Change is a prominent theme of A Gathering of Old Men. The old men change the habits of a lifetime and decide that this time they are going to stand up for themselves. Almost all the major characters undergo some decisive change in their attitudes or in their understanding of life. But although these changes happen quickly, the forces that lead to them have been building up for a long time. The origins of this momentous day in the history of the region lie in the changes in the methods of agricultural production that took place several decades previously, and which produced profound social as well as economic changes. In the novel, this is symbolized by the looming presence of Beau's tractor, which Snookum sees standing in front of Mathu's house at the very beginning of the novel, and which also serves as the focal point of the final shoot-out. It is as if all the action takes place in the shadow of this giant piece of machinery.
It was the coming of the tractor to the Marshall plantation that changed everything. Before, there had been a sense of community amongst the black people who worked in the fields. They cultivated the land with mules, hoes, and plows, and there was a camaraderie amongst them, even though the work was hard. As Johnny Paul says in the moving chapter in which the blacks reminisce: "We stuck together, shared what little we had, and loved and respected each other." But in the late-1970s, the time in which the novel is set, that world has vanished. The houses where the black families used to live, the church where they used to worship and pray, have long gone, and all that is left are weeds, not the flowers that used to flourish in their yards. The process of change has come close to annihilating them, and Tucker fears that soon the tractors will reach the graveyard, where so many of their older relatives lie, and will tear it up, leaving no trace that he and his people ever existed.
Mapes asks if they have ever heard of progress, but the truth is that the process of agricultural mechanization was progress not for all groups equally. The blacks were exploited by an unjust, racist system that cared nothing for them as human beings and did not honor their long tradition of working on the land. Progress for some meant that others lost everything that gave their lives identity and meaning.
Gaines revealed in an interview that this aspect of the novel was exactly true to what happened in real life Louisiana when he was growing up. When he left the area for California in 1948, he says, the whites had tractors but he did not know a single black farmer who had one. The delicate, interdependent relationship between the blacks, their families, and the land that sustained them was broken, all in the name of superior technology. Eventually the black people were driven off the land altogether, and all the young blacks (many of whom had already left the area to serve in World War II) had to move north in search of work. The novel, Gaines explained, is all about "The ones who loved the land, worked the land, and then were kicked off the land."
For the blacks on the plantation, the processes of time and change, to which all humans are subject, have been especially cruel. It is perhaps not surprising that the old men live in the past, with their memories both of race-based injustice and of former intact families and communities. Most of the characters in the novel, white as well as black, live in the past also. Change has come, but they are unable to cope with it, or in many cases even acknowledge that it has happened. This includes Fix, who is unable to understand that the days of the lynch mob are over, and Mapes, whose way of conducting a police investigation is to hit people who give him an answer he does not wish to hear. It also includes Jack Marshall, who owns the land.
When Marshall drinks in Tee Jack's store, he always makes a point of facing the room that used to be reserved for the black customers in the days of segregation. In those days he used to order drinks to be taken in to the blacks. Tee Jack wonders whether Marshall is hearing ghosts singing as he stares at the door of that room. This is an apt metaphor for Jack Marshall, who lives entirely in the past. He has...
(The entire section is 1735 words.)