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 hard for a member of the white community, in this time and this place, to understand any need to affirm the humanity of a black man. Also, the visiting rights Miss Emma wants go beyond what would normally be granted to a prisoner in Jefferson’s situation. What the sheriff wants is a quiet, smooth execution. Will granting Miss Emma’s wishes stir up trouble, especially as she brings in an educated black man, Grant, whose precise grammar in unguarded moments strikes some whites as a provocation? The approval, when it comes, is grudging and conditional.
Grant and Jefferson form at first glance an obvious contrast. Grant, an educated man, has known the world beyond the quarter, while Jefferson may seem to represent Grant’s worst fears of what the quarter will normally produce. Jefferson has never thought much about being a man, and he has scarcely been encouraged by his environment to regard himself as one. He is altogether too ready to accept his lawyer’s assessment. He has known few possibilities in his life, he has had very few choices, and now a freakish set of circumstances has determined that he must die. Can this be the history of a man? At one point, he even goes down on all fours and, hog-fashion, pushes his snout into the food dish.
It gradually becomes clear, however, that both men need to work toward a recognition and acceptance of their own humanity. Grant lives inside a psychological prison. He is helpless to bring about a satisfactory resolution to his relationship with Vivian, and he is convinced that his efforts to educate the children of the quarter are an exercise in futility. That he is required by social convention to conceal the signs of his education when talking to white people intensifies his hopelessness. He lives in a constant, barely repressed awareness of his impotence.
Grant is not the only man involved in the effort to do something for Jefferson. The Reverend Ambrose has his own agenda. His concern is not with whether Jefferson will affirm his humanity but with whether he will find salvation. Though not an orthodox believer, Grant is not unsympathetic to the reverend’s project and is more than willing that Jefferson derive whatever strength he can from the consolations of religion. Still, tensions remain between Reverend Ambrose and Grant.
Given the dramatic situation at its center; it is inevitable that a major theme of A Lesson Before Dying must be embedded in the question that troubles Grant: What is a man? One answer, Gaines implies, may lie in the possibility of transcendence, originating from within the self. The inner action of the novel may be described as the gradual coming to recognition of this possibility in both characters. The way to this recognition for both Jefferson and Grant involves openness to others and acceptance of the responsibility this openness entails. Jefferson accepts that he may be responsible for adding to Miss Emma’s pain and becomes resolute through that acceptance. Grant internalizes the responsibility initially imposed on him by Miss Emma and Tante Lou and thereby becomes capable of moving beyond his earlier acquiescence in futility. The call to teach Jefferson, a call he had resisted, makes it possible for Grant to find his own dignity and humanity. The success he finds in his efforts with Jefferson, moreover, invites a reexamination of Grant’s belief that there is no hope for the boys and girls he teaches. Still the law takes its course. At the time designated by the state, Jefferson dies in the electric chair. Yet Paul, a white jailer who has treated Jefferson and Grant with sympathy and respect, reports to Grant that Jefferson was the bravest man in the room. He also brings the diary that Jefferson was keeping at Grant’s suggestion. Capitalization is nonexistent, the spelling is weak, the punctuation is uncertain, the style is inelegant, but the message of Jefferson’s diary is clear: “tell them i’m a man.”
The interaction among the principal characters is enriched by an abundance of sharply drawn minor characters, black and white. As is customary with Gaines, there are no stereotypes or caricatures in this novel. He treats all of his characters, even those of whose conduct he must disapprove, with imaginative sympathy and generosity.
The possibility of transcendence Gaines finds in the individual human being may be meant to point to possibilities for the human community as well. As in much of Gaines’s fiction, the power of the past is strongly felt in this novel. Yet the relationship of Paul to Grant and Jefferson suggests that the sociohistorical past may be transcended, a suggestion consistent with thematic emphases in Gaines’s earlier novels, which turn so often on the choice between holding on and moving on.
For all the novel’s emphasis on transcendence, Gaines’s honesty compels him to acknowledge also, especially in most of the white characters, the strength that can be embodied in the struggle against change, whether individual or social. The transcendence that does occur in Jefferson and in Grant comes in tiny increments; there is no privileged moment of awakening. It is not a Pollyanna version of individual or group psychology that Gaines offers in A Lesson Before Dying. Rather, this novel is imbued with the spiritual generosity and affirmation that readers rightly cherish in the fiction of Ernest J. Gaines.
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 Lesson Before Dying. Strongly recommended as starting point for further study.
Gaudet, Marcia, and Carl Wooton. “Looking Ahead.” In Porch Talk with Ernest Gaines: Conversations on the Writer’s Craft. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1990. In an interview, Gaines discusses A Lesson Before Dying as a work in progress. Comparisons of his comments and the finished work provide valuable insights into the processes of creation and revision.
Larson, Charles R. “End as a Man.” Chicago Tribune Books, May 9, 1993, 5. More than any other novel of African American life, A Lesson Before Dying is about being a man in the face of adversity and about the morality of connectedness, of each individual’s responsibility to his community.
Rubin, Merle. “Convincing Moral Tale of Southern Injustice.” The Christian Science Monitor, April 13, 1993, 13. A review for the general reader. Gives a synopsis of the novel and an upbeat appraisal typifying the book’s reception in most reviews. For Rubin, A Lesson Before Dying is an important “moral drama.”
Senna, Carl. “Dying Like a Man.” The New York Times, August 8, 1993, p. G21. An enthusiastic review that helps illuminate the racial lines and tensions among the book’s black, white, and Creole characters. Senna does claim that the novel has an occasional “stylistic lapse” but gives no specific examples.
Sheppard, R. Z. “An A-Plus in Humanity.” Time 141 (March 29, 1993): 65-66. Reviews A Lesson Before Dying, giving a short plot synopsis. Praises the author’s level-headed ability to convey the “malevolence of racism and injustice without the usual accompanying self-righteousness.”
Wardi, Anissa J. Review of A Lesson Before Dying, by Ernest Gaines. MELUS 21 (Summer, 1996): 192-194. A highly favorable review that explores the “role of language in symbolic enslavement.” Wardi also offers a brief plot synopsis and character analysis. She praises the novel as “an extraordinary literary accomplishment.”
Yardley, Jonathan. “Nothing but a Man.” The Washington Post Book World 23 (March 28, 1993): 3. A brief but excellent explication of the novel. Focuses on Grant as protagonist and notes that the lesson referred to in the work’s title is one learned by him as well as by Jefferson. Also remarks on Gaines’s admirable restraint in treating racial themes.