Study Guide

A Gathering of Old Men Writing Style

By Ernest J. Gaines

Writing Style

Direct and Down to Earth

Most of the characters you meet in Gaines's novel are simple, salt-of-the-earth type folks who think that a person is only as good as their word and that there's no need for ten-dollar words and fancy turns-of-phrase. That makes for a novel that reads like a series of long conversations with people who just want to tell it like it is, whether we agree with them or not. At times, characters get so casual with their explanations that we miss some of the subtler stuff that's going on when they're talking to us. Just take a look at this example from our good friend Cherry Bello describing one of the lighter moments in A Gathering of Old Men:

I was still looking across the field when I heard the shot. I turned just in time to see a little rabbit bobbing across the empty rows […] I looked back at Billy and Dirty Red. Billy was just bringing the gun down from his shoulder. Me and Yank was waiting for him and Dirty Red to catch up.

"Missed him, huh, Billy?" I asked.

Billy didn't answer. He wouldn't even look at me and Yank. He was too 'shamed.

I hope he don't miss Fix like that, Dirty Red teased Billy. Dirty Red had a cigarette hanging from the corner of his mouth, and he held his head a little to the side to keep the smoke out his eyes. "Rabbit was so close I started to hit him in the head with the butt of my gun, but I wanted Billy to have him."

"He was moving," Billy said. He said it quietly. He wouldn't look at us. (6.9-13)

Before we start thinking about what gets said in that passage up there, think for a couple of minutes about how it's said. We've got phrases like "Me and yank" instead of "Yank and me," the shortened word "'shamed" instead of "ashamed." Gaines is really trying to capture the feel of everyday conversation here.

And then there's what's being said. Gaines weaves in some really nice descriptions of characters in Cherry's comments, but he makes it feel like it's just Cherry talking and explaining things to us. Not only that, but we get a little dose of characterization, too. Cherry bags on Billy in kind of an indirect way, which tells you he's kind of a nice guy. Dirty Red, on the other hand, bags on Billy a little harder. He that tells us that he's kind of a jokester (but not necessarily that he's mean). And, of course, we get a little glimpse at Billy's sense of pride in this passage, too.

Of course, the simple and direct style contrasts pretty sharply with the painful memories that so many of the characters share with us, and that gives those memories some serious added oomph so that they really stick with us and make us think.

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