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A Gathering of Old Men

Ernest J. Gaines

Important Quotations Explained

Chapter 17–20

Key Facts

"He works in mysterious ways, don't He."

Mat makes this statement to Chimley in Chapter 4 after learning about Beau's murder. Mat believes that Beau's murder has presented a special opportunity to both Chimley and himself: the opportunity to redefine themselves. Both Mat and Chimley now are old men, who have spent much of their life being psychologically and physically beaten down by the racist restrictions of the South. Suddenly with the crisis at hand, God is granting them one last opportunity to make something of themselves. By confessing to Beau's murder, by standing up for their friend, and by not yielding to the local whites, the men will be able to throw off their identities as cowards and bravely stand up for something. Because the men will be able to salvage their dignity before dying, Mat believes that Beau's murder represents some strange form of a blessing from God. Both Mat and Chimley rejoice in being given the chance to show the strong men that they truly are.

In my old age, specially in grinding, when I saw an empty cane field, it always made me feel lonely. The rows looked so naked and gray and lonely-like an old house where the people moved from.

Cherry makes this statement in Chapter 6 as the men are walking toward the Marshall Plantation to help Mathu. The cleared sugar cane field reminds Cherry of the times that have past. The sugar cane once represented the livelihood for the blacks. Although their work was not easy, the entire community lived and worked together on the plantation. Their work bound them together as did their stories and songs. In those days, people of all ages worked the soil and the black community was vibrant and thriving. Since the arrival of the Cajuns, the black's relationship to cane has changed. The Cajuns brought tractors to work the land, thereby reducing the need for physical laborers. The tractors displaced many of the local blacks such that the only people left on the plantation are very old men and a few young children. With no middle aged adult population, the days of the thriving black community has ended. Now the sugar cane is growing wilder since less people care for it. Cherry compares the clear cane field to an empty house that friends have moved out of. His comparison is virtually literal, since the original black community has almost completely left its original house, the plantation land. Cherry feels sad since his community seems to be dying, whereas it was once constantly replenished with life.

"Yes, sir," Johnny Paul said. "But you still don't see. Yes, sir, what you see is the weeds, but you don't see what we don't see."

Johnny Paul makes this statement in Chapter 9. He is trying to explain to the Sheriff that the Sheriff truly does not understand the pain that the black community has suffered on the plantation. For Johnny Paul and the other men, Beau's murder took place because of a culmination of injustice against blacks. Although Beau is only one man, he represents all the white men who subjugated the blacks throughout the years. When Johnny Paul looks at the plantation, he "does not see" what used to be there. Some of those things were his ancestors toiling in difficulty and pain. At the same time, what also used to be there was a vibrant black community that united together as they worked the land. When Johnny Paul looks at the weeds, he sees the plantation when it had no weeds before it was deteriorating and the houses were rotting. In the days before the Cajuns had pushed the blacks away from farming, few weeds existed on the plantation because the people who worked the land lived on it. With these memories, Johnny Paul does not sentimentalize the difficulties of their past, but he does remember the value of a community bound by mutual respect. It is the memory of all these things that Johnny Paul no longer sees on the plantation. With this statement Johnny Paul tries to point out to the Sheriff that the Sheriff never understood them because he has never truly understood all that they had and all that the suffered. For Johnny Paul, both their suffering and their past successes are the reason the Beau Baton has been murdered.

He looked around at all of them. "Won't it ever stop? I do all I can to stop it. Every day of my life, I do all I can to stop it. Won't it ever stop?"

This statement by Gil Boutan at the end of Chapter 10 is a poignant cry for racial harmony in the South. Gil is emotionally breaking down after visiting the location where his brother was murdered. Gil finds a crowd of armed black men waiting and he finds Candy Marshall who confesses to the crime. Gil sees the structures of racial separation and violence that surround him and cries out with his pain about it all. Gil feels that he has been helping to improve race relations by pairing himself with a black player on the football team. Gil is a character caught by the violent racist history of the South, as are all people in the South. The historical violence in Gil's family makes his imprisonment in their legacy particularly obvious. Gil wants to remain within his family, but longs to free himself from their history so that racial harmony can thrive. Gil's cry presents the need for Southerners to free themselves from their historical bounds. It is only through the means of such liberation that future harmony can occur.

"I leaned over and touched him, hoping that some of that stuff he had found back there in the swamps might rub off on me."

Dirty Red says this line at the end of Chapter 19 when he reaches over to touch Charlie's dead body. The "stuff" that Dirty Red is trying to obtain is the courage and fierceness that Charlie seems to have gathered back when he was hiding in the swamps. Traditionally, Charlie was the weakest and most cowardly black man on the plantation. The community is astonished at his transformation first into the murderer of Beau Boutan, and next into the fiercest fighter in the final shootout with the whites. Ever since Charlie returned from the swamp, he has acted like a man who knows no fear. His bravery impresses everyone so much that they wonder if some physical "stuff" brought about his transformation. Charlie's fearlessness is the stuff that Dirty Red wants to gather for himself. In fact, everyone wants some of it. After Dirty Red touches Charlie's body, everyone in the community does including young Snookum and his siblings. All of the people pay homage to Charlie for his bravery, courage, and manhood by laying their hands on his body.

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