During Jefferson’s trial, the defense attorney says, “Why, I would just as soon put a hog in the electric chair as this.” Discuss the ways in which the attorney’s statement echoes throughout A Lesson Before Dying.

During Jefferson’s trial, the defense attorney says, “Why, I would just as soon put a hog in the electric chair as this,” which words expose the deeply ingrained racism existing in the American South during the 1940s. The attorney’s statement echoes the racist attitude toward African Americans entrenched in the Southern culture that the author describes in the novel from beginning to end.

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In A Lesson Before Dying, author Ernest J. Gaines provides a variety of literary devices to demonstrate to his readers how deeply rooted the specter of racism found its way into every aspect of Southern culture in the United States during the 1940s. The author’s use of characterization , symbolism,...

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In A Lesson Before Dying, author Ernest J. Gaines provides a variety of literary devices to demonstrate to his readers how deeply rooted the specter of racism found its way into every aspect of Southern culture in the United States during the 1940s. The author’s use of characterization, symbolism, and dialogue are particularly effective in moving along the plot of the novel while maintaining a focus on the ingrained sense of racism existing in the fictitious community of Bayonne, Louisiana, where the action takes place.

The attorney’s “hog” comment at Jefferson’s trial is echoed throughout the novel in at least two major ways. First, as a victim unjustly convicted and condemned to death, Jefferson must learn to die with dignity. His defense attorney concludes that his best defense is to convince the jury that his own client is less than a man. This comparison to an animal emphasizes the attitudes of the society into which Jefferson was born. Gaines carries the sentiment through the entire book. Second, the protagonist of the story, Grant Wiggins, reluctantly accepts the challenge of teaching Jefferson how to die like a man. In doing so, Grant must examine his own purpose in life and his role in the racist society in which he resides.

Gaines accomplishes the binding thread of racism implicit in the attorney’s statement through the complex character development by which he shows his readers the efforts of Wiggins and Jefferson to negate the comparison of the human being he befriends to an animal. The author also employs symbolism to paint the picture of Jefferson’s development as a man through the use of a “journal.” The reader can envision Jefferson’s growth by reading his recorded experiences as he re-connects with humanity. Gaines uses dialogue to describe the challenges his characters face as they attempt to get passed the attorney’s “hog” reference. For example, Grant begins to understand the depth of his calling as he states:

“Yes, I’m the teacher,” I said. “And I teach what the white folks around here tell me to teach—reading, writing, and ’rithmetic. They never told me how to keep a black boy out of a liquor store.”

Gaines effectively uses literary devices throughout the book to allow his readers an opportunity to decide whether Grant successfully teaches an innocent victim a valuable lesson in dignity and manhood or whether Jefferson’s heroic death in the face of racism teaches Grant a more valuable lesson on how to differentiate a man from an animal amidst widespread bigotry.

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