Thursday, February 19, 2009

The Ending in "A Gathering of Old Men"

Aesthetically, I think Ernest Gaines' A Gathering of Old Men would better end with the penultimate chapter:

"But we had all gathered around Charlie. Mathu had knelt down 'side him and raised his head out of the dust. They had really got him. Right in the belly. He laid there like a big old bear looking up at us. He was trying to say something, but it never came out. He kept on looking at us, but after a while you could tell he wasn't seeing us no more. I leaned over and touched him, hoping that some of that stuff he had found back there in the swamps might rub off on me. After I touched him, the rest of the men did the same. Then the women, even Candy. Then Glo told her grandchildren they must touch him, too."

But while the final chapter seems to be but a tying up of loose ends, it actually works thematically. It is here we see reconciliation, a movement toward healing. The novel includes many anecdotes showing how the legal system was a major part of the racial oppression and injustice of the past; in the final chapter, we see the law treating the black men fairly (in this case justice means amnesty). Gil sits with his family in court, Salt and Pepper play together and win, Mathu is able to leave without Candy, and we end with a conciliatory image, with Candy holding Lou Dimes' hand (a similar image ends Paradise Lost, also a moment of hope at the end of a dark period).

At the end Lou Dimes, a peripheral character that primarily operates as a narrator, becomes important. Earlier in the novel, when Mapes uses violence, Dimes says "I didn't like what was going on either, but I knew that had I interfered, Mapes would have knocked hell out of me and thrown me in the back of his car." Lou Dimes disapproves, but he passively allows violence and racial injustice to occur (this and other forms of passivity are addressed throughout the novel). But in the end, Lou Dimes is not allowed to be passive:

"You're in charge. Raise your right hand. You do swear--"
"Like hell," Lou said.
"You're still in charge," Mapes said. "Now, don't bother me anymore tonight."
"What am I supposed to do?" Lou asked him.
"You figure that out," Mapes said. "Just leave me alone."

The old way is past. People like Lou Dimes, formerly neutral non-participants, must work toward a new way of doing things.

But Reader-response is necessary here. It is likely as a reader I find Lou Dimes significant because his social role is close to my own (the teacher in the bar is certainly closer). In my social role, I have rarely had active individual part on any side of racial injustice or the fight for progress toward equality. I've read, taught, talked, listened, discussed, thought, and as an individual strived to treat all people with equal dignity. But I have mostly been a non-participant, a passive citicizen, and I recognize my social role in coming to the novel. Other readers of different ages, races, and gender will find greater meaning in other characters. Certainly geographic location matters too: I suspect a southerner reads the book differently than a northerner (and more specifically, a Louisianian will read the text differently than a Minnesotan). We bring ourselves to the text, including our values (when reading Coetzee's Elizabeth Costello, isn't a vegetarian going to respond differently than a meat-eater?), and we needn't deny that (and it is why in literary study I prefer plurality to objectivity). The text offers me a moral meaning that it won't offer to everybody--and rather than deny that, I prefer to recognize my subjective history and concerns that may direct my focus while reading.

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