Like the characters he so richly brings to life, author Ernest J. Gaines was born on a plantation in rural Louisiana. Gaines’s childhood home of Pointe Coupee Parish provided the inspiration for Bayonne, the setting of all his fiction. The author is perhaps most well-known for The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, Gaines’s fictional rendering of the life of a black woman who was born a slave and lived long enough to witness the rise of the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Gaines’s work examines with compassion and honesty the black society of the South, conveying a warm sense of community and tradition, while exploring such difficult and painful subjects as the devastating effects of racism and the fissures within tight-knit black communities etched by conflicts of belief, religion, race, and class.
The complexity and lifelike nature of Gaines’s characters issue in part from his boyhood experiences on the plantation and the biographical material from which he draws in crafting his novels. In the New York Times Book Review, Gaines credits “working in the fields, going fishing in the swamps with the older people, and, especially, listening to the people who came to my aunt’s house” with helping him develop characters that leap off the page and inspire readers to celebrate their successes and feel acutely their personal pain as if they were flesh-and-blood acquaintances and relatives.
A Lesson Before Dying is set in the late 1940s. The inhabitants of the Cajun community in which the novel takes place notice the changes brought about by World War II, yet in many respects the social order has remained constant for hundreds of years. The novel opens with the conviction of Jefferson, a young black man, for the murder of a white store owner, a crime he did not commit. However, it is his attorney’s defense of Jefferson that is most notable. Jefferson, he says, is incapable of thought and planning, lacking even a modicum of intelligence. He tells the all-white jury, “What you see here is a thing that acts on command. A thing to hold the handle of a plow, a thing to load your bales of cotton, a thing to dig your ditches, to chop your wood, to pull your corn,” concluding that he “would just as soon put a hog in the electric chair as this.” The jury disagrees and sentences Jefferson to death by electrocution. This statement forever changes the trajectory and destiny of this small community. It sets Jefferson’s godmother, Miss Emma, on a mission to make Jefferson a man before he dies. The person tasked with that mission is Grant Wiggins, a cowardly schoolteacher forever wondering if his only chance at a better life is leaving the imperfect and sometimes deeply flawed community in which he was raised. It will bring into fractious contact members of the black and white communities, the faithful and the cynical, children and elders.
Gaines’s novel succeeds through a carefully wrought tension presented to readers. We balance precariously, straddling feelings of empathy and encouragement on the one hand and frustration and judgment on the other, when characters ignore or frustrate opportunities for education of all kinds: moral, spiritual, and academic. Gaines explores on multiple levels important themes that continue to resonate for us all: our understanding of justice and fairness, our obligations to one another, and our rights to personal happiness. He requires us to take a long look at what makes us human. A Lesson Before Dying concludes with tragedy but also with a profound sense of salvation, and ultimately, hope.
By the end of the unit the student will be able to:
1. Explain how Jefferson is transformed from a “hog” into a man.
2. Describe the roots of Grant’s escapism and trace his journey of self-discovery.
3. Identify the many layers and permutations of racism and prejudice and discuss their impact on individuals and on society.
4. Describe the various strengths and styles of the strong women that impact Jefferson and Grant, including Miss Emma, Tante Lou, and Vivian.
5. Examine how Jefferson is “sacrificed” for the community.
6. Discuss how the setting of the novel, both time and place, shapes the lives of the characters.
7. Describe the different ways in which people can be educated.
8. Discuss the legacy of familial and cultural traditions, good and bad, that are explored in the novel and assess the possibility of change as presented by the author.