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A Lesson before Dying

September 4, 2014

Near the end of A Lesson before Dying, Jefferson is electrocuted. This is not a spoiler. The title of the novel tells the reader there will be a death. The first chapter tells you why: Jefferson has been arrested, tried, and convicted for an armed robbery and shooting which left three people dead, including a white store owner. In 1948 Louisiana, a black man in Jefferson’s situation would inevitably be executed regardless of his innocence or guilt. Yet readers, including my university students, have hoped for some kind of reprieve—a governor’s pardon, a discovery of new evidence, or an oration from an Atticus Finch. Jefferson’s lawyer is no Atticus Finch. He calls his own client a hog, and we never hear from him again after the trial. Everyone in Bayonne, Louisiana knows what is going to happen to Jefferson, how, and why.

After the trial, Jefferson’s godmother, Miss Emma, calls upon the area’s black school teacher and insists that he visit Jefferson in jail as he awaits his execution. She wants Jeffers to die a man, to show the local white community that he is not the hog that his lawyer had called him. Grant Wiggins, the teacher, is resistant. He has already lost any hope that his teaching will improve his students’ lives, and he takes out his frustrations by slapping his students with a ruler. He doesn’t see any use trying to help Jefferson be a man just as he is going to die.

Most of A Lesson before Dying is told from Grant Wiggins’s point of view, and readers comes to realize that the novel presents two transformations—of Jefferson into manhood and of Grant into a person who can see Jefferson’s and his students’ lives as worth living and worth struggling for. Both Grant and Jefferson are, in their own ways, self-centered, resulting from adjusting to an oppression which does not repay any emotional investment into others’ lives. About a fourth of the way into the novel, we meet Grant’s own former teacher, and he has been dead emotionally and humanly long before he dies physically. We see what Grant doesn’t yet, that he is becoming just like his own teacher.

Breaking out of self-centeredness requires both men to open up to their people. Jefferson cannot show gratitude to Miss Emma as long as he regards himself as a hog. His opening up is to Miss Emma for love, to Grant for friendship, to his community in appreciation for their support, and to himself—that he has had something to say to this world which has not believed him to be a man. The novel even suggests that Jefferson has opened up to God.

Grant learns that he cannot stand apart, aloof, and alone. His cynicism harms his students and separates him from those he needs and who need him, particularly the women in his life—his girlfriend Vivian, his aunt Tante Lou, Miss Emma, and his student assistant Irene. In the growing scholarship of Ernest Gaines’s works, much still needs to be considered about the his portrayal of women, but it is obvious that Gaines rejects the misogyny evident in the works of other black male writers, such as Richard Wright and Ishmael Reed. Recent feminist critics have begun critiquing the cultural image of the strong black woman, and it may be that most of Gaines’s female characters fit that stereotype. Yet the women motivate the male characters to behave responsibly. Grant would like to receive Vivian’s love and support, but he wants to have it without making his own commitment to her. Nor would Grant make a commitment to Jefferson without Miss Emma insisting that for once in her life, someone is going to do something for her.

With his cynicism and education, Grant also tries to stand aloof from the Christian faith of his community. His foil in faith is the Reverend Ambrose, the Baptist pastor of the church his aunt and Miss Emma attend. Grant has the outward façade of educated unbelief, thinking himself superior to the uneducated minister who rejects worldly entertainment. Grant does not later have a Christian conversion, per se, but he eventually realizes a distinction between the faith which strengthens the Reverend Ambrose and his congregation and the faith used to justify the oppression of his community. Grant concludes that the reverend is a stronger man than he is, and Grant hopes that his cynicism has not been an impediment to Jefferson’s own faith.

When I teach A Lesson before Dying, I often assert that it is a better novel than the much more popular To Kill a Mockingbird. Harper Lee’s novel is sort of a white dream—it permits white readers to distance themselves from the systemic racism which has supported their lifestyles, so that we can say that we are not like those who shout the n word without being required to strive to be an Atticus Finch. We might conclude that Bob Ewell’s death in some way balances Tom Robinson’s death, but that mistakes poetic justice for justice itself: it is the jury, not just Ewell, who commits the injustice against Robinson. Gaines lets the injustice play out in Jefferson’s execution, never for a moment ameliorating it, as it would not have been in 1948. And finally, in To Kill a Mockingbird, we never hear the black characters speak for themselves about the injustices. For all the adoration To Kill a Mockingbird gets, I have never heard an African American person say that is his or her favorite novel. I wonder why that is so.

The plot of A Lesson before Dying exists in a realm of greater reality, where flawed people have to do things they don’t want to and who change in ways that they would resist if they could. I have been defenseless before this novel. When readers weep with Grant at the end, there is the chance that we understand a little more the oppressiveness of racism and the requirements of humanity. And there is the chance that we are becoming better people as we accompany Grant and Jefferson through their stories.

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