Study Guide

Charlie Biggs in A Gathering of Old Men

By Ernest J. Gaines

Charlie Biggs

The latest of the late arrivals in Gaines's novel, you can honestly say that he's the whole reason everybody else is in the mess that they're in. Charlie, in other words, is the one who actually killed Beau. He's pretty honest about originally just deciding to run and hide while Mathu—his parrain, or godfather—takes the blame for capping Beau Boutan. But he decides to come back. And, for Charlie, this decision is about more than just facing the music and doing the right thing (he did, after all, kill Beau in self-defense). 

Let's let Charlie talk for himself. When he's about to tell Mapes all about what went down with Beau, he begins by telling the sheriff and everybody else there something he wants to make sure they get perfectly clear. "I'm a man," he tells them, going on to say that "I want the world to know it. I ain't Big Charlie, n***** boy, no more. I'm a man. Ya'll hear me? A man come back. Not no n***** boy. A n***** boy run and run and run and run. But a man come back. I'm a man" (15.36). For Charlie, coming back was a chance for him to prove that he was a man—not a boy, not some stupid servant—but a man who could stand up for himself and do what needs to be done. 

Wait just one second. When Lou describes Charlie to us in one of the book's final chapters, it's pretty obvious that Charlie is a big dude. "Charlie was sitting on the bed when we came in," Lou starts, and goes on from there: 

Even sitting down, he was nearly as tall as some of the old men standing around him. After we came in, he stood up and pressed his shirttail inside his pants. He was about six seven, he weighed around two hundred and seventy-five pounds […] His arms bulged inside the sleeves of his denim shirt, and his torso was as round as a barrel. He and Mapes weighed about the same, but Mapes had twice as much belly. (15.27) 

This dude isn't just a man. He's a giant. Unless, of course, Gaines wants us to understand that being a man doesn't have a whole lot to do with size or strength. As it just so happens, that's exactly what's going on. Gaines wants us to understand that, for a man of color who has been abused and looked down upon his whole life just because of his skin color, being a man means getting the respect and dignity that everybody else deserves, and acting in a way that proves you aren't afraid to challenge anybody who won't give that to you. 

Remember, though, that in this case challenging a person also means challenging the racist ideas they have that make them think they can treat another human being in that way. So it's more about challenging racism than picking fights with people. That's why it's such a big deal when Charlie stands up to, and kills, Luke Will. But the fact that Charlie also dies is Gaines's way of saying that violence isn't without its own consequences.