Growth, change, and time are the three great organizing themes of A Gathering of Old Men. The process of growth within the old men motivates the inner action that structures much of the novel. What the men have been is clear enough. They have felt the contempt of the white men. They have felt even more bitterly their own self-contempt.
These men, old as they are, can still grow. They have too little left to lose to live any longer as frightened children. The growth each experiences, moreover, is linked to another growth. Before the novel is over, the “gathering” is becoming a community, as the men stand together on an increasingly conscious foundation of common values, common goals, and common history.
The growth they undergo is related in complex ways to violence. These are hardly violent men; most of them cannot shoot straight. Yet a recognition that some situations demand at least a readiness for violence is for these men a liberating insight. At the same time, the comic deflation of the sentence handed down by the judge keeps the theme of violence in its properly subordinate position.
The theme of growth is not embodied only in the old men. Charlie’s growth takes place offstage, so to speak, but before he dies he has heard a white man address him as “Mister Biggs.” Candy, too, must experience some of the pains of growth, as she is forced to recognize that these men no longer need her protection.
The story takes place within a broader context of social change. Mapes is just close enough to the old...
(The entire section is 642 words.)