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...
(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.)
How the individual relates to society, in particular his own society and history, is the pervasive theme of A Lesson before Dying. Within that relationship are those of the individual to his elders, his family, the children in the community, the religious beliefs held by the community, and the segregation of the community. Gaines explores a social structure and the manner in which it teaches individuals to be civilized human beings. Gaines shows how Jefferson's selfesteem grows as he learns his place and worth in his community. The relationship between Grant and Jefferson, the relationships between these two men and their fathers, relationships that have failed, is a continuing theme in Gaines's work. Paul Desrisseaux, writing in the New York Times Book Review, quotes Gaines: "I've worked with relationships between fathers and sons since I started writing. Even when the father was not in the story, I've dealt with his absence and its effects on his children."
At issue is the execution of an innocent man, who, because he is Black, has no chance for a fair trial; the jury is made up of White males who certainly do not consider themselves his peers. Jefferson's attorney has so little respect for him that in his closing statement he says he would just as soon electrocute "a hog as this thing." The entire trial takes only a Friday morning, ending after lunch, when the jury returns a verdict of guilty of robbery and murder in the first degree. On...
(The entire section is 1334 words.)
Justice and Injustice
From the beginning until the very end of A Lesson Before Dying a sense of injustice prevails. While this theme derives from the larger theme of racism, Gaines uses specific incidents to demonstrate how underlying racist beliefs can result in miscarriage of justice. Jefferson innocently accepts a ride with two conniving young men who are planning to take advantage of a white businessman. When the three other men die in the resulting struggle, Jefferson, who is slightly retarded, does not really understand what has happened or even remember how he got there. Unfairly accused by two white men who come into the store and find Jefferson leaving with money and whiskey in his pockets, Jefferson is later tried and convicted for the crime and sentenced to die in the electric chair. The injustice continues after Jefferson is jailed, and it extends to the people he loves. Tante Lou, the Reverend, and Grant Wiggins suffer ill treatment when they try to arrange visitation and each time that they visit Jefferson thereafter. The intolerance shown by the white accusers, jurors, judge, and jailers results from their racist belief that they are superior to black people.
Civil Rights and Racism
The story takes place in the late 1940s when the country’s Civil Rights movement was moving towards integration. Integration enables equal rights to all people, allowing them to live together in harmony regardless of their race...
(The entire section is 937 words.)