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Symbols are objects, characters, figures, and colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
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.