Study Guide

Sheriff Mapes in A Gathering of Old Men

By Ernest J. Gaines

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Sheriff Mapes

Marshall Plantation isn't Mayberry, and you can be sure that Sheriff Mapes is no Andy Griffith. Nope—not by a long shot. We'll give Mapes credit for wanting to get to the bottom of just what went down with Beau but, then again, that's just doing his job. You could even make the argument that he's not particularly good at it. After all, he ends up flat on his kiester and unable to get up during the one point in the novel where the law really needs to step in and control things. Then he even tells Lou that he's the one who's in charge. Even though Mapes will say at least once that he represents the law (9.5), he represents just a little bit more than that in Gaines's novel. 

Don't get us wrong. Mapes isn't Fix Boutan, not even close. But still, kind of like Fix Boutan, Mapes represents a sort of order that, even though it can do some damage, is about as new and fresh as two-month old meat loaf. It just can't cut it anymore. Just think back to when he starts questioning the old men at Marshall Plantation in front of Mathu's place. First up is old Billy Washington (who you can learn a little more about in another character summary). Mapes asks him who really killed Beau. Billy refuses to say anything other than the statement that he was the one who did it. 

As a result, Mapes smacks Billy so hard that spit shoots from his mouth. Mapes hits him again, and it makes Billy bleed (8.101-8). Next up is Gable Rauand. He gets smacked, too (8.122). Then it's Reverend Jameson's turn. Mapes smacks him so hard that he knocks the Reverend to the ground (8.143). 

Gaines really wants us to see that the way things are working here—or, rather, the way that they aren't working. Mapes smacking around a bunch of elderly African American men is supposed to show us that this is the way people who are supposed to represent and uphold the law treat people of color in those parts. And the reason why it's okay is because these men aren't white. What happened to equal protection and treatment under the law, you ask? This books shows us that racism makes that impossible. 

Gaines is going further than that, though. Take a look at what happens after Mapes knocks Jameson on his can, and then Jameson gets back up:           

"Well?" Mapes said.

He shook his head, which was till bowed.

"I ain't got nothing to say, Sheriff." And down he went again.

He sat up just as he had done before, and stared down at the ground. Then, as he started pushing himself to his feet, suddenly every last person in the yard and on the porch, whether he was sitting, squatting, or standing, began forming a line up to Mapes. (8.143-6) 

None of the people are afraid anymore. They're standing in line and waiting their turn to get hit to show Mapes that they don't scare him, that they're sick of things like this going on. And, wouldn't you know it? Mapes backs off. This is Gaines's way of showing us the power of refusing to get pushed around by bullies, of taking a stand against the racism that Mapes's actions represent.

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