Gaines' Fifteen Narrators: Narrative Styles and Storytelling Technique in A Gathering of Old Men
By Marcia Gaudet
Ernest J. Gaines grew up on a plantation in South Louisiana where he was part of a rural, black, bilingual, oral culture. In an interview, Gaines said:
I come from a long line of storytellers. I come from a plantation, where people told stories by the fireplace at night, people told stories on the ditch bank. . . . People sat around telling stories. I think in my immediate family there were tremendous storytellers or liars or whatever you want to call them. . . . They would talk and talk and talk, and I listened to them. (Laney 1974:3)
As a child, he wrote letters for the "old people" because they could not read or write, and he says that this first gave him a feeling for the "flavor" of their oral language. When he became a writer, the attempt to capture the "flavor" of the folk speech, what Gaines calls "the sound of my people talking," became a major influence on his style. The use of oral storytelling conventions and the influence of folk speech provide the basis for his narrative style in his successful works of fiction such as The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman and particularly in his latest novel, A Gathering of Old Men (1983; subsequent quotations from this work are referenced to page numbers in the text of this article).
Louisiana folklore is certainly an integral part of Gaines' fiction (see Gaudet 1984 for discussion on this point). Roger Abrahams has pointed out that the effective writer is drawn to the use of folklore not "to provide a quaint setting" or to simply present traditional items of folklife, but as "a metaphoric resource out of which he draws resonance and nuance capable of exciting the interest, and by extension, the creative participative energies of his audience" (1972:85). Thus the writer provides a difference in perspective and involves the reader in his fictional world. Abrahams says that one undertakes the effect of a literary work
because there is something within such a work which has excited the reader into investing some of his own energy in the reading of the work. If this is so, the writer has done more than simply presenting some item of traditional performance; he has placed that item in an environment in which he has been able to intensify it with vitality. (1972:84)
Abrahams' article points out that an understanding of the folklore of a culture and how and why it appeals to the folk (i.e., audience) enables the writer to use and adapt these same things to function as modes of "reaching" the audience in a literary work. Gaines does this through his use of storytelling techniques and folk narrative style in A Gathering of Old Men. In A Gathering of Old Men, Ernest Gaines uses fifteen different narrators. This experimental narrative technique, however, works to create the semblance of a kind of communal "folk " storytelling that contributes to the rich sense of place, the sense of the past, the understanding humor, and the compassion in this novel. As though gathered around together, each narrator tells part of the story, each picking up where the other left off, following the traditional pattern of relating folk narratives in South Louisiana. Gaines' narrative style and storytelling technique allow the characters to reveal themselves and their relations with others, while effectively drawing the reader into their circle.
A Gathering of Old Men begins with a child narrator who relates the report that there has been a shooting on a Louisiana plantation, and a white, Cajun farmer, Beau Boutan, is dead. He has been killed in the yard of an old, black worker, Mathu. Because of the traditional conflict between Cajuns and blacks in South Louisiana, the tension in the situation and the fear of the black people is immediately felt. The relation between races is always complex, but in South Louisiana this complexity is compounded by the presence of the Cajun—white, French, traditionally poor, uneducated and an ethnic minority themselves, with a history of violence towards blacks. As Gaines has said, the Cajuns were the greatest competitor of the black people in Louisiana. They competed for the land and a livelihood, but the Cajuns historically had the advantage of race in a segregated society. Within this framework, Gaines uses the fifteen narrators—black, white, old, and young—to deal with the changing relations between the Cajuns and the blacks in Louisiana in the late 1970s. As each narrator picks up the story, we see the tensions between the past and the present, the conflict between the whites and the blacks, and most important, the conflict and tension between each old black man and his former, younger self as he attempts to deal with why he has waited so long to settle his accounts. This technique is very effective since it sets up the framework for a gradual unfolding of the depths of character and the courage of the men.
Mapes, the white sheriff who traditionally dealt with the black people by the use of intimidation and force, finds himself in the frustrating situation of having to deal with a group of old black men, each carrying a shotgun and each claiming that he shot Beau Boutan. In addition, Candy Marshall, the young white woman whose family owned the plantation, claims that she did it. There seems to be only one real suspect, Mathu, the old black man whom Candy is determined to protect whether he wants or needs her protection or not. All of the old men have a motive to kill Beau, but only Mathu is perceived as being man enough to have done it; he is the only one who had ever "stood up" to a white man before. As each man tells why he shot Beau, neither the reader nor the sheriff regards him as a real suspect, but we are given an unforgettable image of that person in terms of ghosts from his past. The old men gather to deal with a past that they had not laid to rest—that they had not, before then, found the collective courage to deal with. As each tells his part of the story, he heroically takes upon himself the collective blame and, with it, the collective glory.
Gaines' narrative technique allows the characters to reveal themselves and their interrelationships with others. We hear the story through the narrative voices of the old black men, a black woman (Janey), a child (Snookum), and the white narrators—Lou Dimes, Sully, Miss Merle, and Tee Jack. We see not only the conflicts of the blacks, but also the conflicts of their Cajun antagonists through the voices of Sully and Tee Jack. The old world of Fix Boutan, the leader of a Cajun"mob" known for violence toward blacks, has come to an end, and they must come to terms with a new world symbolized by Fix's youngest son, Gil Boutan, an LSU football player whose partner on the gridiron is black, the "Salt and Pepper" of LSU. As Fix's friend Auguste says, "I'm an old man, Fix . . . I don't know who is right and who is wrong, anymore" (142).
It is an interesting point that though the novel has fifteen narrators, Gaines does not give a narrative voice to any of the three main characters—Mathu, Candy, and Mapes. It is obvious why Mathu is not a narrator. He is the only character who knows who really killed Beau. As Gaines has pointed out, "Mathu would have to lie. Mathu knows what happened. And if you start hearing Mathu's voice and he doesn't tell you what happened, . . . We're tricking you, and I'd rather not trick you" (Gaines October 1987). With all three of the main characters, the technique of coming at them from indirection rather than through their own voices tends to heighten the effect of their involvement and participation in the whole thing. This is also true with the main Cajun characters (the Boutans). We see them through the narrative voices of Sully, a friend of Gil Boutan, and Tee Jack, a Cajun bar owner not directly involved in the conflict. Most important, however, is that excluding the main characters as narrators reinforces the folk storytelling technique of relating communally a shared event, with each "teller" bringing his focus or perspective. Gaines achieves both the immediacy and intimacy of folk storytelling and the complexity of the indirect approach. It is not essential that the reader even remember or identify each narrator. What is important is relating the shared impressions, fears, feelings, and experiences.
Gaines' use of multiple narrators also makes possible the kind of wonderful, understanding humor that he achieves in his short stories, "A Long Day in November" and "The Sky is Gray." We see the old men as they see each other—Uncle Billie trying to aim a gun and shaking so much that it looks like a "divinin' rod," and Johnny Paul trying to explain to Mapes that he had to be there then, for seventy-seven years, to be able to "don't see now" what they "don't see now." The reader can laugh with them because he is drawn into their circle. The reader becomes an "insider."
Most of the novel takes place in the course of one day, and as the events of the day come to a climax, an unexpected climax, we are moved along with the characters to a better understanding of the conflicts and changes that have occurred. A Gathering of Old Men is a warm, sensitive, honest novel that combines humor and compassion in dealing with conflict, and only a skillful craftsman who knew these people well could have so successfully handled the fifteen narrative voices to make this technique work.
There have been many studies that have analyzed the use of oral tradition in literature and studies on the differences in style in oral and written narratives. Scholes and Kellogg in The Nature of Narrative point out that "many highly original, non-traditional, written narratives offer themselves to us from the printed page as if they were oral performances before an audience" (1966:54). It seems important not only to recognize the differences in oral and written narrative but to understand how a writer makes that transition successfully and what enables him to do so.
Gaines, unlike Mark Twain, says that he is not himself a storyteller in the oral tradition, but a careful listener who can see the difference. In another interview, Gaines said: "I like to listen to the way that people talk, and I like to listen to their stories. Then when I get into a little room some place, I try to write then down" (Fitz Gerald and Marchant 1969:333). When he became a writer he realized the importance of listening carefully to dialects and finding a way to deal with the Louisiana dialects in writing fiction. He says: "You have to make it readable, you know, you just cannot stick too totally to the way people talk. Because if you stuck to the way people talk along where I come from, I don't know who could read it. I couldn't read it, if I wrote exactly like that" (Laney 1974:12).
Gaines learned folk ways and speech patterns directly from the culture, the oral traditions. He learned literary convention, forms, and how to use the things from the oral tradition from models he studied. He also realizes the importance of the use of the first person narrators to make the reader a part of the narrative, just as the circle of listeners becomes part of the folk storyteller's performance.
Gaines has often said that Twain and Faulkner were the greatest influences on his style in adapting the oral storytelling tradition to the literary medium. In discussing his own creation of a literary work based on oral tradition Gaines has said:
You're transferring from the oral thing, a guy sitting there telling you a story. You have to take what he's telling you and use those twenty-six letters over here to put this thing down accurately. You try to put it down very accurately. But then you know you cannot do it because you cannot use all the gestures; you cannot use all the sounds of his voice, his improper use of syntax, what he does. That does not convey to the reader because the reader cannot understand what you're talking about.
I can take what he told me and say, "Okay, I'm going halfway with what he told me, and I'm going to get what I've learned from all these years of reading. Then I'm going to use proper syntax; I'm going to use proper spelling; I'm going to use all those other little things. I'm going to take from what he gave me and I'm going to use my background; I'm going to use something from over here that I have, and then I'm going to combine these things and then I'm going to put it out there and pray that someone will understand. (Gaines 1986).
Gaines' style and his ability to capture the French flavor of the speech of the bilingual Creole-Cajun culture give his fiction an authenticity that would not be possible otherwise. At the same time, his selective use of dialect and his judicious rendering of the speech patterns enable him to maintain a simple, lucid style and a quality that has been described as the "colloquial dignity" of his narrative style (Bryant 1974:852).
Another feature of Gaines' written style is the judicious, selective use of repetition. In "Style in Oral and Written Narratives," Sandra Stahl (1979) gives repetition as a feature of oral narration and gives variety and innovation as parallel stylistic features in written narratives. These involve word choice. Gaines uses a kind of repetition effectively in his writing to simulate oral narrative because repetition is such an integral part of the folk speech in South Louisiana. For example, "Mathu was black, black with a white beard" (6), or "She didn't say a thing. Didn't say 'Uh-huh' or nothing. Just looking old and tired looking. Eating on her front teef—looking old and tired looking" (7).
In speaking about the influence of music on his writing, Gaines has said: "I think the black blues singers gave us better description than even the black writers did at that particular time. Another thing especially in jazz music is a repetition of things, repeating and repeating to get the point over, which I try to do in dialogue" (Gaines January 1987). It seems that what Gaines is doing is not only capturing the text of the oral folk narrative, but also capturing the nuances of mood and setting, what has been called (Dundes 1964) the texture and context of oral narrative. Gaines also uses the story within the story, an important device in folk narration (see Babcock 1977) as he has the old men tell stories from their past. Gaines understands the complexity of the folk narrative style, and he is able to capture that style in literary form.
Gaines' background and his knowledge of the folk culture provide him with a framework for his narrative style and for his presentation of individual human beings and their interrelationships. That Gaines uses a narrative technique from oral tradition seems natural since the narrative seems to have evolved from the culture and its people.
One important difference between Gaines and many other black writers is that Gaines returned to the South. His is not a literature of exile. He is able to show both the historical racial conflict between the Cajuns and blacks and also the changes, particularly in the old black men and the young Cajuns. He knows and understands the dynamic dimensions of the interactions of two folk cultures. From his narrative voices, it is clear that he has not lost touch with the people. His storytelling technique is authentic and his narrative voices are genuine. In Gaines, the righteous indignation is there, but not the intense anger of many other black writers. There is both anger and understanding in Gaines, a kind of gentle anger, that sees the offenses of the past, but is also willing to recognize the positive changes of the present.
Gaines has also said, "I try to tell things honestly, the way it really is. I try to tell a good story, but I want to show the people as they really are" (Gaines 1984). In A Gathering of Old Men, Gaines tells a good story, and, through his folk narrative style, he shows with honesty and compassion the complexity of interrelationships in South Louisiana culture.
Abrahams, Roger D. 1972. "Folklore and Literature as Performance." Journal of the Folklore Institute 9:75-94.
Babcock, Barbara A. 1977. "The Story in the Story: Metanarration in Folk Narrative," in Verbal Art as Performance, pp. 61-79. Ed. Richard Bauman. Rowley, MA: Newbury House Publishers.
Bryant, Jerry. 1974. "Ernest J. Gaines: Change, Growth, and History," Southern Review 10:851-864.
Dundes, Alan. 1964. "Texture, Text and Context." Southern Folklore Quarterly 28:251-61.
Fitz Gerald, Gregory, and Peter Marchant. 1969. "An Interview: Ernest J. Gaines." New Orleans Review. 1:331-35.
Gaines, Ernest J. 1983. A Gathering of Old Men. New York. Knopf.
_____. October1987, January 1987, 1986, September 1984. Personal Interviews.
Gaudet, Marcia. 1984. "Folklore in the Writing of Ernest J. Gaines." The Griot. 3:9-16.
Laney, Ruth. 1974. "A Conversation with Ernest Gaines."Southern Review 10:1-14.
Scholes, Robert, and Robert Kellogg. 1966. The Nature of Narrative. New York: Oxford University Press.
Stahl, Sandra K. D. 1979. "Style in Oral and Written Narratives." Southern Folklore Quarterly 43:39-62.