Critical Context (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series)
In A Gathering of Old Men, Ernest Gaines returns to the use of the first-person narrative that was so successful in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman; this time, however, he uses the technique in a more complex manner. Eleven black and four white narrators tell the story, each in a slightly different time and place. Many of the characters, particularly the old black men, have both given names and names by which they are known, and this fact seems to signify both the closeness of the community and the failure to recognize the men in their own right. The importance of naming stands out when Charlie demands to be called “Mr. Biggs,” to be recognized as a fifty-year-old man, not a boy any longer. Like Miss Jane Pittman, Charlie must name himself to become his own person.
A Gathering of Old Men also echoes Richard Wright’s story “The Man Who Was Almost a Man.” In that short fiction, the narrator runs rather than face belittling treatment by his community, both black and white, and the responsibility for his actions; thus, he is “almost” a man. In Gaines’s novel, Charlie Biggs becomes a man not by killing but by accepting responsibility for his action and demanding to be treated as a man.
Gaines combines both tragedy and comedy in his novel. During the shoot-out, some real deaths occur, but some of the action is almost slapstick in nature. The author seems to be saying that this is the human condition, to be heroic and to be silly, but the emphasis is on being fully human.