What is the importance of relationships in Ernest J. Gaines's novel A Lesson Before Dying, and what role do relationships play in the main characters' lives?

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Tamara K. H. | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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Ernest J. Gaines's A Lesson Before Dying is set during the days of racial segregation in the South and centers around the theme of the dehumanization of racial discrimination. Relationships in the novel serve to both develop this dehumanization and eradicate it.

One central relationship in the novel is between the convicted Jefferson and his defense attorney. Jefferson was arrested for shooting a white owner of a liquor store, tried, convicted, and sentenced to execution by electric chair though he was actually only an innocent bystander. However, Jefferson didn't stand a chance of being acquitted before his all-white jury. Due to racial prejudice, even his white defense attorney believes he is guilty because he sees evil actions as part of his nature as a man who is not really a man. We see the attorney's beliefs in his closing remarks to try and persuade the jury not sentence him to death. He asks the jury, "Do you see a man sitting here? ... Do you see a modicum of intelligence?" (p. 7). His point is to say that since Jefferson is not truly a man and has no intelligence, he could not have planned the robbery nor the murder and therefore does not deserve the death penalty for premeditated murder. The attorney further makes an argument that affects Jefferson the most throughout the book; the attorney argues, "I would just as soon put a hog in the electric chair as [Jefferson]" (p. 8). In other words, since it is irrational to give a hog the death penalty for acting upon its instincts, it is equally irrational to sentence Jefferson to death for acting upon his own instincts.

As Jefferson's defense attorney, regardless of how ineffective the defense was, the attorney and Jefferson have a relationship. Furthermore, the attorney's treatment of Jefferson as being non-human, as being a hog, deeply affects Jefferson. As he waits in his cell for his death, he begins acting as an animal, refusing all contact with family and even eating like a hog. However, his godmother Miss Emma, whom he has a close relationship with, frets over him and hopes to convince him to die with dignity, like a man. In addition, Miss Emma's friend Tante Lou has a nephew, named Grant Wiggins, who is highly educated and teaches in the old slave quarters. Though it takes some doing, Miss Emma and Tante Lou are finally able to convince Grant to help Jefferson find some self-respect and dignity.

Hence, Jefferson also develops an important relationship with Grant, and unlike his attorney, Grant is able to help Jefferson accept his own humanity. Grant's attempts are successful, as seen by the fact that Grant finds written in Jefferson's diary, "tell them im a man." Hence, Jefferson regains a sense of his own humanity through his vital relationship with Grant.

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