Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: African American Literature, Revised Edition)
Given the dramatic situation at its center, it is inevitable that a major theme of A Lesson Before Dying must be that announced by the questions that trouble Grant: What is a man? How must a man live? How must a man die? The word “man” here must be understood in two senses. One of these is the inclusive sense, according to which “man” is synonymous with “human being.” This usage has become suspect as sexism in language has become an issue. In this case, in a novel in which this issue arises in an especially poignant way for a male character, the word “man” obviously speaks to the human condition as such. At the same time, “man” is also to be understood in its gender-specific sense. Certain of the issues raised in the novel touch on what is specifically expected of a male human being in a particular context, the context of southern Louisiana in 1948.
It would be too much to expect that a single novel could provide final answers to questions that go as deep as these. What readers can expect is that a novel that raises such questions as insistently as this one does will at least illuminate some aspects of what the answers might be.
The possibility of change, and of positive change, has been a frequent theme of Gaines’s fiction. That possibility propels the action of his two best-known novels, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1971) and A Gathering of Old Men (1983). That theme is present here as well. It is the possibility of change, of development, of transcendence that comes from within, from an awareness of self,...
(The entire section is 651 words.)
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Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series, Revised Edition)
In A Lesson Before Dying, the personal problems of the black and Creole characters are the bitter fruit grown from seeds sown in the soil of racial bigotry. For them, the injustice of the caste system is the central, inescapable burden that weighs them down with poverty and ignorance, often with little hope of amelioration. That fundamental fact of their life is gleaned at the novel’s outset, when, with prophetic resignation, Grant explains that he did not go to Jefferson’s trial because he knew what the verdict would be, what it inevitably had to be.
What Gaines shows is that even in the face of such abysmal conditions, a man or woman can reveal courage and dignity—or even, like Jefferson, regain them when they are lost. Some of the novel’s characters, especially Tante Lou, define their humanity by their faith both in God and tradition. Others, such as Grant, must define it on their own terms through personal exorcism, not of the devil, but of doubt and despair, and through contact with their own innate decency.
A Lesson Before Dying reads a bit like a sophisticated morality drama. It is not, of course, a religious allegory in the mode of the medieval morality plays, but like them, it involves an outward test that reflects the psychomachia, or mind struggle, within the protagonist. Grant’s inner conflict is between despair, articulated by Matthew Antoine, and hope, held out by Vivian. At stake is his secular...
(The entire section is 474 words.)