Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: African American Literature, Revised Edition)
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 entire section is 642 words.)
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Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series, Revised Edition)
A Gathering of Old Men is difficult to classify; although it begins with an unsolved murder, it is much more than a mystery, and although it comments on social injustice, it is also the coming-of-age story of a whole community. Like much of Gaines’s work, A Gathering of Old Men is concerned with the interrelatedness of human beings within a community, with the effects of bigotry and the historical fact of slavery on the relationships of people in the South, and with the ability of human beings to mature and gain wisdom and dignity no matter what their age.
In the Louisiana township where the story takes place, there are three distinct groups. The white community contains a range of people, from Sheriff Mapes, who is in a position of power that he uses according to his own discriminatory lights, to Candy, who sees herself as benevolent protector of the blacks who live on and work her land, to Lou Dimes, who is an outside observer. The members of the Cajun community, who are viewed by other whites as inferior, as a result enforce greater hardship on the blacks. The members of the African American community, who are mostly elderly or very young, struggle to survive. Yet the novel makes it clear that each community depends upon the others, and that there are connections between the groups that run deeper than they know. For example, some of the African American characters have names that obviously connect them with the Cajun community....
(The entire section is 440 words.)
Racism pervades the novel, which shows that blacks have suffered discrimination and abuse for many generations. The racism continues even into the late 1970s. Many of the whites, including Luke Will and Tee Jack, routinely use the offensive word "nigger" to describe any black person. The Cajun Boutan family are guilty of innumerable ugly incidents involving blacks. The law either looks the other way or accepts a skewed version of events, as is revealed, for example, in the incident related by Tucker, in which his brother Silas was beaten to death by whites because he had dared to perform better with his mules than they did with their modern tractors. Tucker says, "Where was the law? Law said he cut in on the tractor, and he was the one who started the fight." In the story related by Gable, the word of a white girl of dubious reputation is enough to unjustly send a black boy of sixteen to the electric chair.
Sheriff Mapes's attitude when he first arrives at Mathu's house is testimony to the way whites treat blacks. When he does not get the answer he wants, Mapes resorts to beating three of the old men. That is the only way he knows how to deal with black people. When that does not work, he does not know what else to do.
As well as suffering abuse as individuals, blacks are also collectively discriminated against. When the white landowning Marshall family leased the land to sharecroppers (tenant farmers), they gave the best...
(The entire section is 1159 words.)