Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

Race and the Tragic Mode in Ernest J. Gaines's: "A Gathering of Old Men"

Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

Race and the Tragic Mode in Ernest J. Gaines's: "A Gathering of Old Men"

Article excerpt

Ernest Gaines's A Gathering of Old Men (1983) takes place in the late 1970s on the land of the Marshall plantation, a remote, unreconstructed spot in rural Louisiana. The novel tells the story of a group of humble African American elders who, for the first time in their lives, have resolved to stand up to their white oppressors. What makes Gathering vivid and compelling is Gaines's use of a variety of theatrical conventions to dramatize a simple story of revenge against a backdrop of enduring racial oppression. The first part of this essay shows that Gathering, while organized according to standard dramatic conventions, is also a celebration of African American vernacular and rhetoric as tools for subverting authority. This emphasis on verbal performance, the systematic questioning of everyday reality, as well as the choric outlook of the group of old men, narrows the focus of this essay from theatricality to tragedy. As Gaines once acknowledged, "the sense of Greek tragedy ... keeps coming back in my writing" (qtd in Lowe 30), and the second part of this essay further explores the influence of Greek tragedy on Gaines's work. While this section brings into light the elements of Greek tragedy that characterize the novel, it also argues that the ethics of Greek tragedy are better suited than modern literary conventions and contemporary moral values to convey the idiosyncrasies of the black experience in the deep South. Ultimately, Gathering is anything but what a slapdash review once called "a Louisiana pageant of calamity" and a "morality play" (Price 15). The novel highlights the complexity of the social and racial equation in 1970s Louisiana, provides a more acute understanding of past and present realities, and challenges the widespread and complacent notion that change is impossible.

Theatrical Characteristics in Gathering

    Tragedy is a crisis ... in the wake of which no one
   among the heroes is the same as before.
   --Pierre Vidal-Naquet, Le miroir Brise
 (1) 

The opening scene of Gathering is deceptively simple: Beau Boutan, a Cajun farmer, has been shot dead in front of the cabin of Mathu, a solitary, charismatic African American elder. The back story to this simple murder, however, is really what Gathering is all about: the murder of a white man by a black man immediately exacerbates the racial tensions that saturate the fragile social mosaic of this isolated southern locality that has remained unchanged by the reforms of the civil rights movement. Choosing not to "crawl under the bed like [they] used to" (28), the old men have gathered in Mathu's yard where they brace themselves for the showdown with Fix Boutan, the father of the victim. There is no doubt in the minds of the hoary old lot that Fix, notorious for his bigotry and cruelty against black people, will show up to avenge the murder of his son. Everything designates Mathu as the culprit, but each old man has come to Mathu's with a gun loaded with one empty number-five shell similar to the one that killed Beau. When Sheriff Mapes gets there to arrest Mathu, each and every man stands before Mapes and claims, "I did it."

The originality of Gathering derives in part from its multiple-perspective narration, in which all kinds of individuals--white and black, male and female, old and young, and rich and poor--have something to say about the murder of Beau Boutan. Sometimes complementary, sometimes discordant, the voices in Gathering are often organized in dialogues that, along with other forms of communication (gazes, silences, and body language), contribute to make Gathering a theatrical novel. Gathering also resembles a play as it observes the three unities of time, place, and action. (2) The story takes place in one day, from the killing of Beau Boutan to the final shootout. Almost everything happens in one place: Mathu's yard. Finally, the story follows the standard formula whereby theatrical action is organized according to (1) exposition--the murder of Beau; (2) complication--the armed old men hope for a deadly showdown with Fix and his clan; (3) crisis--Fix won't show up; Big Charlie (the actual murderer) decides to surrender but xenophobic Luke Will shows up, and a shootout ensues; and (4) resolution--Luke Will and Big Charlie die. …

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