Study Guide

Major Jack Marshall in A Gathering of Old Men

By Ernest J. Gaines

Major Jack Marshall

He's the owner of one of the largest plantations in the fictional part of Louisiana that Gaines creates for us in his novel, but don't let all of that fool you into thinking that the Major has any real pull these days. Sure, ignorant bigots like Tee Jack might still respect him. Still, a friend like Tee Jack isn't the kind of friend you'd necessarily want—at all, ever. Tee Jack tells us that, the way he figures it, poor old Jack Marshall "never wanted none of this. Never wanted to be responsible for name and land. They dropped it on him, and left him." That's why, according to Tee Jack, the Major has decided to just let his plantation "go to hell" (13.3). This tells us that Tee Jack may have some small amount of respect for the Major, but that's because of the way things were, not the way things are. 

As much as we hate for it to sound like we even slightly agree with a character like Tee Jack, we've got to admit that the first time we encounter the Major, he doesn't exactly inspire admiration. He's curled up on a porch swing, stone drunk and passed out when it's barely noon (2.3). That's not exactly the image of the strong, cruel, and domineering plantation owner you might expect. 

My how the mighty have fallen. But you had better believe that's no accident. The Major represents the way things used to be, the social order connected to plantation-having, slave-owning rich white folks. The fact that he's eternally drunk and basically useless is Gaines's message to us that the order he represents is broken down, antiquated, and no longer relevant. Of course, the prejudice that old order relied upon to keep on running is still alive and well, but at least a part of it will wind up dead by the end of the novel.