Study Guide

Candy Marshall in A Gathering of Old Men

By Ernest J. Gaines

Candy Marshall

Maybe with a name like Candy, you'd expect her to be sweet. But, if there's one thing that is super-obvious about Candy, it's that she's as tough as a jawbreaker. In fact, she may have actually broken a jaw or two herself. The niece of the Major, old Jack Marshall, whose family started Marshall Plantation, she's somebody with a real say in how that place gets run. Candy's so tough she was probably running out into the swamps and wrestling alligators before she could crawl. When we meet her in Gaines's novel, though, she's up to her neck in a whole heap of trouble. How she handles herself tells us that there's a whole lot more to her and what her purpose is in the novel than meets the eye. And not all of it is pleasant. 

Out with the Old and in with the New 

As characters in A Gathering of Old Men go, Candy is one of the most interesting. A big part of what makes her so interesting, actually, is that she doesn't honestly seem to belong anywhere. 

Now hang on for just one Shmooptastic minute. Don't get us wrong. Candy comes from a seriously rich family with deep, deep roots in the part of Louisiana where Gaines sets his novel. She's not your average outsider. Still, you get the impression that, even when she was a kid, she was never really happy at Marshall. 

When Rooster's talking to us near the end of Gaines's novel, we find out that Candy, "when she was five or six" would "come down" and play in Mathu's "yard and follow him around in the garden" until he had to take her hand or sit her on his shoulders and take her home (14.76). Fast forward something like twenty years later, and it looks like not much has changed. She still doesn't seem to be much of a fan of the rich old white folks in those parts. 

Then again, they don't seem to be particularly fond of her either. Miss Merle is one of the first people to really describe Candy, and she's not exactly what you would call flattering. "She was small," Miss Merle tells us, "not more than five two, and thin as a dime. She wore the wrong clothes, and that hair was cropped too short for a woman interested in catching a man. But," she adds, "Candy wasn't" (3.13). When you remember that Miss Merle, like the Major and Miss Bea, represent the old-school style order of things, Candy's refusal to conform to some nonsense gender norms makes it obvious that she's never really liked her station in life. 

And, in case you were wondering, you don't need to have a hefty bank account to think that Candy's a little cracked. When we're stuck with Tee Jack, he lets us know pretty casually that he thinks Candy has run Marshall Plantation "all to hell" as he thinks about poor old Major Jack Marshall (13.4). 

No matter how you slice it, by all accounts Candy is one tough cookie who just doesn't care what people think, and who doesn't seem to be afraid of anybody. She mouths off to Miss Merle, Lou, Sheriff Mapes, or anybody else who crosses her path. 

Not Exactly a Chip off the Old Block, but Still…

Oh, and let's not forget that she's totally willing to take the heat for a murder she didn't commit. She's rallied a whole bunch of people besides, just to protect her old friend Mathu, who also happens to be African American. But before you let what might look like an example of a wealthy white Southerner with no race prejudice warm your heart, we've got to take a closer look at how Candy interacts with the Black community of Marshall. 

Mapes gets his own section in "Players," so for now, let's take a look back at that moment when, after he's been smacking around elderly Black men one after another, he says he wants to talk to Mathu. Rufe tells us that           

Mathu had stood up with his gun, and he was headed toward the steps.

"Stay where you're at," Candy said.

"I'll come to the man," Mathu said.

"Just one second," Candy said. "I mean it." She looked at him till he stopped; then she turned back to Mapes. "Mind, Mapes," she said. "Mind your hands, now. He's not Reverend Jameson. He's not Billy or Gable. Mind your hands now." (9.1-4) 

Whoa. Now, wait just a second. Sure, Candy's looking out for her old friend Mathu here, but it sounds an awful lot like she's also basically saying that she doesn't care if Mapes beats down anybody else who's there. That doesn't seem too cool to us, and it shouldn't seem cool to you, either. 

But maybe that doesn't do enough to make your eyes pop out of their sockets. Let's fast-forward to a moment later in the text, when the men want to go inside to have a private chat after they've learned that Fix is going to be a no-show. Candy doesn't want to be left out of the conversation, so she pitches a fit. After Clatoo tells her that she should let the menfolk talk, she really lets loose: 

"Ya'll can go on and listen to Clatoo if ya'll want," she said. "But remember this—Clatoo got a little piece of land to go back to. Ya'll don't have nothing but this. You listen to him now, and you won't even have this."

Mapes laughed out loud. Not in now. Out. "Well, well, well," he said. "Listen to your savior now. Do what she wants or you're out in the cold. Did y'all hear that?"

Candy turned on him. "You've been trying to split us op all day," she said.

"And you want to keep them slaves the rest of their lives," Mapes said back.

"Nobody is a slave here," Candy said. "I'm protecting them like I've always protected them. Like my people have always protected them. Ask them."

"At least your people let them talk," Mapes said. "That's why they put that church up there. Now you're trying to take that away from them."

Candy didn't know how to answer Mapes. (14.53-59) 

Yup, you had better believe that Candy has no idea how to answer Mapes, because Mapes is making a really good point. And just think about that little tidbit for a second. Mapes—the sheriff who has no problem smacking an elderly African American dude for mouthing off—is calling out Candy for acting like a racist. 

Never mind which one is the pot and which one is the kettle, the fact is that Mapes is right. And this is the major point that Gaines is trying to make. Racism is a complicated thing, and it comes in a lot of different shapes and sizes. It's not just the Fix Boutans or Luke Wills of the world, with all their use of the N-word and terrorizing innocent African Americans. Racism can also take the form of what some folks call "paternalism"—the belief that Black people can't take care of themselves and need white people to look after them. 

Candy's attitude in the above passage is definitely paternalistic. No doubt, hands-down, that's all there is to it. Even as good as her intentions are, you can bet Candy's never taken a good hard look at her own attitudes before that point in her life right there, and through her Gaines wants all of us to take a look at our own attitudes, too.