A Gathering of Old Men

Ernest J. Gaines
Main Ideas

Motifs

Main Ideas Motifs

Double consciousness

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.

Storytelling

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.

Tractor

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.

Sugar cane

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.

Guns

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.