Study Guide

Gil Boutan in A Gathering of Old Men

By Ernest J. Gaines

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Gil Boutan

Sometimes, the apple doesn't fall too far from the tree. Other times, it does. When it comes to Gil Boutan, this is one of those other times. One of Fix Boutan's kids, and Beau's little brother, Gil is pretty exceptional. For starters, most of the characters that you'll meet in A Gathering of Old Men, from Candy Marshall to Ding and Bing Lejeune, aren't ever going to stray too far from home. Some of that—at least for the persons of color in Gaines's novel—has to do with never having the ability or opportunities to do that because of institutionalized racism. Gil, however, is able to get the heck out. Not only does Gil manage to get away, he does it to go to college on a football scholarship. 

Now, knowing what we know about Fix and the bulk of the Boutan clan, you're probably thinking that means that Gil is going to be just as foul and awful as his family. Not exactly, though it can be hard to question values you've been told are totally right from day 1. Think back to Gil's reaction when he first finds out that Beau is dead, and his pal Cal, who just happens to be African American, is nearby, and asks if Beau died in some kind of car wreck. According to Sully, Gil looks at Cal "like he suddenly hated him" (10.19), which throws everybody there for a loop. And, once Sully finds out just what made Gil react to Cal that way (or at least he thinks he has), it sure looks like Gil is a chip off of the old block—and not in a good way:           

"I hope for God's sake none of them did it."

"Who are you talking about?"

"The Black people there at Marshall. That's where he was killed. I hope for God's sake none of them did it."

So that's why he went against Cal like that. Whether he had anything to do with it or not, he was guilty because of his color. […] Come on, Gil, I thought to myself, you're made of better stuff than that. (10.34-7) 

We don't get a peek at what was going on inside Gil's head when he gives Cal that totally uncalled-for awful look, but it's a safe bet that he was hearing his dad's voice in his head, and that it was saying some pretty racist stuff. Like we said, it can be hard to shut that kind of stuff out. But, this is where Gil doesn't disappoint. Check out what he says to Fix when his dad asks him if he's up for doing some really awful stuff to the innocent folks out at Marshall. From the get-go, you can tell that it's hard for Gil to talk to his dad, let alone stand up to him. "All my life," Gil begins, "I have heard what my family has done to others. I hear it today—from the Blacks, from the whites. I hear it from opponents even when we play in another town." Gil says, "Don't tackle me too hard, because they would have to answer to the rest of the Boutans. It hurts me in here, Papa"—and here Gil lays his hand over his heart. "It hurts me because I know it's not true" (12.74). 

Of course, we know that what people are saying is true, and the simple fact is that Gil does, too. He's just trying to talk to Fix in a way that will make him realize that his foul reputation is nothing to be proud of, without being too confrontational. But Gil lays everything out there, albeit in his own way. He—with a little help from his brother Jean—lets Fix and the rest of the Boutans know that they have "the law out there to do what many of these people would like to see us do" (12.112). 

Fix doesn't like what it is that Gil's telling him, and kind of misses the larger point about how his way of understanding the world is wrong, but Gil says it… and gets disowned as a result. (Lou tells us that Gil is sitting with his family in the courtroom at the novel's end, so we can guess that Fix at least kind of came to his senses.) 

He may not be perfect, but Gil's words to Fix keep the Boutans from seeking vengeance. And, even if he couldn't stop Luke Will, that right there counts for something. He's part of the proof Gaines offers us that, over time and with a lot of work, a better world and brighter future are possible.

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