A Gathering of Old Men
Themes, Motifs, and Symbols
Manhood and Redefining Black Masculinity
The primary theme in A Gathering of Old Men is the redefinition of black masculinity. Initially titled "The Revenge of Old Men," the novel is a tale about action and self-realization. The old men who gather at the plantation have spent their days running from trouble. After years of social and economic subjugation in a racist system, they long to stand up for something. The transformation that they long to undertake is best illustrated by Charlie. Charlie is a legendary weakling who has always been defined by his servile personality. By the end of the novel though, Charlie has changed. Not only did he kill Beau, but he returns to confess, and then becomes the most courageous man in the battle. In just one day, Charlie has become a man without fear. The old black men look for a similar transformation. They demonstrate their strong selves by coming to help Mathu, by telling their stories, and by fighting with the whites. By the end of the novel, all of these men have reaffirmed their manhood and their humanity.
Changes in Social and Legal Status
The social and legal status of blacks has changed in the South, but for most of the novel the characters act as they would have years ago, with the blacks awaiting Fix and the lynch mob. Luke Will and his crew expect the blacks not to fight back. However times have changed. When Sheriff Mapes finds out that Fix is not coming to the plantation, he laughs. The Sheriff finally sees that he and the other old men have been acting as if it was early in the century, instead of the late 1970s. The Civil Rights movement has come and gone. Salt and Pepper are demonstrating racial harmony on the football field. Social relations between whites and blacks have changed and the characters should act accordingly. The final courtroom trial affirms of the altered legal status of the races in the South. All of the defendants are tried together and all of them receive the same penalty. This equitable trial stands in sharp contrast to the legacy of racially biased legality in the South. By the end of the novel, everyone knows that the races more fairly seem to legally co-exist.
The existence of racial interdependence is mostly obvious seen with the combination of "Salt and Pepper," the star football players. The success of these two players relies on their cooperation with one another. If Cal, the fullback, did not support Gil, the halfback, the duo would fail. Their need for joint playing is a metaphor for the entire South and in fact, the entire country. The races need to work together for everyone to be successful. Working separately will not allow for success in football or in American society. Cal and Gil will become "All- American" players due to their cooperative effort. Similarly, the United State of America will become more truly "all- American" if races fairly work together and are equally appreciated for the roles that each of them play.
The narration by black characters demonstrates the widespread existence of double consciousness. W.E.B DuBois, the early 20th century African-American scholar, coined the concept of double consciousness to express the way in which American blacks have an identity reserved for themselves and one reserved for whites. The public personas of old men in the novel long have silently agreed to their subjugation. When transformed into narrators however, their spirit and dreams of willful action become evident. The idea of dual identities also is suggested by the characters' names. Each of the characters has two names—his formal name and the name by which he is most commonly known. The formal name belongs to the world of documents and civil rights, the world to which the black men have always been denied entry. The informal name reflects their character and its style. The old black men always have lived with these two separate selves. With the events at the Marshall Plantation they are able to bring their separate names together. The spirited internal personas become evident as the characters narrate their tales. In the final trial, the characters also boldly refer to each other by their nicknames rather than their formal ones. At the novel's end, the old men still possess double consciousnesses once described by DuBois, yet the relationship of these two identities has grown closer together.
Social Distinctions Inside Race
Gaines demonstrates social distinctions both between and within the races. The whites are strictly divided between the white landowners and the local Cajuns, with the landowners believing themselves superior. Likewise, the blacks use the issue of the lightness of skin tone as a sign of social status. The development of characters within this novel shows all these social hierarchies to be without basis. Bea and Jack Marshall, for example, believe themselves superior but are truly drunken idlers. Mathu believes himself superior for being pitch black, but by the end of the book, he realizes that the men's actions define their selves, not whether they have traces of white blood. With this analysis, Gaines exposes the social hierarchies of the South keenly and in doing so exposes the foolishness of their mere existence.
Ernest Gaines long has cited the importance of storytelling in the culture of his youth. As he says in an interview, "I come from a plantation where people told stories by the fireplace at night, people told stories on the ditch bank
People sat around telling stories." The importance of storytelling is constantly reinforced in A Gathering of Old Men both because of the multiple narrators and because of the scenes where the old men actually tell tales of their painful past. The stories and the narrative tone recreate the thick cultural weave of the local black culture. The dialects dance off one another, reflecting the richness even within the small local community. The scenes in which the men confess to the murder and testify to their troubles demonstrates that way that storytelling can become a bold act of defiance in a culture that once expected blacks to be silent. Presenting the important motif of oral storytelling heralds back to African-American works as old as slave literature. In a culture that once was denied literacy, oral storytelling became the primary means of defining one's self.
The tractor symbolizes the agricultural mechanization that has taken place with the growth of Cajun farming and this mechanization's effect. The arrival of the tractor with the Cajuns shifted the traditional means of local black life. Mechanization reduced the need for labor. The community of blacks who once cared for the land became suddenly unemployed, and most of them moved away. While the plantation once was carefully maintained by those who worked it, now only the old remain and the plantation's buildings are deteriorating. The image of the tractor is seen near Beau's dead body and later serves as a bastion for the Cajuns during the battle. Overall it is a negative symbol that suggests increased hardships for the local blacks. The tractor was the primary tool of the Cajuns that pushed the blacks off the land.
Like the tractor, the sugar cane suggests the way that the Cajuns have changed the local agriculture. The sugar cane represents the times when the blacks worked the land and their community thrived. The Cajun farmers have destroyed the cane fields with their farming, much in the way that they have destroyed the old men's previous way of life. The empty cane fields seen on the way to the Marshall Plantation evoke the image of old houses from which good friends have moved. The cane is gone and destroyed just as familiar days of the past have disappeared. Additionally, the sugar cane also grows wildly in some areas and may even soon overrun their local graveyard—a clear symbol of how the Cajuns has pushed them from their ancestral land. The symbol of sugar cane also contains a textual reference to Jean Toomer's classic book Cane, a book that examines the vibrancy of early 20th century black life by interweaving poetry and fiction. In Toomer's book, as in Ernest Gaines's, the sugar cane represents the beauty and pain that African-Americans experienced as they worked for many years close to the land.
Candy initially instructs the men to bring twelve-gauge shotguns to Mathu's house because she thinks that the proliferation of guns will make it impossible for the Sheriff to solve the murder. Still while Candy wants the men to have weapons, she assumes that the guns will contain only empty shells. By limiting the men to empty shells, Candy reinforces her hierarchical position over them and demonstrates that she fails to see them as strong men. Lou and Sheriff Mapes initially feel alarmed at the sight of the rifles, but upon learning that they are empty, the white men feel once again convinced that the guns are simply symbols of the old men's impotence. The old men, however, turn their guns into signs of manhood. Throughout the day, Clatoo has arranged for the men to fill their pockets with live shotgun shells. By the time that the lynch mob appears, the old men are ready to fight. When the men reveal that they are ready to defend their manhood with live shells, Lou, Candy, and Sheriff Mapes are shocked. In the end, the blacks redefine their relationship to these guns by arming them. In doing so, they change remove any notion of them as impotence figures unable to use their weapons. In the find battle scene, the black men, not the whites, truly are the ones calling the shots.
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