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Each chapter of the novel is told by a different narrator. Discuss the effect that this narrative technique creates. What purpose does it serve?
On the most obvious level, the multiple narrators allow for the story to be told in a communal rather than an individual way. Gaines has carefully selected these narrators across a broad spectrum. They are black, white, male, female, young, old, educated, not educated, liberal, and racist. Each of these narrators understands the murder of Beau Boutan in a different manner. When their different perspectives are placed side by side, the reader is able to understand the novel's events from not just one, but from multiple points of view. Furthermore, the ability to see into fifteen characters' minds as they speak in the first person allows for the reader to become intimately acquainted with them. This ability becomes especially important with the old black men who narrate. When the thoughts of these old men are visible, it becomes clear that most of these men have operated for years with a dual consciousness. They have lived in a world of silent acceptance but entertained dreams of action in their mind. By giving each of these old men a voice, Gaines allows them the opportunity to finally tell their stories. Storytelling is a theme within the book, and a motif that persists in African-American literature. The importance of mastering language and its connection to self-realization can be seen in African-American texts from The Autobiography of Frederick Douglass to The Invisible Man. Most of the old men in Gaines's novel are not literate, meaning that they will never write their own stories. By granting them narrative control with his novel, Gaines grants them the power of self-definition. For these old men, the act of defining themselves with words is as important as redefining themselves with action. Overall, Gaines's narrative technique allows for a complex rendition of his Louisiana community where the perspectives of all characters, white, black, and Cajun, can be known with a greater complexity than if they were not able to explain themselves in their own words.
Many of the old men express gratitude for the fact that they can confess to Beau's murder, even though they did not kill him. Why would they feel grateful when they could be possibly punished for their confessions?
The old men feel gratitude for the chance to confess because it will allow them to redefine themselves. These men have spent their lives trying to avoid trouble with the local whites. The racist system of the South long has relegated them to a subhuman existence. Now in their final years, Beau's murder gives these men the opportunity to salvage some of their dignity before they die. Suddenly these old men are prepared to rise up and fight against the injustice that they have suffered through the years. By deciding to help Mathu, these men are seizing power over their lives and reaffirming their humanity and their manhood. Although there is only one murderer of Beau, each Black man has longed to commit the same murder in his mind. Beau is only one man, but he represents all of the white men who have subjugated Black people over the years. To claim to have killed Beau provides each man with the chance to revenge a social order that has disdained and abused him. The murder of Beau allows the men to act and through their actions, they are able to discard the cowardice that has haunted them for many years. It is their ability to now take a stand for themselves and against their previous persecution that makes them grateful.
Discuss the character of Gil Bauton. Discuss the symbolism of his role in the "Salt and Pepper" duo on the Louisiana State Football Team.
Gil Bauton is a white Louisianan who represents the new South. As a football halfback, his offensive moves depend upon the work of Cal Harrison, a Black running back. Because of their white and Black combination, the press has labeled them "Salt and Pepper." Gil and Cal together have made the Louisiana State Team a success. Gaines compares the dependency of these two players to the dependency of two hands on a baseball bat: without one another neither would succeed. The success of their combination has made the issue of their races unimportant. The racial unity that they symbolize has caught the attention of the Black and white communities of local Baton Rouge, as well as the rest of the country. Gil Bauton's desire to become an "All-American" player also depends upon his work with Cal. It is only by working together that the two men can become All-American. Effectively, Gaines suggests with this symbolism that true Americanism can only be found with racial unity and cooperation, not division. Just as Cal and Gil work together on the football field, so too must whites and Black people work together in the South and in the entire country. It is only through such joint cooperation that all Americans can become all-American. Gil and Cal's football duo represents the possibility of a racially harmonious future in the United States.