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A Gathering of Old Men

Ernest J. Gaines

Chapter 4 and 5

Chapter 3: Myrtle Bouchard, aka Miss Merle

Chapters 6 and 7

Summary

Chapter 4: Robert Louis Stevenson Banks, aka Chimley

Chimley and Mat are fishing as they always do on Tuesdays and Thursdays for the past ten years. They have each caught several perches and are discussing the old days. A boy comes running toward the river and tells them that Clatoo wants them to know that Candy needs them at the Marshall Plantation. The boy tells them to bring their shotguns and some empty shells, because Beau Bauton has been shot outside Mathu's house. The boy, whom Chimley feels is a sissy, remarks that he personally is going to get himself as far away from that area as he can. He then runs away. Chimley and Mat go on fishing silently. Chimley reflects that blacks have been punished over the years for minor offenses like a misspoken word, but that no black ever murdered a white man. Chimley cannot imagine what will happen in response. Mat comments that God works in mysterious ways. After more fishing, Mat asks Chimley if he is scared and Chimley says yes. Mat tells Chimley that he is seventy-one years old—Chimley is seventy-two—and he does not want to go hide under a bed to ride this situation out. Mat and Chimley consider whether or not Mathu killed Beau. Chimley knows Mathu has had minor arguments with the local Cajuns before. Once Fix ordered Mathu to carry his cola can to the garbage at the back of the local store and Mathu refused. Fix then punched Mathu and the two men got into a full on fight. The sheriff, who watched the whole thing, punched both men equally at the fight's end, and fortunately Mathu was never lynched. Chimley knows that Mathu is one of the few black men around who ever stood up for himself. Mat and Chimley decide to go. They pull in their fishing lines and head to their houses. When Chimley gets home, his wife starts fussing and asks why he came home so early. He hands her the fish and tells her that she better have them ready by supper. Chimley tells her nothing else, grabs his shotgun, and heads out to the road to catch a ride with Clatoo.

Chapter 5: Matthew Lincoln Brown, aka Mat

Mat narrates Chapter 5. Upon getting home, he telephones Clatoo to see if he can catch a ride. Using the phone, Clatoo also manages to borrow a shotgun from a local woman. After Mat arranges everything, his wife, Ella, eyes him suspiciously and demands to know what is happening. Mat refuses to tell her and insists that it is men's business. Ella looks outside and sees a neighbor, Billy Washington, with a shotgun. Because Billy is so old and never goes hunting, she knows something is happening. She hounds her husband. Finally Mat tells her that a Cajun has been killed and that they are all going to the Marshall Plantation to help out. Ella explodes. She tells Mat that he is crazy and that he is not going. Mat responds with anger and tells his wife that he is finally standing up for something like a man after the years of abuse, toiling in the fields. Mat evokes the memory of their son who died because the local hospital refused to treat a black man, and he starts weeping as he fights. Upon hearing the car horn outside, he abruptly leaves. Clatoo is driving and Mat climbs in the back with Billy Washington, Chimley, Cherry Bello, and Jacob Aguillard. The men remark on the fight Mat must have just had with his wife. They each comment on how they managed to slip away from their own women. Mat talks to Chimley who acknowledges that he is scared. Mat feels scared too, but proud also in a different way.

Analysis

These two chapters set Candy's plan into motion and give us the first glance into the old men who will gather at the plantation. A major theme in these two chapters is the issue of manhood. The opening of the section shows Chimley and Mat as they are before the day's events. They are old, in their early seventies, and they are fishing, a traditional masculine activity. When they learn of Beau's death and Candy's call for help, they both grow quiet with thought. After thinking about the matter for a few minutes, Mat remarks to Chimley that God works in mysterious ways. His comment suggests that this opportunity to help Mathu will give Chimley and Mat a way to redeem themselves before they die. The act of redemption will come from them bravely standing up like men instead of hiding under beds like cowards. For most of their lives, they, like most black men, have chosen the latter route since standing up to local whites often meant physical torture and death. Now in their twilight years, they suddenly feel empowered to stand up as they never have before.

The argument between Mat and his wife further demonstrates Mat's need to redefine his masculinity. His wife wants him to stay home like a beaten down old man, but he refuses to do so. Mat invokes the memories of their son's painful death, their years of suffering in the fields, and the legacy of discrimination. Their argument is deeply touching since Mat starts to weep as he defends his desire to finally do something brave. The other men that Mat soon after meets in the truck also have slipped away from their women. These old men all have a fierce determination now to demonstrate themselves. They have long looked up to Mathu because Mathu has been the one man who stood up against whites in the community. Through the old men's willingness to take action, they will be able to assert their masculinity.

Chimley and Mat narrate these two chapters. They both are uneducated older black men who have spent their days toiling on the Marshall Plantation. Their style reflects the local black idiom. Chimley and Mat are not major characters in the novel. Along with some of the other men met in this chapter, Billy Washington, Joseph Aguillard, and Clatoo, they just become some of the many men who respond to Mathu's house. In fact, these two chapters represent their most visible moments in the novel. Still while their individual characters are not crucial, their narrations initiate the series of narratives by the old men who will gather at the plantation. Their memories and points of view will be woven with those from the other old black men. United, their tales present a rich textile of their lives with their pains and their pleasures. By granting Mat and Chimley narrative voices, Gaines's grants them the further power of self-definition. These two men will likely never tell their own stories in writing, but they are able to do so orally in this novel. The struggle for self-definition through the control of language is an important theme in the African-American tradition from the efforts of Frederick Douglass to that of Ralph Ellison. With their physical actions during this day, the old men will be demonstrating to themselves and the communities that they are no longer cowards. With their ability to describe themselves with their own words, the old men will be demonstrating that although illiterate, they are still masters of language and self. In addition to creating narrative texture, Gaines's unique narrative structure grants his characters the further possibility of self-definition.

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