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A Gathering of Old Men

Ernest J. Gaines

Chapter 1 and 2

Themes, Motifs, and Symbols

Chapter 1 and 2, page 2

page 1 of 2
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.

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