Study Guide

A Gathering of Old Men Plot Analysis

By Ernest J. Gaines

Plot Analysis

Exposition (Initial Situation)

Ding Dong, the Bad Guy's Dead 

If Beau Boutan hadn't been such an awful human being, maybe he could have avoided getting shot. But it just so happens that he was an awful human being, and now he's collecting flies on Mathu's lawn. It also just so happens that his death is what sets the story in motion. If Beau hadn't turned up dead, Snookum would have just gone on happily munching on his turnips (well, maybe not too happily—they are turnips after all). It's his mad dash through the quarters at Marshall that introduces us to our first set of characters and starts us on the journey of finding out what's what and who's who.

Rising Action (Conflict, Complication)

One of These Guns is Not Like the Other 

As if somebody offing somebody else isn't enough to get things nice and complicated, there's that pesky question of trying to figure out who did it, and why. Sheriff Mapes is totally convinced that it's Mathu from the get-go, but a whole lot of other people are doing their best to make sure that Mapes has his work cut out for him trying to prove it. They show up with shotguns on their shoulders, ready and willing to cop to Beau's murder and all. Another part of what makes this so complicated is that pretty much everybody there has plenty of motive for killing him, because they've been bullied, terrorized, and tortured their whole lives for no reason other than the color of their skin by people who look and think a lot like Beau. They want to make sure that Mapes understands that. Mapes doesn't get it, and these people are still playing a dangerous game when you remember Fix Boutan's nasty reputation.

Climax (Crisis, Turning Point)

Welcome Home—Now Get Out 

Almost from the very beginning, the good people at Marshall are talking about Fix Boutan like he's less a person and more a kind of scary story you tell little kids to get them to behave. He's a real-life monster that would kill an innocent man, woman, or child as easily as he would swat a fly, and do a whole lot more damage besides. It's Fix Boutan, in fact, that has Mapes so anxious to get to the bottom of Beau's murder, because he—like everybody else out at Marshall—knows exactly what Fix can do when he's angry. 

But then we meet Gil and his buddy Sully, and we learn that Fix—even though he really wants to—isn't going to do a dang thing after all (thanks to his son and his brother, Jean). That's a real game-changer. Of course, we also meet Luke Will, and that's going to be a game-changer too, because Luke Will's the kind of guy who's angry about a lot of things a lot the time, and you can bet he's not happy with Fix's decision not to get his revenge.

Falling Action

Old Habits Die Harder than Old Rednecks 

Fix and his gang may not be showing up, but we've still got to find out who up and killed Beau for being the monster that he was. Once we find out that it was Charlie who did it, that's pretty much the beginning of the end. And, since the Boutan clan won't be riding down to Marshall, that should mean that we can all breathe a huge sigh of relief and just sit back, relax, and enjoy the rest of the novel… except Luke Will has other ideas (along with a group of drunken idiot friends with guns). All of the racial tension that's been hanging out just below the surface explodes on up and out—along with a few dozen shotgun shells—and when the smoke clears we're approaching the novel's resolution.

Resolution (Denouement)

Order in the Court (and Everywhere Else) 

We go from one version of old-school justice to another. We read Lou's rundown of the trial that decides the fate of all of the folks—Black and white alike—who traded shots that fateful night on the Marshall Plantation. The trial—with a judge, jury, and finally a verdict—is Gaines's super-direct signal to us that this is the end. In court, once the judge passes sentence and bangs his gavel, that's the end of it, and that's pretty much how Gaines's novel works. At the same time, Gaines still wants us to weigh the evidence and come to a conclusion about what happened all on our own.

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