A Lesson Before Dying (Magill's Literary Annual 1991-2005)
Readers had been waiting ten years for a new novel by Ernest J. Gaines, author of The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1971); his impressive A Gathering of Old Men appeared in 1983. Interest in A Lesson Before Dying, when it appeared early in 1993, was therefore bound to be high. From the first the critical response indicated that Gaines’s new novel confirmed his high standing among African American novelists of his generation. Most critics found in Gaines’s new novel the features they had admired in his earlier work; a few suggested that A Lesson Before Dying might be Gaines’s finest novel. The book won the National Book Critics Circle award for fiction. In recognition of his achievements over the course of three decades, Gaines was awarded a 1993 MacArthur grant.
Gaines’s fiction has always been characterized by the absence of melodrama in treating material that might lend itself to melodramatic excess; the consistent avoidance of the propagandistic; and, more positively, a broad and generous humanity. A reflective rather than “angry” writer; he has always been sensitive, as he is here, to nuances of behavior, especially in interactions between different races and different generations. This attention to nuance has led some critics to find his work too gentle, too forgiving in its portrayal of certain characters. It is impossible, however, to question the integrity and moral consistency that characterize his work. Few critics have failed to note the quiet assurance of his art.
What may prove most problematic about this new novel is that, in choosing to return to the rural southern Louisiana of 1948, Gaines has rejected the option of probing the African American condition in more contemporary and, a less sympathetic reader might argue, in more relevant terms. Read more sympathetically, Gaines’s exploration of another time and place may provide a useful orientation toward the confusions of here and now.
The strong will of two elderly women sets in motion the action of A Lesson Before Dying, and the tension between two young men who have something to learn about what it is to be a man provides the central structural principle of the novel. Miss Emma and Tante Lou are elderly in 1948. They have learned the practice of humility required by their position in a racially ordered society, and they also know a deeper humility that is part of their Christian faith. Yet they also know their own worth, and they realize how important that knowledge is. The intensity of that realization motivates their determination that Jefferson will not go to his death thinking himself less than a man.
It was Jefferson’s misfortune to be a bystander at a shooting that resulted in the death of a white man. In rural Louisiana, in 1948, acquittal is out of the question. In a desperate attempt to save his client from the electric chair, Jefferson’s defense attorney has argued that, while a man must be held accountable for his plans and actions, Jefferson cannot be judged as a man is judged: Too simple to plan and act responsibly, he lives at a level of consciousness scarcely above that of any farm animal. To execute Jefferson, in the attorney’s conclusion, would be like putting a hog in the electric chair.
The strategy fails, but its effects continue to be felt, not by the jurors but by Jefferson and those who care about him. Accepting that her godson must die, Miss Emma is determined that he will not die without an awareness of his own dignity and humanity.
To teach Jefferson the lesson he must learn, Miss Emma, with the active support of her friend Lou, turn to Lou’s nephew, Grant Wiggins. A product, like Jefferson, of the black quarter, Grant is a university graduate who now teaches the children of the quarter between the months of October and April, when they are not working in the fields. At first Grant resists the call. He has plenty on his mind, including the complexities of his relationship with Vivian, a schoolteacher who is in the process of divorcing her husband. Moreover, Grant’s allotment of hope seems just about used up. He cannot convince himself that his work with the children of the quarter can make a positive difference in their lives. What, then, can he hope to do for Jefferson? Who am I, Grant wants to know, to say what a man is, or how a man should die? Is it not hard enough to figure out how a man should live?
Miss Emma and Tante Lou bring to bear on Grant all the power of their expectations. Winning his tentative acquiescence, however, is only part of their task: They must also win the cooperation of the local white power structure. Gaines is at his best in observing the intricacies and ironies of negotiation between white men and black women within the institutions of racism. The women know what they can claim for themselves within the place society has defined for them. Miss Emma can claim a right to special consideration because of the services she has rendered to powerful white families over the years. Henri Pichot, a white man whose influence makes his approval a necessity, is bound to acknowledge Miss Emma’s right, for even this insane social system has its rules. Still, in asking for what they are undeniably entitled to, the women must speak in the tones required by their position within the system. Fortunately, Miss Emma, Tante Lou, and Pichot know the rules of the game. Pichot seems related to characters found elsewhere in Gaines’s work: white men who, although aware at some level of the inevitability of change, refuse to be agents of that change.
In spite of Pichot’s agreement, other whites remain dubious. It is...
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Ideas for Group Discussions
Topics for Further Study
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Bibliography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Auger, Philip. “A Lesson About Manhood: Appropriating The Word in Ernest Gaines’s A Lesson Before Dying.” The Southern Literary Journal 27 (Spring, 1995): 74-78. Auger explores the issues of dignity and self-worth in Gaines’s novel, focusing on the problems black men face when attempting to define their manhood. His discussion also includes an examination of Gaines’s other works that deal with the same theme.
Babb, Valerie M. Ernest Gaines. Boston: Twayne, 1991. A major critical introduction to Gaines, with a chronology and bibliography. The best general introduction to Gaines published before A...
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