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A Gathering of Old Men

Ernest J. Gaines

Chapter 1 and 2

Themes, Motifs, and Symbols

Chapter 3: Myrtle Bouchard, aka Miss Merle

Summary

Chapter 1: George Eliot Jr., aka Snookum

George Eliot, Jr., also known as Snookum, narrates Chapter 1. He is sitting at the kitchen table eating with his siblings, Toddy and Minnie, when he hears Candy outside yelling for Aunt Glo, his grandmother. He tries to get up and see what is happening, but his grandmother orders him back to the table. Toddy laughs as Snookum returns to his chair. Snookum reflects on how Toddy caught Minnie and him "playing mama and papa" in the weeds recently, so Snookum cannot respond to Toddy's abuses in anyway or Toddy will tell on him.

Candy then summons Snookum outside. When Snookum gets there he sees that Candy looks upset. She tells Snookum to run and tell Rufe, Reverence Jameson, and Corrine to go to Mathu's house. She also tells him to go to the main house and tell Janey to telephone Lou and Miss Merle. She urges him to rush and return straightaway.

Snookum shoots off down the road. When he gets near Mathu's house, Snookum sees that the tractor is still running, but Charlie, its operator, is not around. Snookum sees Beau lying in the weeds all bloody. Snookum tells Mathu that he has been ordered to summon everyone to Mathu's house. Mathu tells him to stay away from Beau. Snookum dashes to the houses of Rufe, the Reverend Jameson, and Corrine and gives them all Candy's message. When he arrives at the Marshall House, where Janey lives, he calls to her from the gate. Janey chastises him for yelling so loud and tells him that he should call Lou, "Mr. Lou," and Candy, "Miss Candy." When Janey asks what it is all about, Snookum tells her that Beau is lying bloody in Mathu's yard. Janey immediately looks frightened and remarks about having recently heard some gunfire. She starts asking the Lord to have mercy. She tells Snookum that Fix is now going to come, but that Snookum is probably too young to understand what Fix will do. Snookum asks for some cakes as a reward for his running, but he gets nothing before heading home.

Chapter 2: Janice Robinson, aka Janey

Janey, formally known as Janice Robinson, narrates Chapter 2. After hearing the news, she repeatedly asks the Lord and Jesus for mercy. She telephones Lou in Baton Rouge but is only able to leave a message with the operator asking that he come immediately to the plantation. She then calls Miss Merle, but no one answers the telephone. When Janey walks outside, she sees that the Major is asleep on the porch swing having become already drunk even though it is just around noon. She also sees Miss Bea searching for pecans in the weeds under the trees. Janey hopes that a snake does not come out of the weeds and bite the old woman, because Janey assumes that she will be blamed.

Janey calls Miss Merle again, but still gets no answer. Janey worries about Fix coming down the road with his crew and their guns. She calls Miss Merle again, but still no answer. Janey returns to dusting the house, which she had been doing before Snookum arrived. She suddenly hears a car in the front drive and sees that it is Miss Merle. When Miss Merle sees that Janey has been crying, she asks what is wrong. Miss Merle sees the drunk Major and comments the earliness of the day. Janey tells Miss Merle that Beau is dead and that Candy is down in "the quarters." Miss Merle makes an exclamation of distress and tries to wake up the Major. After Miss Merle realizes that the Major cannot be roused, she decides to head down to Mathu's house herself. As she is leaving, she instructs Janey to pray.

Analysis

These first two chapters lay out the event that will motivate the novel's plot, Beau's murder. They also provide the story's setting, the Marshall Plantation. Snookum's run through the plantation in Chapter One provides a physical depiction of its layout. He, like the other blacks lives with his family down in the "quarters," or the area that once was called the "slave quarters." Janey lives with Miss Bea, the Major, and Candy in the Marshall House, or the house that once held the slave owners. This geographic division shows that the plantation is still laid out as it was during slavery. The division maintains the old social order. The language used in this chapter does as well. Janey instructs Snookum to call Lou, "Mr. Lou," and Candy, "Miss Candy." Janey's instruction reinforces the traditional way that black people addressed whites. In a contrary verbal pattern, we see that Candy Marshall calls Glo, "Aunt Glo." The use of "Aunt" does not signify a term of affection for the old woman, but rather is a label that shows Candy's superior social class. Traditionally whites labeled older black men and women as "Uncle" or "Aunt." The false casualness of the terminology carries an insulting taint since it presupposes that whites can refer to blacks as "Aunt" while the blacks have to refer to the whites as "Mr" or "Miss." The way that Janey uses language also demonstrates her position in the social order. Although she lives in the Marshall House, she is not the equal of the other residents. She calls Merle, "Miss Merle," and Bea, "Miss Bea." These labels suggest, although it is not entirely clear in this chapter, that she is a servant in the house. Gaines exposes these striations of social class subtly in these first two chapters, but they will come to be more fully developed throughout the novel.

Future events in the plot are also frequently foreshadowed in these first two chapters. The picture of Beau's bloody body will reappear throughout the novel. The investigation into his murder and the effects of this murder are the novel's primary issues. In these first two chapters, we know very little about who Beau is and why he has been murdered. We learn that a man named "Fix" might come and that his coming will likely bring violence to the area. We also hear about the characters of "Lou" and "Mapes," but it is not clear who these people are. The notion of fear, however, is well expressed by both Janey and Miss Merle. Other characters in the novel will soon share their intense fear. Ironically, although the emotion dominates these two chapters, Gaines will invert it by the end of the novel since by that time most of the characters will have successfully confronted their fears.

There is also a unique narrative technique in these two chapters, in which a different person narrates each chapter. The two different narrators are just the first out of fifteen that will appear in the novel. Gaines's narrative technique allows for subjective storytelling: the narrators tell what they see and think according to their own inclinations and personalities. This structure allows for the novel to be told with a communal weave. Certain events are repeated from the different narrative perspectives, allowing a broad understanding of the situation at hand. Careful attention should also be paid to the way in which Gaines alters the diction and verbal patterns of each character. Gaines's uses a child, Snookum, to open the tale, a move that is reminiscent of a similar act in Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury. Snookum's style reflects the black idiom in which he was raised, while his tone is fresh and clear. At the same time, Snookum is only privileged to a child's perspective and understands little about what is going on. Janey's speech in Chapter Two reflects her deep religiosity since she relies heavily on religious references. Janey also has limited knowledge about what is happening in the plantation, but she still includes her own, slightly humorous, observations of Miss Merle. As these two voices suggest the individual narrations allow for heavily subjective voices that do not unfold in a straight logical fashion. As the narrators continue to emerge, so too will the textual richness of the tale.

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