In Ernest Gaines’s novel, A Gathering of Old Men, the character of Sheriff Mapes seems as though he is just like any other stereotypical southern sheriff, and at first, he undoubtedly portrays himself in such a manner. However, as the story goes on Mapes reveals that he is actually a much more complex character. Through his own actions and dialogue, and through those of the other characters, Mapes’s true, more complicated identity is revealed.
Upon his arrival at Marshall Plantation, Sheriff Mapes begins his questioning the old, black men about the shooting death of Beau Boutan. When he does not receive the answers he is looking for, Mapes turns to violence. Uncle Billy doesn’t get out two whole sentences before “the back of Mapes’s hand went pow across [his] face” (68). Through this violent action, it is assumed that Mapes has a racist attitude like many southern men at the time, and he is unable to control his hatred. After hitting another old man, Lou notices that “[Mapes] did not like what he doing, but he didn’t know any other way to get what he wanted” (69). This passage reveals that Mapes may not be a hateful racist, but just an ignorant sheriff. After this observation, Mapes hits the reverend of the black church and adds to the perception that he must be either one or both of the descriptions listed above: hateful or ignorant. It is only after all of the people on the property line up to be hit that Mapes backs down from that approach. While his withdrawal from the situation could signify Mapes having a shred of respect, it mostly conveys that he knew he was surrounded by over a dozen men with shotguns.
Once Mapes has almost solidified the image that he is a typical racist southerner, he divulges information that would lead one to definitely think otherwise. The first that Mapes hints at this is when he is having a conversation with Lou, who says to Mapes, “You seem to have something against [Mathu]” (74). After this accusation, Mapes is very quick to point out, “That’s where you’re wrong. I admire the nigger. He’s a better man than most I’ve met, black or white” (74). During this period of time, it would’ve been very difficult for a true racist white man to admit to another white man that he held respect for a black man, but Mapes makes this admission acceptable by calling Mathu a ‘nigger.’ What is perhaps the most telling evidence against Mapes’s being a racist comes a few pages after the above admission. During a conversation between Mathu and Mapes, Rufe narrates: “Mapes liked Mathu. They had hunted together…They had fished together. And Mapes had had a few drinks with Mathu at Mathu’s house. He liked Mathu…he knowed Mathu had never backed down from anybody…Maybe that’s why he liked him. To him, Mathu was a real man” (84). The respect described by Rufe is evident throughout the conversation Mapes and Mathu have; not once is Mapes condescending towards Mathu like he was towards the other men.
Possibly the best indication of Mapes’s wavering racism is towards the end of the novel. The first sign of this is when Mapes shows respect to Big Charlie. Charlie asked that he be called ‘Mr. Biggs,’ and Mapes acquiesces to his request without opposition. This respect is most evident when Charlie is finished telling everyone what happened: “’After you, Mr. Biggs,’ Mapes said…’What’s that you called me, Sheriff?’ Charlie asked him. ‘Mr. Biggs,’ Mapes said, and with sincerity” (193). This moment is very important, because up until this time the only black man Mapes had ever shown respect to was Mathu. Of course, what is conceivably the best attestation to Mapes’s not being a racist is when he simply gives up during the shooting match. If Mapes had truly been a racist, he would have let Luke Will and his gang shoot Charlie, and helped them escape the gunfire of the other black men. Instead, Mapes offers no sort of help to Luke Will. Although, it could also be argued that Mapes also did not offer any type of protection to the black men; however, any type of protection Mapes could have offered would not have rivaled that which they provided themselves.
In conclusion, there may still be some hazy parts to Mapes’s personality and views. Nevertheless, Mapes is obviously much less of racist than he is made out to be at the beginning of A Gathering of Old Men. Perhaps through their stories, the old black men made some sort of an impact on Mapes’s attitude towards the African American race, or perhaps Mapes is just a product of his hateful environment, but manages to be more tolerant. Through his actions, and even non-actions, Sheriff Mapes makes himself out to be one of the most complex characters of the novel.