A Gathering of Old Men

Ernest J. Gaines
Main Ideas

Themes

Main Ideas Themes

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.

Racial Interdependence

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.