Study Guide

A Gathering of Old Men Setting

By Ernest J. Gaines

Setting

Out at the Marshall Plantation and Deep in Louisiana, 1970s

Forget what you might be thinking about Mardis Gras beads and gators, or jambalaya and crawfish pie. Gaines might be taking us deep into Louisiana, but this is no pleasure cruise or all-expenses paid vacation to the Big Easy.

A Unique Fixer-Upper that's Not So Unique: What Gives with Marshall Plantation

When Gaines takes us to Louisiana, he shows us a part of the state that most tourists don't get to see—the grounds of an old slowly decaying plantation. We get little glimpses of Cajun country and a big city courtroom, but Marshall is really where all of the action goes down. Of course, Marshall Plantation itself doesn't exist in real life (this is fiction, after all), but Gaines wants to take us there for a reason. The plantation—and that's any plantation—is a symbol of the slave days, of cotton, commerce, and way things used to run in the South before the Civil War.

Marshall may be run down, but it's still there. And, wouldn't you know it, so are the attitudes and ideas that went along with slavery: racism, elitism, and a whole lot of resistance to any and all kinds of change. The grounds and buildings are all slowly falling apart (kind of like some of the characters who live there), which is Gaines's way of suggesting, yet again, that those attitudes and ideas have no business being allowed to stick around just the way they are. Marshall Plantation needs some fixing, and so do some characters' attitudes. We mean serious repairs.

Down in the Quarters

Back in the day, owning a plantation meant owning a lot of land, and that's pretty much still what it means in A Gathering of Old Men, even if some of that land has been leased to other families like the Boutans. A whole lot of that land was used for growing crops—usually cotton, sugar or tobacco. Some of that land, though, had to be used to house the people who were forced to harvest that cotton, sugar or tobacco. That's where the slave quarters came in.

Maybe you were wondering why some of the old folks you met kept talking about "the quarters," or maybe you've already kind of figured out why that is. The place where the guys live at Marshall also happens to be the area of the plantation that was at one time used to house slaves. And that includes Mathu's place, too.

Now, it's not so much that Gaines is trying to tell us that the old men out at Marshall are still basically some white person's property—not by a long shot. What Gaines is trying to tell us with that, though, is that the South's shameful past still affects the lives of people of color living in the present.

For that reason, this book isn't historical fiction. It's set in the 1970s for crying out loud. Disco dancing, bellbottoms, and… virulent racism? You bet. Gaines point out that the deep racial divides were not just brushed aside after the Civil Rights Movement. Things, especially in the South, were still difficult for African Americans long afterward. Living in old slave quarters, the characters in this book are literally stuck in a racist place and time.

Like Candy's threat to some of the old men makes clear, many of them still live there—not just because their families lived there, but because they really don't have the means to go anywhere else. And that has to do with how hard it still was for African Americans, especially in the South, to have the same opportunities that white people have. It's no coincidence that frustration with the way that things are, and the way that things have been, is a big part of why they all show up at Mathu's place.