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...
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Black Civil Rights in the Late 19th Century
With the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, President Lincoln freed the slaves. Congressional Acts after that date granted blacks various civil rights. In 1866 and 1870, blacks received the rights to sue, be sued, and own property. With these rights, blacks gained the “privileges” of white citizens.
The Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, in 1868, further extended black privileges, making former slaves eligible for citizenship. The Fifteenth Amendment gave blacks the right to vote and prevented state or federal governments from denying any citizen of this right on the basis of race. Blacks received further acceptance through the Civil Rights Act of 1871, which made it a crime to deny citizens of equal protection under the law, and the Civil Rights Act of 1875, which guaranteed blacks the right to use public accommodations. The political climate in the United States shifted in the mid-1880s, however, to an attitude of indifference towards social justice. The Civil Rights Act of 1875 (right to public accommodations) was declared unconstitutional. Then, the Supreme Court legally instituted segregation through its decision in the case of Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896. Homer Plessy had been arrested and convicted for refusing to sit in a railroad car that was designated for African Americans. When he appealed his conviction on the grounds that it denied him his rights under the Thirteenth and...
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Gaines sets A Lesson Before Dying in and around the fictitious Bayonne, a small town in Louisiana. It is 1948. Some events occur on the plantation, either in the school where Grant Wiggins teaches or in the homes of Henri Pichot, Tante Lou, or Miss Emma. Other events occur at the jail or at the Rainbow Club.
The church serves as the school for the black children whose parents labor on the plantation. There are no desks; the children write on their laps or kneel in front of the benches that are pews on Sundays. Grant Wiggins’s desk is the collection table during church services. A woodburning stove for which there is never enough fuel heats the classroom.
The same sparseness exists in the homes of both Tante Lou and Miss Emma. Tante Lou shares her small home with Wiggins. The furniture is old, and the wallpaper peels away from the walls. While Tante Lou has added her own homey touches, the house has a tired feeling to it. Wiggins refers to it as “rustic.” Miss Emma’s home is even smaller, with the bed in the living room. Henri Pichot’s house, however, is a huge house with modern appliances. Instead of a woodburning stove, the cook uses a gas range for cooking. The same black iron pots that Wiggins remembers from childhood hang on the wall, but the old icebox he had known has been replaced by a sparkling white refrigerator. The important events of the story take place in the jail. The jail is located in the...
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Gaines uses the Southern rural folk tradition, learned in his aunt's home in a plantation Quarter similar to Bayonne, to present the workings of this cultural system. "Gaines's novels link individuals to their social context with the explicit purpose of combating the alienation of capitalist and racist society," says Folks. Gaines tells us he is writing "for the Black youth of the South, to let them know that their lives are worth writing about, and maybe in that way I could help them find themselves . . . [and] for the White youth of the South to let them know that unless they know their neighbor of three hundred years, they know only half of their own history" (National Forum, Winter, 1998).
To accomplish this, Gaines describes the community of Bayonne, from its physical setting to the language of the people. The reader is left in no doubt that the Black community and the White community are as separate as if they were on different planets. The men in authority in the White community expect Grant to tailor his language and actions to fit the stereotype of the "nigger" they are used to. He begins by doing this, saying "Sir" when he is expected to, and gradually changes, using correct grammar, holding his head up and looking into the eyes of the White people. Gaines spells phonetically to reflect the language of the people in the Quarter. Jefferson says "yer" for "here," and writes his journal phonetically and without punctuation or...
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Ideas for Group Discussions
A Lesson before Dying is set in the late 1940s, before desegregation, the Civil Rights movement, and the court decisions that have changed many things in our society. The Civil Rights movement has changed many things in American life, for the Black community, women, and other minority groups, such as the Indians, the Hispanic- American population, and the Asian-American population. These changes came about because of the social changes brought about when various populations within our society demanded change for equality.
1. Schools in the 1940s were different from schools today. Discuss some of the differences you notice from the description of Grant Wiggins's school.
2. What characteristics of a good teacher did Grant Wiggins exhibit? Do you think his students liked school?
3. Would Grant and Jefferson have had the same teacher during their school careers in Bayonne? What made the difference between the outcome of the education received by Grant and by Jefferson?
4. How has the judicial system changed since the 1940s? Do you think Jefferson's trial would be conducted today as it was then?
5. What divisions in cultures still exist in America? Do you see any of these divisions in your community? Should these divisions continue, or should the community be working to bring about changes?
6. What makes a hero? Who are some of the people you consider heroes today? Why do these people assume...
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Years after A Lesson before Dying was published, Ernest J. Gaines is still concerned with the ways that Black people in rural Louisiana live and treat each other, and are treated by people outside the Black community. His descriptions of life in this community (called the Quarter), in the White community, and in the town of Bayonne are based on a plantation community in Pointe Coupee Parish, near New Roads, Louisiana, where he was born and lived for a time. He writes of the divisions in communities in the South in the late 1940s. Gaines moved to California as a teenager and had visited the plantation of his birth. In 1963, when he decided to write his first novel about the area, he returned to Baton Rouge to live for six months with relatives. From this experience, having reestablished his connections to life in rural Louisiana, he was able to describe the feelings and attitudes of the people. Gaines describes life before desegregation—the quality of education, the expectations for life, discrimination, and the many layers of prejudice. It is his viewpoint that members of a community who understand how they fit into its history can bring about social change.
A Lesson before Dying takes place in Bayonne during the late 1940s. Discrimination and prejudice go hand in hand within both White and Black communities there. Schools are segregated, as are churches, restaurants, bars, hotels, and residential areas. The Black community lives mainly in...
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Topics for Further Study
Define capital punishment. Trace its history since ancient times. Discuss the reforms introduced throughout the ages to eliminate the use of capital punishment.
Research capital punishment. Take a position for or against it. Prepare to defend your position in a classroom debate.
Critics refer to Gaines as a master storyteller. He, himself, credits others for the stories they told when he was growing up and that he has borrowed. In other words, the “oral tradition” greatly influences his writing. Describe the relative importance of the tradition in various cultures and explain the purposes the tradition serves for different peoples.
Even though is set in the late 1940s, racism still exists in the small town of Bayonne. Trace the history of the Civil Rights movement. Relate your findings to the fictional events that occur in the story.
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There are similarities in the work of Alice Walker, particularly The Color Purple. Both novels are set in the rural South in farming communities. Both deal with growth in self-esteem, pride in one's self, and each has a character who serves as a role model for the protagonist. Though Walker's protagonist is female and Gaines's is male, each needs support from others to become a strong adult. Each author uses language to differentiate between his educated and uneducated characters. The oppressed characters in both novels use the written word to express their feelings and gain self-respect.
The authors themselves have much in common. Each grew up in the rural South; each left and received higher education in another area, Walker in New York and Gaines in California; each then brings another perspective to their views of the South and African-Americans who live there. Both authors have won awards for their work, and the adaptations to film of these works have also won awards.
According to Alice Walker in the New York Times Book Review, Gaines "claims and revels in the rich heritage of the Southern Black people and their customs; the community he feels with them is unmistakable and goes deeper even than pride." Gaines tells us that he feels "too many Blacks have been writing to tell Whites all about 'the problems,' instead of writing something that all people, including their own, can find interesting, could enjoy." He credits...
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The fictitious town of Bayonne, based on the plantation town where Gaines grew up, is a common thread in his novels. The first of these is Catherine Carmier, considered by the critics as his seminal work. It is the story of Jackson Bradley who returns to Bayonne after receiving an education in California. Catherine is the daughter of a Creole family. Her father believes that, as a Creole, he is racially and socially superior to anyone with darker skin. William E. Grant says the novel "seems to float outside time and place rather than being solidly anchored in the real world of the modern South" (Keith E. Byermann, Dictionary of Literary Biography).
Gaines tells of hearing about a Black man who had killed another man over a woman, but because he was a "good nigger," a White man could pay his bond, creating a debt that the Black man must spend the next five to seven years working off (National Forum). Of Love and Dust, the novel that grew from this, is a romance set in the South. This second novel pits the White overseer against the parolee and pairs the parolee with the overseer's wife, ending in tragedy for the parolee.
Perhaps Gaines's best known work, and certainly the work that brought him nationwide recognition, is The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. Told in the first person by Miss Jane, the story spans over one hundred years of history, through slavery, Reconstruction, two world wars, and...
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The HBO Original Movie, A Lesson before Dying, aired on May 22,1999. The film stars Don Cheadle as Grant Wiggins, Mekhi Phifer as Jefferson, Irma P. Hall as Miss Emma, and Cicely Tyson as Tante Lou. Cheadle received a Primetime Emmy nomination for Outstanding Actor in a Miniseries or Movie for this role. The film won Emmys in 1999 for Best Television Movie and Best Writing.
In a review in the Christian Century, May 21, 1999, M. S. Mason says that the question at the heart of the novel and the film is "How shall we live?" He calls the movie "an excellent, beautifully acted, star-studded event calculated to hearten even the most jaded" and goes on to remind us to ask ourselves the "great questions" and "to choose our answers wisely." Mason concludes that these questions are: "How shall we live, with dignity or without it? How does one become a whole person? What shall my life mean—will it be all for self, or for others as well? The fact that the answers are arrived at humanely, believably, with the inevitability of ancient truths is what makes this film so powerful—and what will turn viewers back to the novel as well." Added to this, producer Robert Benedetti says, "At first Grant is blind to the innate dignity and richness of his own culture. And he learns as much from Jefferson about being a man as Jefferson learns from him. . . . He has been a head without a heart, and he comes out of this experience a whole person."
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An unabridged audio version of A Lesson Before Dying, read by Jay Long, is a 1997 Random House production (ISBN: 0375402586).
Juneteenth Audio Books offers an abridged edition of A Lesson Before Dying produced by Time Warner Audio Books (ISBN: 1570422230).
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What Do I Read Next?
Gaines’s 1964 novel, Catherine Carmier shows how characters deal with decisions based on their beliefs. Catherine, the daughter of a rich Creole, falls in love with Jackson Bradley, a black man caught between his love for Catherine and his understanding of the world beyond the community in which they live.
Also a story of disallowed love, Of Love and Dust continues Gaines’s search for human dignity. Published by Dial in 1967, Gaines’s second novel portrays the doomed relationship between a black man and his white boss’s wife.
Many critics consider Gaines’s third novel, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, his best work. The narrative recounts events in Miss Jane Pittman’s background that originate during the Civil War and continue through the 1960s. The 1971 novel takes the reader on a trip back through time.
Knopf published Gaines’s fifth novel, A Gathering of Old Men, in 1983. Someone kills a white Cajun boss on a Louisiana plantation. When the lynch mob arrives to hang the black man they have decided is guilty, a group of elderly black men and a young white woman surround the accused and claim individual responsibility for the murder.
Harper Lee wrote To Kill a Mockingbird in 1960. Combining the themes of racial prejudice and a child’s perception of southern smalltown life, the story is about a reticent black man who is accused of rape, the man who defends him,...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Alvin Aubert, “Ernest J. Gaines: Overview,” in Contemporary Novelists, 6th ed., edited by Susan Windisch Brown, St. James Press, 1996.
Jerry H. Bryant, Iowa Review, Winter, 1972.
Paul Desruisseaux, in New York Times Book Review, May 23, 1971.
Joseph McLellan, in Washington Post, January 13, 1976.
Larry McMurtry, in New York Times Book Review, November 19, 1967.
Alice Walker, in New York Times Book Review, October 30, 1983.
For Further Study
Alvin Aubert, “Ernest J. Gaines: Overview,” in Contemporary Novelists, 6th ed., edited by Susan Windisch Brown, St. James Press, 1996. The author provides not only points of comparison between the work of Gaines and Faulkner, but also an overview of how black-white relationships become the basic element in each of Gaines’s novels.
H. A. Baker, and P. Redmond, P, editors, AfroAmerican Literary Study in the 1990’s (Black Literature and Culture), University of Chicago Press, 1989. This is first in a series of volumes dedicated to the scholarly study of African-American literature and culture.
B. Bell, “African American Literature,” in Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia [CD-ROM], Grolier Interactive, Inc., 1998. An explanation of the tradition of African-American literature and its attributes. The author explains the effects of...
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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 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...
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