The Characters

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

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.)

The Characters

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

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

(Great Characters in Literature)


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

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

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

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 who tell him it is time to abandon the old ways.

Gil Boutan

Gil Boutan, Fix’s son and Beau’s brother. He is the “Salt” of “Salt and Pepper,” the white and black running backs on the football team of a now integrated Louisiana State University. He is bitter at the death of his brother, and he has always resented the air of superiority that people like Candy assume toward Cajuns. Both his concern for his own future and his sense of all that has changed tell him that he cannot participate in any violence against black people.

The old men

The old men, each an individual with his own story. They all share in the same experience, an experience of growth into a full sense of themselves as men as they are granted a last chance to take a stand after a lifetime of giving in.