A Gathering of Old Men

by Ernest J. Gaines
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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 769

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.

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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.

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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 can he do, though, when every old man on the place—and a white woman, as well—is claiming responsibility?

Fix Boutan has called his own gathering. What is the will of the family? Most, as Fix probably expects, seem ready to ride out in the old way, and Luke Will, an outsider to the family, urges them to follow that course. However, two of Fix’s sons, brothers of Beau, speak against violence. Jean, a local butcher, fears the effect of violence on business. Gil, the other son, has hurried back from Louisiana State University on hearing of his brother’s death. Gil is a nationally recognized football star. Together with a black teammate, the other half of a pair sportswriters call “Salt and Pepper,” he is expected on this very weekend to lead his team to victory in the big game against Mississippi. He represents something new in the South, and both his concern for his personal future and his acceptance of the social changes that have helped to open up that future lead him to call for an end to the cycle of violence. Fix accepts what his sons say; the Boutans will take no revenge. Fix, though, can no longer regard Jean and Gil as his sons.

The real identity of Beau’s killer is revealed when Charlie, a childlike giant of a man, turns up at Mathu’s. Now in his fifties, Charlie has been afraid of white people all his life. When his first act of defiance resulted in Beau’s death, he panicked and ran, but he has run enough, now, for a man. He will accept responsibility for his act, and thereby, for his life. He is ready to face what must be faced—and that means Luke Will and his gang, who refuse to abide by the decision of the Boutans. They have come for what amounts to a lynching, but they find themselves in a fight, in which the old men participate while the wounded Sheriff Mapes can only look on helplessly. At the end of the fight, Charlie and Luke Will are dead.

The survivors, black and white, are brought to trial, and a judge places them on probation. This means, among other things, that they may not touch a gun for five years—or, the judge wryly proclaims, until death, whichever comes first. Candy offers Mathu a lift back to the quarters. He thanks her, but he chooses to ride back in Clatoo’s truck, with the other black men.

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