Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Growth, change, and time are the three great organizing themes of A Gathering of Old Men. The process of growth within the old men motivates the inner action that structures much of the novel. What the men have been is clear enough. They have felt the contempt of the white men. They have felt even more bitterly their own self-contempt.

These men, old as they are, can still grow. They have too little left to lose to live any longer as frightened children. The growth each experiences, moreover, is linked to another growth. Before the novel is over, the “gathering” is becoming a community, as the men stand together on an increasingly conscious foundation of common values, common goals, and common history.

The growth they undergo is related in complex ways to violence. These are hardly violent men; most of them cannot shoot straight. Yet a recognition that some situations demand at least a readiness for violence is for these men a liberating insight. At the same time, the comic deflation of the sentence handed down by the judge keeps the theme of violence in its properly subordinate position.

The theme of growth is not embodied only in the old men. Charlie’s growth takes place offstage, so to speak, but before he dies he has heard a white man address him as “Mister Biggs.” Candy, too, must experience some of the pains of growth, as she is forced to recognize that these men no longer need her protection.

The story takes place within a broader context of social change. Mapes is just close enough to the old...

(The entire section is 642 words.)

Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

A Gathering of Old Men is difficult to classify; although it begins with an unsolved murder, it is much more than a mystery, and although it comments on social injustice, it is also the coming-of-age story of a whole community. Like much of Gaines’s work, A Gathering of Old Men is concerned with the interrelatedness of human beings within a community, with the effects of bigotry and the historical fact of slavery on the relationships of people in the South, and with the ability of human beings to mature and gain wisdom and dignity no matter what their age.

In the Louisiana township where the story takes place, there are three distinct groups. The white community contains a range of people, from Sheriff Mapes, who is in a position of power that he uses according to his own discriminatory lights, to Candy, who sees herself as benevolent protector of the blacks who live on and work her land, to Lou Dimes, who is an outside observer. The members of the Cajun community, who are viewed by other whites as inferior, as a result enforce greater hardship on the blacks. The members of the African American community, who are mostly elderly or very young, struggle to survive. Yet the novel makes it clear that each community depends upon the others, and that there are connections between the groups that run deeper than they know. For example, some of the African American characters have names that obviously connect them with the Cajun community....

(The entire section is 440 words.)