the whole black community. Candy thinks that Mathu, the strongest of all the black men is the likely killer but she loves him as he is like a foster father to her. She plans to protect him. She tells all the black men to gather at the plantation with their twelve bore shotguns and a single empty shell. She thinks the presence of a large number of suspects all armed with shotguns with a spent shell will confuse the law officials. When the men begin to arrive, it is seen that they are quite old, most in their seventies with some touching eighty. News of Beau’s killing has spread and all the men confess to that single crime.
The men await the arrival of the sheriff but the man they fear is Fix, Beau’s father. Fix is a black hater and he has been responsible for several lynchings. Sooner or later he will arrive with his mob. The ones who arrive first are Lou Dimes, Candy’s boy friend and Sheriff Mapes. Mapes too is apprehensive of Fix’s arrival so he tries to fend it off. Candy confesses to the killing but the sheriff does not believe her nor does Lou. The Sheriff decides to question the men who are gathered there. Though he uses violence, the men do not budge from their confession – all of them confess that they have killed Beau. The willingness the men show to be hit and their common confession surprises the sheriff. The man who works most closely with the dead man is Charlie but his meekness and physical stature makes him an unlikely suspect in Mapes’s eyes. On the contrary, it is Mathu who has the courage and the spirit to raise a gun on a Cajun. As the day winds on, stories tumble out explaining why they killed Beau – stories of killings of sons, rapes of sisters and lynching of a brother for having beaten a tractor in a race. Beau, they say, has paid a price for his crimes. Mapes is shocked but still believes that Mathu is the killer.
Fix is getting ready to avenge his son’s killing but he wants his younger son Gil with him. Gil does not believe in lynching as a form of crude justice. Seeing Fix’s reluctance to lead the mob, Luke Will, a local Cajun ruffian decides to lead the mob. They head to the bar to get drunk, kill and loot. Meanwhile, at the plantation, the sheriff is still in a quandary. Mathu has confessed like all the rest of them and is ready to be thrown into lockup. As they get ready to leave, Charlie who has not been seen till then turns up and confesses that he has killed Beau who had been threatening him. After the act, he had spoken with Mathu who had agreed to accept the crime as his. Charlie had been hiding in the swamp all this while; but now he wants to accept his guilt.
Before Charlie can be formally arrested, Luke Will and his gang arrive. They demand that Charlie be handed over to them. Mapes refuses following which Luke starts spraying bullets around. One hits the sheriff on his arm. The old men return with live bullets which they had kept hidden in their pockets as Candy had specified that they were to bring only a single spent shell. Obviously, the old men have had enough of white violence. Charlie comes out of hiding killing Luke with a single shot but is himself killed by a bullet fired by someone. In a path breaking trial, all the black and Cajun men are tried together. They are awarded the same quantum of punishment – five years of probation.
Tractors are a symbol of change in the agricultural environment of the South. The mechanization of farms reduced the need for labor. The black labor had an intimate relationship with the land on which they worked. Now they had become redundant and were thrown out of the plantation buildings. They became marginalized and had to look for an alternate livelihood. The Cajuns used the efficiency of the tractor which they could run themselves to push the blacks off the land.
Guns are a metaphor for violence and for power. It is Candy who calls for all the black men to bring their guns along with a spent shell. But the old men come with live bullets hidden in their pockets as they anticipate a lynching. They have been at the receiving end of violence for a long time but now it is time to retaliate.
- “Now listen,” she said. “I want you to run, and I don’t want you to stop running. I want you to go tell Rufe and Reverend Jameson, and Corrine and the rest of them to gather at Mathu’s house right away. And I want you to go to the front, and I want you to—listen to me good, now,” she said, squeezing my shoulders and hurting me a little bit—”go up to the house and see if Miss Merle’s there… You’re nothing but a little boy. Now, get moving and don’t stop running.”
Candy is putting into motion her plan to protect Mathu. She wants Snookum to carry out her errand. She does not bother to give him any details but she gives none to the old men also. They are not asked for their opinion but told what to do. Candy is by nature bossy.
- Mapes was a lot of things. He was big, mean, brutal. But Mapes respected a man. Mathu was a man, and Mapes respected Mathu. But he didn’t think much of the rest of us, and he didn’t respect us.
Sheriff is choosy with black men. Mathu is strong and bold so he respects him. They go hunting and fishing in the wild. But he did not bother with the other black men. He did not respect them as in his eyes, they were not man enough. He is strong and brutal; he wanted all men to be strong and brutal.
- Turning down into the quarters, I could see the tractor in the middle of the road, and I could see Candy’s black LTD parked in the ditch on the right. But I didn’t see any of the people as I drove past the old houses. Just like little bedbugs, I told myself. Just like frightened little bedbugs now. But when I stopped before Mathu’s house, I could see they were not bedbugs after all. They were all there, in the yard and on the porch. Three of them had shotguns—Mathu, Johnny Paul, and Rufe.
With impunity, Miss Merle refers to the blacks as bedbugs. She may be referring to the fact that none of the black men were visible. She presumes they have hidden somewhere. The blacks had plenty of reason to hide. Whenever blacks and whites fought, it was the blacks who suffered. Law supported the whites. Miss Merle is just another of those racists who pass judgment on the blacks.
- It started over a Coke bottle. After Fix had drunk his Coke, he wanted Mathu to take the empty bottle back in the store. Mathu told him he wasn’t nobody’s servant. Fix told him he had to take the bottle back into the store or fight.
A bunch of us was out there, white and Black, sitting on the garry eating gingerbread and drinking pop. The sheriff, Guidry, was there, too. Mathu told Guidry if Fix started anything, he was go’n to protect himself. Guidry went on eating his gingerbread and drinking pop like he didn’t even hear him.
When Fix told Mathu to take the bottle back in the store again, and Mathu didn’t, Fix hit him—and the fight was on. Worst fight I ever seen in my life. For a hour it was toe to toe. But when it was over, Mathu was up, and Fix was down. The white folks wanted to lynch Mathu, but Guidry stopped them.
This passage tells us exactly what kind of man Mathu was. He was strong and fearless. Fix was a ruffian who was feared by all. The sheriff was not ready to intervene before the fight but Mathu stuck to his guns. He had self respect and belief in his strength.