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A Gathering of Old Men

Ernest J. Gaines

Chapter 3: Myrtle Bouchard, aka Miss Merle

Chapter 1 and 2

Chapter 4 and 5

Summary

Miss Merle narrates Chapter three. She has brought an apple pie over to the Marshall House to give to Jack, the Major, in whom she has long been romantically interested with no success. After seeing Janey's distress and Jack slumped over drunk, she drives down to the quarters. She sees Candy in front of Mathu's house. Mathu, Johnny Paul, and Rufe are all sitting on the porch holding shotguns. Candy tells Miss Merle that she shot Beau.

Miss Merle has known Candy since Candy was five or six when Candy's mother and father died in a car crash. For this reason, Miss Merle knows that Candy is lying to her. Miss Merle begs Candy to tell her the truth, but Candy insists that she shot Beau. Candy then explains that even though she did it, Mathu, Rufe, and Johnny Paul have also confessed to the crime. Miss Merle tells Candy that she knows that Candy did not kill Beau.

Candy asks Miss Merle to help by gathering as many men as possible to the scene, with twelve gauge shotguns and some empty gun shells. When Miss Merle questions her reasoning, Candy explains that if Mapes comes with just the three men there, he will beat them until one confesses. If more men with shotguns appear, Mapes will not gather a confession so easily. Candy explains that she does not want anything to happen to her people, especially to Mathu. Miss Merle looks at Mathu and decides that he definitely killed Beau. She remembers how the youthful Candy was closer to Mathu than to the aunt and uncle who were supposed to raise her. Miss Merle knows that Candy is trying to protect Mathu with this scheme. Candy also begs Miss Merle to make sure that Lou comes before Mapes.

Miss Merle returns to the Marshall House. She finds Jack still asleep drunk on the porch and Bea sitting on the west gallery. When Bea sees Miss Merle, she orders Janey to go get them a drink called a "pea picker," made of gin and pink lemonade.

Miss Merle tells Bea that Beau Bauton has been killed in the quarters and it is not the right time for a drink. Bea does not care and becomes very angry when Merle tries to counteract her order to Janey. Bea tells Miss Merle that she is not the mistress of Marshall House and that Miss Merle has no right to give her servants orders. Janey gets the drinks.

Miss Merle tells Bea and Janey that Candy is claiming responsibility for the shooting. Bea commends Candy's spunk remarking that it runs in their family, as Candy is her niece. She also criticizes Beau's Cajun background. Miss Merle explains Candy's plan to Janey and Bea. When Janey gets hysterical, Miss Merle slaps Janey's black face. Bea suggests that Janey call Clatoo since Clatoo has hated Fix ever since Fix's brother tried to rape Clatoo's sister and his sister was sent to prison and became insane. Miss Merle tells Bea and Janey to keep thinking up more people. As Miss Merle heads to the phone, Bea also orders Janey to bring her another drink.

Analysis
This chapter continues to establish both the setting and the conflict that will emerge in the novel. Miss Merle is a white woman who belongs to the same social class as Miss Bea, the Major, and Candy. Her location in this high class can be seen from the "Miss" before her name, her long term though unfulfilled romantic intentions for Jack, and the way that she treats Janey, especially when she slaps her face. Janey, we find out clearly in this chapter, is the house servant for the Marshalls and she is black. When Miss Merle tries to counteract Miss Bea's order for a drink, Miss Bea grows incensed and tells her that they are not at the Seven Oaks Plantation but at the Marshall Plantation of which Miss Bea is mistress. In this way, it is clear that Miss Merle is the mistress of a neighboring plantation who has long been acquainted with the Marshall family. Although Miss Merle belongs to the white owner class, she is a different person than Miss Bea and Jack Marshall. When Miss Merle learns of Beau's death, she immediately heads down into the quarters to find out what is happening and to talk to Candy. Miss Merle also agrees to help Candy and by helping Candy, she helps Mathu, a black man whom she believes killed Beau. Miss Merle's concern with the people of the plantation differs greatly from the response of Bea Marshall who simply does not care. When Bea learns of the murder, she is fast on her way to getting drunk. Her husband, Jack Marshall, already is so drunk that he is asleep on the porch. Miss Bea furthermore expresses her disgust at Beau's Cajun background and describes how she never liked him or "his kind." Miss Bea's prejudiced statement underscores the social difference within the local whites, primarily the landowners and the Cajuns who worked the land. The Cajuns arrived in Louisiana in the late 18th century after fleeing the French-speaking region of Canada. During the slavery era, the Cajuns were poor whites who stood economically outside the plantation system since they did not own land and were not black. When slavery ended, the Cajuns had to compete with the local blacks who were now free. In the postwar period, the Cajuns often received the best plots of land because they were white, while the blacks were slowly forced out of the agricultural system like in this novel. As Gaines's suggests, the Cajuns, represented by Fix, also maintained their hierarchy over blacks by using systematic violence against them. The working class whites, such as the Cajuns, initiated legacy of racial violence in the South in part due to sheer economic competition. Still the landowning whites, like Miss Bea, never accepted these Cajuns as their equals even though they belong to the same race and have lived in the same community for centuries. Miss Bea additionally expresses her dissatisfaction with the way that the Cajuns changed the agricultural techniques of the region. The change she refers to involves the Cajun use of the tractors that phased out the traditional sharecropping by blacks on the land. Miss Bea's remark about the shift in agricultural techniques is the first of many that will appear in the novel. The Cajun's use of the tractor is a repeating symbol in the text. Miss Merle narrates this chapter and her style is that of an educated white Southern woman. Although she is more informed and kinder than Bea Marshall, her tone still maintains her sense of social superiority. When she visits the quarters, for example, she compares its residents to bedbugs, which is not a particularly flattering comparison. Still, because of the clarity of her narrative style many plot elements are much more clear than when Snookum and Janey narrated. We now understand that Candy Marshall generally oversees the plantation and is close with the plantation blacks. Furthermore, Candy's exposition of her plan foreshadows the plot movement to come. The old men will gather at the Marshall plantation as Candy has desired. Candy will spend the novel defending Mathu. Miss Merle's visit to the crime scene also clearly locates Mathu as the suspected murderer. This third chapter has presented the issues facing the characters and set the stage, and the arena is now arranged for the future gathering of the old men.
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