The Characters (Masterplots II: African American Literature, Revised Edition)
At the center of this novel is a remarkable group of characters: the “Old Men” of the title, who have lived all of their long lives in rural southern Louisiana, surviving by adapting to the demands of the dominant white society. The inner action of the novel follows the growth of these old men from frightened creatures into men who are prepared to stand together against the law and against the Boutan family and their allies. Readers come to know these men as individuals. Each has a story; each story is different. However, the repeated pattern of disappointment and frustration in the face of injustice and oppression clearly emerges.
This pattern lends further stature to Mathu, the great exception. He is thus defined in part in terms of the contrast he represents to the other old men and in part by their willingness to put themselves at risk on his behalf. Sheriff Mapes’s evaluation of Mathu as a better man than most he has known, black or white—praise a man such as Mapes would not give lightly to a black man—reinforces readers’ sense of Mathu’s moral power.
Another side of Mathu is revealed through his relationship with Candy. Upon the death of Candy’s parents, Mathu assumed along with Candy’s Aunt Merle the responsibility of rearing her. The white woman would teach her how to be a lady; the black man would help her to understand the people on the plantation.
This is the background that motivates Candy’s...
(The entire section is 504 words.)
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The Characters (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series, Revised Edition)
Mathu, an old black man more than eighty years old, is still tall and straight, a strong man who is the only African American ever to stand up to Fix Boutan. He is admired even by the sheriff, and Candy depends upon him. Mathu never says that he killed Beau, but neither will he deny it. He tells Mapes: “A man got to do what he thinks is right. . . . That’s what part him from a boy.” It is Mathu’s influence that brings Charlie back to face up to his responsibility.
Several other of the old men stand out: Cyril Robillard, also known as Clatoo, is one of the first narrators to arrive on the scene of the murder and also the first of the old black men to realize the significance of the stand they are taking. Robert Louis Stevenson Banks, also known as Chimley, is the man who brings the gathering together. Matthew Lincoln Brown, also known as Mat, is one of the narrators; he has perhaps the deepest insight into the changes that are taking place.
Louis Alfred Dimoulin, also known as Lou Dimes, is the reporter who both is and is not a part of the community. He therefore can use his outsider’s stance to observe the events.
Candy Marshall is an untraditional plantation owner. Although her sympathies are with the black community, her attitudes of patronage and protectionism place her squarely in the ranks of “good honkies” who mean well but cannot grasp that they are not necessary. She cannot understand that it is time for her...
(The entire section is 438 words.)
Characters Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Mathu, a black man, now in his eighties, built like an “old post in the ground.” He is the one black man on Marshall’s Plantation who has never been afraid to stand up to the whites. He has great personal dignity and has even earned the grudging respect of some white men, including Sheriff Mapes.
Candy Marshall, the daughter of the original owners of the plantation. Candy was half reared by Mathu after the death of her parents. A strong and independent woman of about thirty, she is determined to protect Mathu and the rest of “her” people. She must learn that there is something pa-tronizing in her assumption that the grown black men and women on the plantation are hers and that it is her duty to protect them.
Sheriff Mapes, a big, powerful, often brutal man. Mapes is to some extent free of the rigid racism of the past. Although he treats most of the old men with amused contempt and is not above slapping them when he does not get the answers he wants, he gradually becomes aware that something he has not seen before is happening among these old men.
Fix Boutan, father of a man who has been killed and patriarch of the Cajun Boutan family. Known in the past for his brutal mistreatment of African Americans, Fix is moved powerfully by a sense of family, and he is capable of listening to those in his family...
(The entire section is 398 words.)
Themes and Characters
With over fifty characters, most of whom are developed enough to go through significant changes in behavior tied to values, and with fourteen different narrators, A Gathering of Old Men might seem to be a long novel even though the book is just over two hundred pages long. Gaines helps us keep track of these characters by tying them to particular places and to significant parts of the novel's action: the communities' discovery of the killing of Beau Boutan; the gathering of the old black men in response to Candy's plea; the arrivals of Mapes and his deputy shortly followed by the coroner and his assistant; the scene at Louisiana State University when Gil, Beau's brother and a highly regarded running back at LSU, is told of Beau's murder; a later scene at the home of Fix, Gil's and Beau's father and the head of the family, to determine a response to the killing; a scene at the bayou grocery and liquor store in which friends of Beau unconnected to Fix's family prepare to lynch a black man and terrorize the black community; Big Charlie's confession to the murder; the battle between the old black men led by Big Charlie and the white supremacists, led by Luke Will, who were friends of Beau; the funerals of Beau, Luke Will, and Big Charlie followed by the trial of the old black men and those who had followed Luke Will.
In many scenes, such as those occurring at Mathu's house, the house of Fix, the courtroom, and the battle, over twenty characters are present....
(The entire section is 1558 words.)
Jacob is one of the old black men. His sister Tessie was killed by white men in 1947. He carries his gun like a soldier, and he takes part in the final shoot-out.
Robert Louis Stevenson Banks
Cherry Bello is a seventy-four year old black man who owns a liquor and grocery store. He is one of the men who gathers at Mathu's house.
See Cherry Bello
Charlie Biggs is a big, fifty-year-old black man. All his life he has been timid and submissive, but he finally learns to stand up for himself when he kills his employer, the abusive Beau, who is going to shoot Charlie. After the killing, Charlie hides for a while but finally realizes he must come back to face up to the consequences. He believes that by his actions he has finally become a man, and he insists on being called Mr. Biggs. He is killed in the shoot-out with the lynch mob.
See Miss Merle
Beau is the aggressive, racist Cajun farmer who leases the plantation from the Marshall family. Beau attacks Charlie, who shoots him dead. He is mourned only by his own family.
Claude Boutan is one of Gil's older brothers. He drives a truck for an oil company. In the meeting at Fix's home, he says he will do whatever Fix decides.
(The entire section is 2439 words.)
This novel is rich in characters, many of whom either help narrate the story or are significant actors in it. Chief protagonists are Candy Marshall, the niece of the plantation owner; Mathu, the old black man, a surrogate father for Candy (whose parents died in a car crash when she was seven); Charlie, the real killer, shielded by all, but especially by Mathu; Lou Dimes, Candy's boyfriend; the Boutan family members, including Fix, the father, Beau, the victim, and Gil, the LSU football player; and Mapes, the sheriff, who, though abusive, is not as cruel and mindless as the lyncher, Luke Will. Several more minor characters serve to set the scene and tell the story, especially at the beginning, where many of the characters are involved in spreading the news. These are George Eliot, Jr., or Snookum, a young boy who runs from house to house, hoping for a handout for his efforts (he is given a chapter to narrate toward the end, during the Shootout scene); Janey Robinson, black servant in the big house; drunken Uncle Jack Marshall and Bea his alcoholic wife; Myrtle Bouchard, or Miss Merle, who seems to be an old flame of Jack's; and several old black men besides Charlie and Mathu who sooner or later join the group of men who claim to have shot Beau Boutan. Of these men, Mat, Cherry, Clatoo (who is as much white and Indian as he is black; he hides bullets near the footings under the porch), Rooster, Coot, Sharp, and Dirty Red have a narrative role. Also given a narrative...
(The entire section is 391 words.)