Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Unlike The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman with its epic sweep, A Gathering of Old Men limits its primary action to a single day and to locales in and around the plantation quarters near Bayonne. It is only in Lou Dimes’s last narrative, a sort of epilogue, that the reader is carried past the climactic day on which a group of old black men gather to protect their friend, Mathu. They assume that Mathu has killed Beau, a white farmer and son of a powerful Cajun patriarch, Fix Bouton.
The old men congregate at Mathu’s house, each carrying a shotgun and confessing to the crime. They have an ally in a young white woman, Candy, who has prompted the gathering. She also claims to have shot Beau, fearing that Beau’s killer, once identified, will face brutal retribution. The men hold to their charade, braving the abuse of Sheriff Mapes and frustrating all of his attempts to intimidate them. Although he believes that only Mathu is capable of the act, Mapes slowly gains grudging respect for the men because they have dared to defy him.
Candy, too, must face the implications of the men’s stand. As her friend Lou Dimes tells her, Mathu is now free of her, free of her protection, which, however well intentioned, in its way has been as demeaning for black people as the brutal intimidation of men such as Mapes and Beau. The black men are finally able to stand alone, with dignity and pride, beholden to nobody.
(The entire section is 456 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots II: African American Literature, Revised Edition)
The story of A Gathering of Old Men is told by fifteen narrators. Violence is part of the story they tell. The book, however, is also a story of the sometimes painful and uncertain processes of change and growth.
Beau Boutan, a brutal Cajun farmer, has been shot and killed. His body lies in the yard of Mathu, and, because old Mathu is known as the only black man in the area who has ever stood up to the whites, most people will surely conclude that he is the killer. He faces both the retribution of the law and the revenge of the Boutan family. Fix Boutan, the patriarch of the family, has lived by a harsh, simple, and brutally racist code. The death of his son at the hands of a black man will certainly lead him to demand more than an eye for an eye.
Candy Marshall, who was half reared by Mathu, is determined to protect him. She is prepared to say that she, a white woman from a plantation-owning family, killed Beau—and she has a plan.
At Candy’s urging, the old men of the plantation will gather at Mathu’s. Each will carry a shotgun and shells like those that killed Beau. Each will have recently fired the shotgun. And each, like Candy, will claim to be Beau’s killer.
As the men move toward Mathu’s, singly, in pairs, eventually as a group, they begin to feel a sense of joyful resolution. All of their lives, they have given in. They have lived in fear of the whites. Now they have been granted an unlooked-for last chance to take a stand as men. A sense of destiny surges in them as Clatoo, an old man who has discovered qualities of leadership in himself, makes sure that they pass by the graveyard where their dead are buried.
Sheriff Mapes is baffled by the situation. He knows that Mathu must be the killer, and he wants by decisive action to divert the vicious retaliation that can be expected from Fix Boutan. What...
(The entire section is 769 words.)
Summary (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series, Revised Edition)
A Gathering of Old Men is written in the first person and is narrated by fifteen separate voices. The book tells the story of one day, one killing, and the coming-of-age of a community in Louisiana in the 1970’s. Ernest Gaines, a master of first-person storytelling, creates in this work a continuous narrative seen from many very different points of view.
At the opening of the novel, a Cajun boss, Beau Boutan, has been murdered in the Quarters, a section of an old Louisiana plantation. Suspicion naturally falls on Mathu, an elderly African American man on whose doorstep the body lies. Candy Marshall, the young white woman who owns the plantation, sends word to all the black families in the area to bring the elderly black men of the community to Mathu’s home. At the same time, she declares that she herself shot Boutan. There is fear that retaliation for the killing will come either from the legitimate authority, Sheriff Mapes, or more dangerously from Fix Boutan, who is the elderly head of Beau’s Cajun family, which is notorious for vigilantism.
About eighteen old men gather at Mathu’s house, each carrying a twelve-gauge shotgun that has been discharged and contains a number-five shell, thereby replicating the murder weapon. This is done at Candy Marshall’s command, for Candy has taken on the role of protector. It turns out that she gets more than she bargained for.
Through the various narrative voices, readers follow simultaneously the thoughts and actions of the sheriff and his deputy, the Boutan family members, and the old African American men. It seems obvious to all the characters that despite Candy’s claim, it is Mathu who is responsible for Beau’s death. Tension builds as all the characters begin to converge on Mathu’s house, where a standoff between Sheriff Mapes, Mathu, and Candy develops.
Candy Marshall is an untraditional plantation owner, being young, female, and on the side of the old black men rather than of the white authorities. She is incapable, however, of breaking out of the tradition of protectionism and patronage...
(The entire section is 860 words.)
Chapters 1-2 Summary
George Eliot, Jr., known as Snookum, is the narrator. He is eating with his siblings and his grandmother, Grand Mon, who lives in the worker’s quarters of the Marshall Plantation. Candy, who is part owner of Marshall Plantation, comes running to the house crying for Grand Mon. Grand Mon commands the boys to stay at the table and goes outside to find Candy extremely upset. Toddy, Snookum’s brother, warns Snookum that he is free from his revenge since finding Snookum and Minnie playing “papa and mama” in the weeds. Candy calls for Snookum and tells him to run to all the men who work on the plantation and tell them to meet at Mathu’s house as quickly as possible. She also orders him to tell Miss Merle at the Big House to...
(The entire section is 423 words.)
Chapters 3-4 Summary
Myrtle Bouchard (Miss Merle) is the narrator. She has brought a pie for Jack (the Major) in an attempt to attract his attention, although he does not seem interested. When Miss Merle hears the news from Janey, she forgets the pie in the car and drives down to the quarters, where Candy is now joined by a crowd of people, three of whom (Mathu, Johnny Paul, and Rufe—all elderly men) are holding shotguns. Candy tells Miss Merle that is was she who shot Beau. Miss Merle has known Candy for twenty-five years, ever since she came to live at Marshall Plantation after her parents were killed in a car accident, and she knows Candy is lying. Candy insists repeatedly that she shot Beau, but Miss Merle believes Mathu pulled the trigger. She...
(The entire section is 470 words.)
Chapters 5-6 Summary
Mathew Lincoln Brown (Mat) narrates. When he returns home, he hands his sack of fish to his wife, Ella, and phones Clatoo, but he had just left with his shotgun. He then calls Billy Washington, whose wife tells him that Billy left in the truck with Clatoo, also carrying his gun. She thought they were going to the Old Mulatto Place where Jacob Aguillard lives. Jacob does not have a phone but he can call a neighbor, Leola. Clatoo has just pulled up in front of the house when Mat calls, so Mat has Leola give her late husband’s gun and some shells to Clatoo. As Mat makes these calls, Ella overhears and asks where he is going with all these guns. Mat tells her he is going hunting, but he will not tell her for what. She demands to...
(The entire section is 442 words.)
Chapters 7-8 Summary
Cyril Robillard (Clatoo) narrates as he meets Candy and the others at Mathu’s house, where a large group of people (mostly old men) has gathered. Many of the people have come from over ten miles away, which will be noted when they confess to Beau’s murder. Clatoo sees Mathu squatting against the wall, holding his shotgun. His skin is blue-black, a fact he is proud of as evidence that he has no White blood in him, contrary to the others. Reverend Jameson has also arrived; he is the only man who does not have a gun. He warns the others against what they plan to do. He sees more murder and his home being destroyed. Candy tells him to either shut up or go home. The tractor is still running, and no one wants to turn it off. Candy...
(The entire section is 514 words.)
Chapters 9-10 Summary
Joseph Seaberry (Rufe) is the narrator. Mapes calls Mathu over for questioning. Although Mapes likes and respects Mathu, he believes Mathu is the only one strong enough to have killed Beau. When Mathu confesses, Mapes tells him to send the others home. Mathu replies that he cannot because each man must do what he feels he ought to do. The others interrupt to say they are the murderers. Mapes listens patiently as some tell what White men have done to their female relatives. Johnny Paul becomes angry and tells Mapes that he does not understand how mechanization and the White man have taken over farming, depriving many Black men of work. Johnny Paul says that he killed Beau for all those in the past who have suffered because of Beau,...
(The entire section is 530 words.)
Chapters 11-12 Summary
As the sun begins to set, Lou Dimes (the current narrator) tries to talk Candy into going home, but she refuses. Griffin stands in the ditch holding his pistol. Mapes thinks that, as soon as this is all over, he will get rid of Griffin. Miss Merle arrives with sandwiches for all the people who still remain in Mathu’s yard. They gratefully accept them because it has been a long day. As she passes out sandwiches, Miss Merle fusses at each person. Some take seconds, but most refuse when they see that there are not enough for two for everyone. Miss Merle ridicules Lou for being less than a man because he cannot control Candy. She looks to Mathu; the two of them have raised Candy after her parents died and it was clear that Major Jack...
(The entire section is 492 words.)
Chapters 13-14 Summary
Jacques Thibeaux (Tee Jack) is the narrator. He runs a saloon visited mostly by the White members of the community. There was a “nigger room” before desegregation, after which the Black people refused to use it. When Tee Jack made it clear they were not welcome any place but the “nigger room,” they stopped coming. On this evening as on every evening, Jack Marshall (owner of the Marshall Plantation and Candy’s uncle) is sitting in his usual spot. There is also a nameless stranger who sits quietly and watches the other customers.
Luke Will and his gang come in and order a bottle of whiskey and some Cokes. Tee Jack is nervous because the gang is known to throw poisonous snakes in Black churches and tip over Black...
(The entire section is 456 words.)
Chapters 15-16 Summary
Lou Dimes narrates; he sits in the car with Candy, but she is not speaking to him. He tells her there is going to be a big change in her life after this night. Mathu freed her when he pushed her hand off his arm when she was trying to hold him back. Mathu no longer needs her to protect him. He is an old man, and he wants to live the rest of his life in his own way. Lou tells Candy that before he leaves he wants an answer from her concerning marriage. If he does not get any answer, he will not be coming back. In reply, Candy slaps his face. Lou thanks her and says he will stick around just to get an end for the newspaper story he will write about this day.
An old man comes out of the house and asks for the sheriff, who...
(The entire section is 476 words.)
Chapters 17-18 Summary
Snookum is the narrator. As soon as Mapes is shot, the shooting from the house begins. Through the door and the window, and even into the ceiling, the old men fire at the Cajuns hiding behind the tractor. Snookum tells himself that he had better get out of the house. Grand Mon has Toddy and Snookum’s sister, Minnie, so all she can do is to shout for Snookum to stop when he takes off running. Running out through the kitchen, Snookum crawls under the house until he reaches the front steps. He sees Mapes sitting on the walk, rocking back and forth, unable to stand up because of his weight. Snookum is determined not to risk himself to help the sheriff. He hears Gram Mon calling him and Reverend Jameson calling on the Lord.
(The entire section is 482 words.)
Chapters 19-20 Summary
Antoine Christophe (Dirty Red) is the narrator; he and Charlie are in a ditch and the other men are scattered all around. Charlie asks for a cigarette. Lou calls out and suggests that he let the men turn themselves in, warning him that it will be murder now. When Charlie replies that it was murder before, Lou points out that it was an act of self-defense, to which Candy will swear in a court of law. Charlie insists that now that he is a man, he will stand. He tells Dirty Red that life is sweet when you know you aren’t a coward any more. Dirty Red asks Charlie what he saw in the swamps that gave him such courage. Charlie replies that Dirty Red, along with the other men, also saw it.
When Lou tells Charlie that he is...
(The entire section is 449 words.)