Study Guide

A Gathering of Old Men How to Look at Where Characters Look

By Ernest J. Gaines

How to Look at Where Characters Look

The Eyes Have It

How many times has somebody asked you to look them in the eye? Of all of the images that Gaines gives us in his novel, we've got to say that the most crucial imagery is all about the eyes. That is to say, it's all about eye contact. 

When a character, usually an African American character, refuses to look another character—usually a white character—in the eyes, it's usually a sign of anxiety, fear, or submission to their authority. When they look that white character in the eyes, that's another story. Just take a minute to check out this comparison Gaines sets up for us between Billy Washington and Gable Rauand when Mapes starts questioning the men out at Mathu's place. "Unlike Uncle Billy," or so Lou Dimes tells us, "who never raised his eyes higher than Mapes's chest, Gable looked him straight in the face." And, just in case we don't get exactly what that means, Gaines (with a little help from Lou, of course) gives us this super-intense moment: 

"I shot him," Gable said.

Mapes clamped his teeth so hard that the muscles in his heavy jowls began to quiver. His right hand came up slowly—then pow. Gable's faced jerked to the side, but came right back. His eyes watered, but he stared at Mapes right in the face […]

"You can do it all day long," Gable said to Mapes.

Mapes slapped him again. Gable's face jerked to the side just a little. His eyes blinked for a moment; then he was looking Mapes in the face again. (8.120-24) 

The fact that Gable stares at Mapes dead in the eyes signals to us that he isn't afraid of Mapes or the law he represents, and the fact that he's not willing to give Mapes the satisfaction of seeing him weaken proves that. 

No matter how you slice it, seeing and not seeing, who sees what, and where people look are all important things to think about in A Gathering of Old Men.

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