Study Guide

A Gathering of Old Men Women and Femininity

By Ernest J. Gaines

Women and Femininity

Chapter 2

Lord have mercy, Jesus, what now? Where do I turn? Go where first? The Major? For what? He's already drunk out there on that front garry, and it's just twelve o'clock. Miss Bea? That's like talking to the wall. Where? Mr. Lou? Yes. She said call Mr. Lou. Mr. Lou and Miss Merle. I better make it Mr. Lou first. […]

I was crying so hard when I got through talking to him I had to wipe my whole face with my apron. Then I dialed Miss Merle. But nobody answered. (2.1-2)

It's Janey talking to us in the above passage, and it just so happens that she's the only female African American character who gets her own chapter in <em>A Gathering of Old Men. </em>It also happens to be one of the shortest chapters in the novel, and all we get from her are feelings of pure terror and fear. Not really empowering, is it?

Chapter 3

</em>I looked back at her. I didn't jerk my head around, I looked at her slowly. I had known Candy for over twenty-five years. She was no more than five or six when her mother and father were killed in a car wreck, and I had helped raise her. Surely, Mathu here in the quarters and I at the main house had done as much to raise her as her uncle and aunt. Maybe even more than they. […]

            She was small, no more than five two, and thin as a dime. She wore the wrong clothes, and that hair was cropped too short for a young woman interested in catching a man. But Candy was not. A young man came around, but I had no idea what kind of relationship they had. (3.10-12)

Miss Merle isn't buying Candy's story in the above passage, but what she does seem to buy into are some pretty sexist stereotypes of how a woman should dress.

Chapter 4

</em>Now, I ain't even stepped in the house good 'fore that old woman started fussing at me. What 'I'm doing home so early for? She don't like cleaning fishes this time of day. She don't like cleaning fishes till evening when it's cool. I didn't answer that old woman. I set my bucket of fishes on the table in the kitchen; then I come back in the front room and got my old shotgun from against the wall. I looked through the shells I kept in a cigar box on top the armoire till I found me a number five. I blowed the dust off, loaded the old gun, stuck it out the window, and turnt my head just in case the old gun decided to blow up, and I shot. Here come that old woman starting right back on me again.

"What's the matter with you, old man? What you doing shooting out that window, raising all that racket for?"

"Right now, I don't know what I'm doing all this for," I told her. "But, see, if I come back from Marshall and them fishes ain't done and ready for me to eat, I'm go'n do me some more shooting around this house. Do you hear what I'm saying?"

She tightened her mouth and rolled her eyes at me, but she had enough sense not to get too cute. (4.52-5)

Whoa. So, Chimley threatens to shoot his wife and she just rolls her eyes at him. What do you think this little exchange tells us about gender relations and violence in Gaines's novel?

Chapter 5

</em>When I looked around, I saw Ella standing in the door with her hands on her hips. So big she was filling up that whole door.

            "What's all this about shotguns?" she asked.

            "We going hunting," I said.

            "Going hunting for what this time of day?"

            "Just hunting," I said.

            "Matthew, I'm talking to you," she said. "Hunting what?"

            "I'll tell you when I get back," I said.

            "You telling me 'fore you leave from here," she said.

            "Go somewhere and sit down, woman," I said. "This men business." (5.3-11)

This little chat that Mat has with his wife shows us that the men in the novel feel like women should be kept on the sidelines and not allowed to ask any questions. Is that just the male characters who feel that way, or does Gaines feel that way, too?

Chapter 9

</em> "And you'll do anything to make me take you to jail, is that it?"

            "If you take Mathu, you taking me," Beulah said.

            "I'm taking Mathu sooner or later," Mapes said. "And I'll make room for you."

            "I'll be ready," Beulah said. "Just let me go home and put on a clean dress."

            "I'll find a dress you can wear," Mapes said. "And I'll find a bucket and a mop, too."

"I ain't no stranger to buckets and mops," Beulah said. "Hoes, shovels, axes, cane knives, scythe blades, pickets, plows—I can handle a gun, too, if I have too. I been in the pen before." (9.229-34)

We're not sure, but Beulah Jackson might be the only character who could stand toe-to-toe with Mathu. She's tough as nails, no question. Why do you think that Gaines makes her that way?

Chapter 12

"Just don't start any trouble," Russ said. "I'm warning you."

            "The trouble already been started," Luke Will said. "When n*****s start shooting down white men in broad daylight, the trouble was started then."

            "We don't need your kind to settle it."

            "Somebody got to do it 'fore it gets out of hand," Luke Will said. "Next thing you know, they'll be raping the women."

            "That's how it is," Russ said to me. "If they can't get you one way, they'll bring in the women every time." (12.310-14)

Yup, Russ is right. That kind of logic was constantly used by racist whites to justify brutalizing innocent people of color. What does that tell you about whiteness and gender?

</em>Fix looked from Gil to the woman sitting on the bed with her head bowed. She had been quiet a long time, but never once raised her head to look at anyone. Fix looked at the little boy in his lap and patted him on the leg.

"You know the little boy I'm holding here?" he asked, looking back at Gil. "Tee Beau. No more papa." He looked at Gil awhile to let those words make an impression; then he nodded toward the woman on the bed. "You know that lady sitting there—Doucette? Huh? No more husband."

"I'm sorry, Papa," Gil said. "I'll do all I can for Tee Beau and Doucette." (12.259-61)

Try and think for a minute about the way Doucette figures into this passage. Is she important? How do the other (male) characters relate to her?

Chapter 18

Then I saw Lou crawling fast on the other side of the house. He was crawling on his knees and elbows, crawling fast. Then something made him stop, and he looked under the house at me. It was dark under there, and it took him a good while to make me out.

            "Snookum, is that you under there?"

            "Yes, sir."

            "Don't you hear your Gram mon?"

            "Yes, sir."

            "Get to the back."

            I didn't answer him. I wasn't going back there either. Gram mon wasn't going to beat me for not hearing her the first time. (18.4-10)

As far as Snookum is concerned, his Aunt Glo is scarier than possibly getting hit by a stray bullet. Aunt Glo sure is tough, but were still not a hundred percent that she's tougher than Beulah Jackson.