Study Guide

A Gathering of Old Men Themes

By Ernest J. Gaines

  • Men and Masculinity

    We've got to get super-serious for a minute, because issues or ideas of manhood or masculinity, when they get connected to issues of race, are way more complicated than you might think. Since even before Blacks were being stolen out of Africa and taken to the US to work as slaves, white racist understandings of Black men actually denied that they were men at all. They were considered either docile and happily stupid children who needed the structure of life as a slave to become civilized, or they were considered dumb savages who had more in common with animals than with other human beings. These ideas were designed to justify the brutal enslavement and abuse of Black men. This means that part of pushing back against white racism, for Black males, meant arguing for the fact that they were, in fact, men. That's one of the reasons why manhood figures so prominently in <em>A Gathering of Old Men</em>.

    Questions About Men and Masculinity

    1. Among the novel's Black and white characters, are there any differences or similarities between ideas about what exactly makes a man?
    2. How might social class figure into ideals of masculinity or manliness?
    3. Based on different character interactions, how do you think that Gaines himself is using these characters to define a particular understanding of manhood?

    Chew on This

    Gaines makes a troubling connection between violence, abusive behavior, and manliness that implies "being a man" means harming others.

    The ideals of manliness that Gaines points to in <em>A Gathering of Old Men</em> are sexist and potentially homophobic.

  • Women and Femininity

    Women make up over half of the world's population and, well, let's face it: if it wasn't for women none of us would be here. History is also full of tough and totally awesome women. Sure, there's still a long way to go, but we've come a long way since the days of TV smiling housewives vacuuming in make-up and heels. In the world we see in Gaines's novel, you could say that there's a little farther to go. We mean, sure, we get it—the title of the book is <em>A Gathering of Old Men</em>, but women are important too. Let's give the women in Gaines's novel a closer look.

    Questions About Women and Femininity

    1. How would you describe the space that Gaines creates for women in his novel? Are they seen as equal to men?
    2. Are there any similarities in gender roles that cross the boundaries of race?
    3. Is it fair to say that Gaines is more concerned with issues of masculinity than with femininity in his text? Why?
    4. Why are there no young African American women in Gaines's novel?

    Chew on This

    In <em>A Gathering of Old Men</em>, Gaines refuses to allow his female characters the voice that he gives to his male characters, and women are often portrayed as passive or helpless.

    In their interactions with the novel's female characters, the male characters in the novel behave similarly regardless of racial or class differences.

  • Race

    </em>In this day and age, some people have a hard time believing that such a thing as racism still exists. In fact, depending on who you talk to, some people think that race is a thing of the past. They'll tell you stuff about how we live in a color-blind society where anybody can get ahead no matter what. They think that discrimination, racial oppression, and all of that stuff is a thing of the past. Hey, a lot has changed in three or four hundred years, but all of that change hasn't been easy. It's been a constant, knock-down, drag-out fight. And, in <em>A Gathering of Old Men</em>, Gaines wants us to understand that the fight needs to keep on going on, because race—and racism—still exist. Let's take a closer look at just what Gaines is doing with race in his novel.

    Questions About Race

    1. Why do you think we have to wait so long to find out what decade we're in when this story takes place? How does that relate to race?
    2. What is the connection between race and violence in A Gathering of Old Men?
    3. Does Gaines suggest that there's a possibility of a future in which racism doesn't exist? How?

    Chew on This

    Although usually connected somehow to violence, racism comes in many forms in A Gathering of Old Men.

    Racism affects men and women of color differently in Gaines's novel. 

  • Society and Class

    It might not look like it's all that tough of a novel to read—but Gaines is giving us a whole lot to chew on in <em>A Gathering of Old Men</em>. We've got race, we've got gender, and that's not all. We've talked about the way that the racism Gaines shows us is connected to the plantation past, but that's not the only awful thing that's sticking around. Nope. There's some serious, snobby, and snooty class prejudice floating around in Gaines's novel. Sure, they can get caught up in race—and we'll show you just what we mean by that—but issues of class abound in Gaines's novel. Let's dive on in.

    Questions About Society and Class

    1. What is the deal with the way the whites at Marshal treat the Cajuns? Why is that?
    2. How would you describe Fix's class position? Is he rich? Is he poor? Is he working-class? How did he get where he is?
    3. How do race and class work together, or against each other, in Gaines's novel?

    Chew on This

    The racist attitudes of lower-class white characters are just a reflection of the racist attitudes of upper-class white characters.

    If you want to climb up the social ladder in Gaines's novel, you've got to be white, and you've got to do and say some awful things to other people. 

  • Power

    Now we're getting down to it. We can talk about race, we can talk about gender, and we can talk about class—because talking about all of that is super-important—but, at the end of the day, it really all comes down to power: who's got it, what they're doing with it, who wants to take it, and why. Racism, sexism, class discrimination, all of it is related to power—and power is everywhere in <em>A Gathering of Old Men</em>. It's time for a closer look.

    Questions About Power

    1. How does Gaines show us who has power and who doesn't in A Gathering of Old Men? Does just who has all the power change?
    2. Is power connected to institutions like the law, or is it in the hands of individual people?
    3. Are there ways that Gaines is showing us that power can be used for good, or can it only be used for evil?

    Chew on This

    A famous saying tells us that "absolute power corrupts absolutely," but Gaines's novel is showing us that you don't need to have all of the power in the world to do awful things.

    The argument could be made that <em>A Gathering of Old Men </em>is really all about power. Race only matters as it relates to social power: who's got it, and who wants it.

  • Change

    The only thing that stays the same is that everything changes. Deal with it, gang. More helpfully, though, we can tell you that, in some ways, <em>A Gathering of Old Men</em> is all about changes: the passing of time, the shifting landscape, the end of one way of life (or of an actual life), and the beginning of another. Remember—Gaines wants us to take a long, hard look at things like racism and how they affect so many different facets of life, but to do that he's got to keep things moving. In other words, to understand just how stubborn racist ideas are and no matter how long they've been around, we have to see how they continue to impact the present and the future. Change is everywhere in Gaines's novel, and who it affects, and how it affects, tells us a whole lot about a whole lot. Let's dig deeper.

    Questions About Change

    1. In what ways do issues of race play into the different changes or kinds of progress we see in A Gathering of Old Men?
    2. In terms of attitudes and ideas, what's changed, and what's stayed the same in the novel? Why do you think that is?
    3. What affects our understanding of "good" vs. "bad" change in the novel?

    Chew on This

    In Gaines's novel, social changes that have taken place are designed to make the attitudes or ideas that haven't changed even more obvious.

    Seldom, if ever, has change historically been good for everybody, and Gaines's novel shows us that pretty clearly.

  • Justice and Judgment

    Maybe you've seen a statue or a pic of that lady in a billowy dress holding a set of scales in one hand and a sword in the other while wearing a blindfold. She might look like she's an act you might catch at Ringling Brothers Circus, but she's actually not a person at all—she's a symbol for justice. The scales represent how super important it is to weigh both sides of any argument. The sword represents punishment. The fact that she's blindfolded is meant to tell us that justice is "blind" or, in other words, doesn't play favorites. In <em>A Gathering of Old Men</em>, it's fair to say that justice doesn't necessarily work that way, if it works at all.

    Questions About Justice and Judgment

    1. What are some common symbols or ideas associated with justice? Can you find any in A Gathering of Old Men?
    2. If you had to guess based upon the novel you've just read, does Gaines think there's such a thing as "blind" justice?
    3. Do all the characters in A Gathering of Old Men have the same idea of what justice is? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    In A Gathering of Old Men, institutions and people supposedly working to uphold the law frequently do not or cannot as a result of racial prejudice.

    There is a clear difference between justice and revenge as both play out in A Gathering of Old Men.

  • Visions of the "Gallant South"

    So just what in the wide world of sports do we mean by the "gallant South"? Sure, we're going to be taking a look at some images of that beautiful—and maybe not-so beautiful—Louisiana countryside, but why call it "gallant"? Well, it's actually a reference to an old song that has to do with racism and all of its ugliness, but lynching in particular, called "Strange Fruit." When the song calls the South "gallant," it's doing it in a really sarcastic way. The idea is that there's nothing gallant about a society that terrorizes and brutalizes innocent people. As you read through moments where we get a look at Louisiana in A Gathering of Old Men, think about whether or not Gaines wants you to like what you see.

    Questions About Visions of the "Gallant South"

    1. Why is it that we never get a good, long look at the city in Gaines's novel? Why no New Orleans or chapter upon chapter taking place in Baton Rouge?
    2. Do the white and African-American characters in Gaines's novel have the same relationship to the land? Why or why not?
    3. Does Marshall seem like a fantastic place to visit or live? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    Throughout the novel, Gaines gives us visions of a once rich and beautiful landscape now slowly dying to show us the cost of technological progress.

    <em>A Gathering of Old Men </em>is a novel of opposites in conflict, and the competing ideas about the land and its importance that characters have emphasize this.