A Gathering of Old Men
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"A Gathering of Old Men" Summary

By Ernest J. Gaines

fiction | 214 pages | Published in NaN

Set on a Louisiana sugarcane plantation in the 1970s, A Gathering of Old Men is a powerful depiction of racial tensions arising over the death of a Cajun farmer at the hands of a black man.


Estimated read time: 7 min read

One Sentence Summary

A group of elderly black men come together to confront a history of racial violence in their Louisiana community.


"A Gathering of Old Men" is a powerful novel by Ernest J. Gaines that delves into themes of race, identity, and justice in the American South. Set in the 1970s, the story unfolds in a small Louisiana sugarcane plantation, where a group of elderly African American men gather to confront the legacy of slavery and racism. Through their collective action, they challenge the prevailing social order and assert their agency in a deeply divided community.

Brief Synopsis

The novel is set in the fictional town of Marshall, Louisiana, on a plantation owned by the white Marshall family. The story begins with the murder of a white farmer, Beau Boutan, and the subsequent gathering of a group of old black men at Mathu's house, a former slave. Each man claims responsibility for the murder, seeking to protect Mathu, who they believe is the real culprit. As the men wait for the inevitable confrontation with the law, they reflect on their shared history of oppression and subjugation. The narrative unfolds through the perspectives of various characters, including the plantation owner's daughter, Candy Marshall, and local black activist, Mapes.

Plot Overview and Setting

The plot of "A Gathering of Old Men" revolves around the murder of Beau Boutan, a white Cajun farmer, and the collective response of the old black men who gather at Mathu's house to protect him. The novel is set in the sugarcane plantation of Marshall, Louisiana, a racially charged environment characterized by the legacy of slavery and segregation. The story takes place in the 1970s, a time of significant social and political upheaval in the American South, as the civil rights movement continues to challenge racial injustice.

Main Characters

The novel features a diverse cast of characters, each with their own unique perspective on the events unfolding in Marshall, Louisiana. Here are the main characters:

MathuElderly black man accused of murder, former slave, revered by the community
Candy MarshallDaughter of the plantation owner, sympathetic to the plight of the black community
MapesLocal black activist and sheriff's deputy, torn between his duty and his loyalty to the black community
JaneyMathu's caretaker, fiercely protective of him, provides a maternal presence for the old men

Story Points Over Chapters

The narrative of "A Gathering of Old Men" unfolds through a series of interconnected story points that shed light on the complex dynamics of race, power, and identity in the American South.

Chapter 1-3

The story opens with the discovery of Beau Boutan's body, sparking fear and tension in the community. The old black men, led by Mathu, gather at his house in a show of solidarity and defiance. Meanwhile, Candy Marshall arrives at the plantation, determined to uncover the truth behind her father's death.

Chapter 4-6

As the old men prepare to confront the white authorities, their resolve is tested by the arrival of Sheriff Mapes. The tension escalates as the white landowners mobilize against the black community, and the old men grapple with their own fears and doubts.

Chapter 7-9

The narrative delves into the personal histories of the old men, revealing the trauma and injustice they have endured throughout their lives. Their stories offer a poignant reflection on the legacy of slavery and discrimination in the South, highlighting the resilience and dignity of the black community.

Chapter 10-12

As the confrontation with the white authorities looms, the old men are forced to confront their own mortality and the weight of history. Candy Marshall, inspired by the courage of the old men, begins to question her own complicity in the racial dynamics of the plantation.

Main Events

The novel is punctuated by several key events that drive the plot forward and illuminate the central themes of the story:

  1. The Murder of Beau Boutan: The discovery of Beau Boutan's body sets off a chain of events that brings the racial tensions in the community to a boiling point, leading to the gathering of the old men at Mathu's house.
  2. The Gathering of Old Men: The collective action of the old men, who come together to protect Mathu and assert their dignity in the face of oppression, forms the emotional core of the novel.
  3. Confrontation with the Law: The impending confrontation between the old men and the white authorities becomes a pivotal moment of reckoning, as the characters grapple with their own agency and the legacy of racial injustice.
  4. Reckoning with the Past: Through the personal stories of the old men, the novel explores the enduring impact of slavery and segregation on the black community, offering a searing critique of the social and political structures that have shaped their lives.

Themes and Insights

"A Gathering of Old Men" delves into a rich tapestry of themes and insights that resonate with the complex realities of race and justice in America:

Race and Identity

The novel grapples with the enduring legacy of slavery and discrimination, highlighting the ways in which race shapes individual and collective identities. Through the diverse perspectives of its characters, the story illuminates the complexities of racial identity and the profound impact of systemic oppression.

Justice and Retribution

The pursuit of justice and retribution lies at the heart of the novel, as the characters seek to confront the injustices that have defined their lives. The narrative challenges conventional notions of justice and power, offering a nuanced exploration of the moral and ethical dilemmas faced by the characters.

Community and Solidarity

The collective action of the old men reflects the power of community and solidarity in the face of adversity. The novel celebrates the resilience and strength of the black community, highlighting the transformative potential of collective resistance and mutual support.

Legacy and Memory

The narrative is deeply concerned with the legacy of the past and the ways in which history shapes the present. The personal stories of the old men offer a poignant meditation on memory and trauma, inviting readers to reckon with the enduring impact of historical injustices.

Reader's Takeaway

"A Gathering of Old Men" offers readers a compelling and thought-provoking exploration of race, identity, and justice in the American South. Through its vivid characters and evocative setting, the novel invites readers to confront the complexities of history and memory, while celebrating the resilience and dignity of the human spirit.


In conclusion, "A Gathering of Old Men" stands as a powerful testament to the enduring legacy of racial injustice and the transformative potential of collective action. Ernest J. Gaines crafts a rich and deeply resonant narrative that illuminates the complexities of race, identity, and community in the American South, offering readers a profound meditation on the enduring power of resilience and resistance.

A Gathering of Old Men FAQ

  1. What is the plot of 'A Gathering of Old Men'?

    The plot of 'A Gathering of Old Men' revolves around a group of elderly African American men who gather at a plantation to take a stand against racism after a white man is found dead. Each man confesses to the murder, seeking to protect a young black man accused of the crime.

  2. What is the setting of the book?

    The story is set in rural Louisiana in the 1970s, against the backdrop of racial tensions and the legacy of slavery in the American South.

  3. What themes are explored in 'A Gathering of Old Men'?

    The novel explores themes of race, justice, courage, and the impact of history on the present. It delves into the complexities of identity and the struggle for dignity in the face of prejudice.

  4. Who is the author of 'A Gathering of Old Men'?

    The author of 'A Gathering of Old Men' is Ernest J. Gaines, an acclaimed African American writer known for his works depicting the experiences of African Americans in the South.

  5. Is 'A Gathering of Old Men' based on a true story?

    No, 'A Gathering of Old Men' is a work of fiction, but it draws on the historical and social realities of the American South to create a compelling and thought-provoking narrative.