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A Gathering of Old Men

Ernest J. Gaines

Analysis of Major Characters

Character List

Themes, Motifs, and Symbols

Candy Marshall

Candy Marshall is the protagonist of the novel, even though the plot actually has little to do with her self. She is the protagonist because Beau Boutan's murder takes place on her plantation in Mathu's yard. Because of Candy's desire to protect Mathu, she immediately takes charge of the situation by gathering men and shotguns from all around the community. Candy's desire to protect those around her appears compassionate. As the novel continues, her motives seem less genuine. On one level, Mathu is almost Candy's father, since he has literally raised her since the death of her own parents. But, as the novel reveals, her love for Mathu is conditional. Although Mathu has taught Candy about the structure of the plantation, she maintains her sense of superiority over it. When the men announce that Candy cannot be part of their discussion, she threatens to evict them. Her threats demonstrate that Candy still governs the plantation as if she owns its residents. Candy wants to protect "her" people, but refuses to let them protect themselves. Candy's protectionism seems to usurp what the men are trying to achieve. The men want to demonstrate their bravery as men, but Candy wants them to stand as impotent as the empty shells that line their shotguns. Candy's inability to recognize the old men's desire for manhood and Mathu's independent abilities shows that in many ways she still blindly stands as a mistress in the plantation world

Yet, Candy does appear to change within the novel. At the end of the book, she grabs onto Lou Dimes's hand in a gesture of affection. Lou has asked Candy to marry him, but she has never given him an answer. With this notable grab, she seems to be suggesting that she will accept and commit to him. For Candy this change means a relaxation of her domineering attitude. Furthermore, for Candy this change is beneficial and necessary. Candy's aunt and uncle, Bea and Jack Marshall, no longer fit into the changing world with their obsolescent class concepts, but the youthful Candy can re-adapt if she is willing to adjust with the times. At the end of the novel, she appears to be ready.

Beau Bauton

Beau Bauton is dead throughout the entire novel, but is one of the most important characters due to his symbolic role. Beau represents the social order that has subjugated the blacks throughout history. All of the old black men believe Beau to have been closely linked to violence events in their past—daughters raped, sons killed, and friends attacked. No proof clearly ties Beau to each specific act, but it does not matter. Based upon the remembrances of the characters, it is clear that Beau is not a gentle figure. Charlie describes that Beau started hitting him with a stalk of sugar cane because Beau did not like the way Charlie was working. Beau's use of force for such a minor issue shows that he believed in the outdated technique of using violence to subjugate blacks. Furthermore, after Charlie hits Beau back, Beau prepares to murder him. In Beau's mind, shooting Charlie with a shotgun is an appropriate response to Charlie hitting him with sugar cane. This logic is misguided, outdated, and racist. Because this logic no longer fits into the new social order, it seems somewhat appropriate that Beau is dead.

Beau Bauton also is the primary symbol of the agricultural changes that have forced the blacks off their ancestral land. Beau and his family brought the tractors that reduced the need for black labor. Beau and his tractor run the plantation, but they do so inefficiently. The land is covered with weeds and sugar cane grows wildly in some regions. With the change in the agricultural system, the local black culture has died. The old men realize Beau's role in changing their livelihood and resent it. Beau's death will not change the economic shift, however. Even though he lies murdered, for much of the book the tractor he uses is still running. The Cajuns have pushed out the local blacks and it is unlikely that the black community will ever thrive as it once did. Still the old men can gain a certain satisfaction n the death of the cruel Beau Bauton.

Sheriff Mapes

Sheriff Mapes is a sixty-year-old white man who initially seems to be a classic racist, but actually is more complex. When he first arrives at the plantation, he uses violence to question the old men. The use of violence to frighten blacks is a typical tool of Southern law enforcement. On this day however, these blows no longer work. The old men have actually changed. Sheriff Mapes's blows do not inspire fear in them. The old men remain indifferent and uncaring. They refuse to say more and sarcastically comment about the Sheriff's efforts. The Sheriff's initial violent techniques show that in many ways he is still a man of the old Southern order.

As the novel continues, Sheriff Mapes appears as a deeper character, who is more capable of being understanding. He long has deeply respected Mathu for his manhood. The Sheriff and Mathu even have gone fishing together, which suggests that the Sheriff is willing to maintain acquaintances outside of the boundary of race. Furthermore, the Sheriff never indicates any interest in persecuting the blacks simply because of their race. When Luke Will and his crew arrive, Sheriff Mapes tries to fight them. The Sheriff is shot in his efforts. After he falls to the ground, he decides just to sit there and ride the situation out. Sheriff Mapes could get up if he truly wanted, but he has no incentive. He knows that Luke Will is a local ruffian not worth protecting. Furthermore, he does not have a problem with letting the old black men take the situation into their own hands and fight it out. The Sheriff's later leniency towards the blacks demonstrates that he is a far more complex character than originally thought. By the end of the novel, he seems to have changed and accepted them all as men. It seems unlikely that he will use violent interrogation techniques against them again.

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