Thursday, October 2, 2014

"No, I won't let them harm my people."

Upon first reading A Gathering of Old Men, Candy presented a conundrum for me. At first, I wanted to appreciate her desire to protect Mathu from Mapes and the inevitable appearance of Fix and his men. However, her continued comments regarding Mathu and those gathered at Marshall Plantation caused me to have a different view of her. Speaking with Miss Merle early in the novel, Candy tries to remind her interlocutor that Fix has continuously caused problems for the African American community on Marshall Plantation. Candy tells Miss Merle that Janey can remind her about "what Fix has done to these people around here" (19). After telling Miss Merle this, Candy emphatically states, "I will not let Mapes or Fix harm my people" (emphasis added 19). Candy continues by exclaiming, "No, I won't let them harm my people. . . . I will protect my people. My daddy and all them before him did" (emphasis added 19). In the span of five sentences, Candy refers to Mathu and the others on Marshall Plantation as "her people."

Candy's phrase, "my people," struck me when I first encountered it. Even though slavery had ended close to 110 years before the events in the novel take place, the 1970s, Candy still sees Mathu and the others as "her people." She "must" protect them, making sure that neither Fix nor Mapes harms them. Through this stance, Candy maintains a position of authority that becomes reminiscent of slave owners who saw their slaves as property and of being incapable or protecting themselves. I am not saying that Candy is completely like a slave owner; however, her paternalistic stance towards Mathu and the others is worth interrogating. In fact, Gaines editor, Dorthea Oppenheimer, specifically asked Gaines about Candy's role in the novel. She wrote, "Candy: what's her role? She's the last of her line. She's an old fashioned type of slaveowner, although she thinks she's very modern and liberal. She finds out these men have minds of their own and doesn't like it."

Even at the end of the novel, after everything has happened, Candy still cannot let go of "her people." When the trial ends, she asks Mathu if he needs a ride home. He declines, saying that Clatoo is there with the truck and "he would go back with Clatoo and the rest of the people" (214). Candy waves to Mathu and the others then searches for Lou's hand, for comfort. When asked about this scene and whether or not Candy undergoes a "learning process" throughout the book, Gaines responds:
I really don't think she understood [why Mathu left with the people]. She knows she needs Lou for support; that's why she reaches for his hand when Mathu leaves. But Mathu's turned his back on her, and I don't think she knows why. Lou tells her in the car; that's why she slaps him, because she doesn't want to understand. In another draft, she gives a big speech, "When you needed medicine, who went to the store? When you went to the doctor, who took you? When you were hungry, who fed you? And they must all say, Yes, Candy did it. I cut that out, but I hope people can still get the feeling of her role. (Doyle 171)
Holly Hunter as Candy in the film version
What is her role? Is she the "old fashioned type of slaveowner" that Oppenheimer mentions? Does she learn about herself and the community as Sister Mary Ellen Doyle suggests when she asked Gaines about Candy? Is she really progressive in her thoughts? These are all questions that should be explored because Candy provides an interesting type of character in A Gathering of Old Men, one that feels like she is helping but is ultimately hindering the progress of those she "loves and cares for." What do you think? As usual, add your own comments below.

Doyle, Mary Ellen, S.C.N. "A MELUS Interview: Ernest J. Gaines--'Other Things to Write About.'" Conversations withe Ernest Gaines. Ed. John Lowe. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 1995. 149-171. Print.
Gaines, Ernest J. A Gathering of Old Men. New York: Vintage Books, 1984. Print.