A Gathering of Old Men

by Ernest J. Gaines

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Why does Gaines kill off a character from each "side" at the end of the shootout in A Gathering of Old Men, and what effect does this have on the novel?

Quick answer:

Gaines has two opposing characters die to show the futility of revenge and optimism about the effects of collective action. The life of Charlie, Beau’s killer, is taken. However, Will’s attempt to use vigilantism to avenge Beau’s death is thwarted. Even though one member of the African American community is killed, the resolution to the complex situation is less drastic than they feared. By taking collective action, they demonstrate that they can prevent larger-scale violence.

Expert Answers

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Throughout A Gathering of Old Men, the threat of escalating violence is on everyone’s minds. The members of the African American community are well aware of their vulnerable position. Because Beau’s body is at Mathu’s house, Mathu is the most vulnerable. The reader does not immediately learn that Charlie, not Mathu, has killed Beau. Even though the Boutan family is divided about taking revenge, Luke Will and his gang are determined to inflict harm.

Using Candy’s scheme to cast doubt on any individual’s guilt, the older Black men come together to present a united front. While all have doubts that this approach will work, they are determined to make a solid effort to protect their community members, knowing that the individual’s guilt is not what matters to the vigilantes. By taking the action of assembling with their firearms, they have committed to shooting if necessary, which is what occurs.

The death of Charlie can be considered a sacrifice for the Black community; it is almost incidental that he is actually the killer. Luke’s death is fitting, but for different reasons: he is a violent aggressor whose gang would have inflicted far greater damage if not stopped. The collective action of the old men seems to imply that future racist aggressions will likewise be deflected.

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