Ernest J. Gaines Gaines, Ernest J. (Vol. 86) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Ernest J. Gaines A Lesson Before Dying

Award: National Book Critics Circle Award

(Full name Ernest James Gaines) Born in 1933, Gaines is an American novelist and short story writer.

For further information on Gaines's life and works, see CLC, Volumes 3, 11, and 18.

A Lesson before Dying (1993) is Gaines's first major publication in ten years. Like all of his fiction, it is informed by his upbringing on a Louisiana plantation. Set in 1948 in rural Louisiana, A Lesson before Dying presents the story of Jefferson, a black man accused by a white community and sentenced to death for a murder and robbery he did not commit. His attorney's defense—that Jefferson would be incapable of planning and carrying out the crimes of which he is accused because he is merely a dumb animal incapable of independent thought—is unsuccessful. This reasoning, however, robs Jefferson of his self-respect and he withdraws into a nearly catatonic state. His godmother, Miss Emma, resolves that if he must die, "I want a man to go to that chair, on his own two feet." She enlists Grant Wiggins, a successful young black man, to be Jefferson's mentor and to help him find dignity while he awaits execution. Jonathan Yardley describes the book as "quintessential Gaines, a fine introduction to his world and his view of it for anyone unfamiliar with his work—and, for those who know that work, a welcome opportunity to return to familiar territory."

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Catherine Carmier (novel) 1964
Of Love and Dust (novel) 1967
Bloodline (short stories) 1968
The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (novel) 1971
In My Father's House (novel) 1978
A Gathering of Old Men (novel) 1983
A Lesson before Dying (novel) 1993

Jonathan Yardley (review date 28 March 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Nothing but a Man," in Book World—The Washington Post, March 28, 1993, p. 3.

[Yardley is an American critic and educator who has written a weekly syndicated book review since 1974. In the following review, he favorably assesses A Lesson before Dying.]

The year is 1948 [in A Lesson Before Dying] and the place is rural Louisiana. "A white man had been killed during a robbery, and though two of the robbers had been killed on the spot, one had been captured, and he, too, would have to die." His name is Jefferson. He is a barely literate man-child, he was present at the killing purely by accident, and he almost certainly is innocent; but white justice in Bayonne, the seat of St. Raphael Parish, demands that he must die.

His lawyer does the best he can, considering the time and the circumstances. He portrays his client as a mere dumb animal incapable of coherent thought or action. "No, gentlemen," he tells the jury, "this skull here holds no plans. 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…. What justice would there be to take this life? Justice, gentlemen? Why, I would just as soon put a hog in the electric chair as this."

To Miss Emma, Jefferson's ancient godmother, these last words have a terrible resonance. "I don't want them to kill no hog," she says. "I want a man to go to that chair, on his own two feet." She is speaking to Grant Wiggins, himself black and young, a teacher at a school for black children, whom she wants to take over the task of making Jefferson a "man." It is not an assignment he welcomes, as he tells his lover:

"The public defender, trying to get him off, called him a dumb animal. He said it would be like tying a hog down in that chair and executing him—an animal that didn't know what any of it was all about. The jury, twelve white men good and true, still sentenced him to death. Now his godmother wants me to visit him and make him know—prove to these white men—that he's not a hog, that he's a man. I'm supposed to make him a man. Who am I? God?… What do I say to him? Do I know what a man is? Do I know how a man is supposed to die? I'm still trying to find out how a man should live. Am I supposed to tell someone how to die who has never lived?"

However reluctantly, Grant agrees to see what he can do. Miss Emma approaches her former employer to ask that he intercede with the sheriff so Grant can gain admission to Jefferson's cell. This in turn is followed by Grant's own interview with the sheriff—a humiliating encounter that is described with restraint and economy—after which he is permitted to proceed.

Thus the scene is set in A Lesson...

(The entire section is 1196 words.)

Charles R. Larson (review date 9 May 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "End as a Man," in Chicago Tribune—Books, May 9, 1993, p. 5.

[Larson is an American novelist, editor, and critic. In the following positive review, he focuses on Gaines's treatment of human dignity and the "morality of connectedness" in A Lesson before Dying.]

The incident that propels the narrative of Ernest J. Gaines' rich new novel is deceptively simple. Shortly after World War II, in a Cajun Louisiana town, a 21-year-old black man who is barely literate finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time, an innocent bystander during the robbery of a liquor store. The white store owner is killed, as are the two black men who attempt to rob the store; Jefferson—who is just standing there—panics. He grabs a bottle of a liquor and starts drinking it. Then he looks at the phone, knowing he should call someone, but he's never used a dial phone in his life. Flight seems the only option, but as he leaves the store, two white customers enter.

That event takes place at the beginning of A Lesson Before Dying, Gaines' most rewarding novel to date, and it's followed by a brief summary of Jefferson's trial. The 12 white jurors find him guilty, assuming he's an accomplice of the two other black men, and the judge sentences Jefferson to death by electrocution. Much of what follows in this often mesmerizing story focuses on Jefferson's slow rise to dignity and manhood.

The obstacle to be overcome is a derogatory remark made by the defense during the trial, supposedly to save Jefferson from the death sentence. The lawyer asks the jurors, "Do you see a man sitting here? Look at the shape of this skull, this face as flat as the palm of my hand…. Do you see a modicum of intelligence? Do you see anyone here who could plan a murder, a robbery … can plan anything? A cornered animal to strike quickly out of fear, a trait inherited from his ancestors in the deepest jungle of blackest Africa—yes, yes, that he can do—but to plan?…. No, gentlemen, this skull here holds no plans. What you see here is a thing that acts on command."

Finally, wrapping up his plea, the lawyer concludes, "What justice would there be to take his life? Justice, gentlemen. Why, I would just as soon put a hog in the electric chair as this."

The fallout from the lawyer's defense is devastating....

(The entire section is 983 words.)

Bob Summer (essay date 24 May 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Ernest J. Gaines," in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 240, No. 21, May 24, 1993, pp. 62, 64.

[In the following excerpt, Summer examines the influence of Gaines's life on his novels.]

Inspired by Turgenev's depictions of Russia's serfs, with whom he found parallels to the plantation slaves, [Gaines] began to write.

"I was 17 when I thought I could write a novel and send it to New York and get it published. But I didn't know a damn thing about doing it; I didn't even know how to type. I started in longhand, but my mother rented me a typewriter, which I typed on with one finger. I must have used the cheapest paper I could find, because we couldn't...

(The entire section is 1314 words.)

Michael Swindle (review date 30 May 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Louisiana Justice," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, May 30, 1993, p. 11.

[In the following review of A Lesson before Dying, Swindle calls the story "enormously moving," but faults the novel's pace and dialogue.]

One fall afternoon in rural south Louisiana in the late 1940s, a slow-witted young black man called Jefferson accepts a ride from two ne'er-do-wells, Brother and Bear. In the scene that serves as catalyst for Ernest Gaines' eighth novel, A Lesson Before Dying, Brother and Bear decide to detour by Alcee Grope's store to try to obtain a pint of wine on credit. When they are refused their request, guns are produced; two black men and the...

(The entire section is 994 words.)

Bruce Bawer (review date 26 July 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Race, Justice and Integrity in the Old South," in The Wall Street Journal, July 26, 1993, p. A9.

[Bawer is an American critic and editor. In the following largely positive review, he discusses the spiritual development of the characters in A Lesson before Dying.]

Bayonne, the fictitious Louisiana river town in which Ernest J. Gaines has set all eight of his novels, is not far from the Mississippi lowlands immortalized by William Faulkner. Yet if Faulkner's lush, penetrating prose seems eminently suited to the region's sultry climate and racial tensions, Mr. Gaines's novels are written in a low-key, matter-of-fact prose that may surprise the first-time reader....

(The entire section is 897 words.)

Carl Senna (review date 8 August 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Dying like a Man: A Novel about Race and Dignity in the South," in The New York Times Book Review, August 8, 1993, p. 21.

[In the following positive review of A Lesson before Dying, Senna emphasizes Gaines's ability to evoke the social climate of the South in the 1940s and its foreshadowing of the 1960s civil rights movement.]

Near the end of Ernest J. Gaines's novel A Lesson Before Dying, set in the fictional town of Bayonne, La., in 1948, a white sheriff tells a condemned black man to write in his diary that he has been fairly treated. Although the prisoner assents, nothing could be farther from the truth in that squalid segregated jail, which...

(The entire section is 683 words.)

Scott Jaschik (essay date 11 May 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "A New Star in the Canon," in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Vol. XL, No. 36, May 11, 1994, pp. A23-4.

[In the following essay, Jaschik discusses Gaines's views on his work as an author and educator, the extent of his influence as a Southern black writer, and his belief that an "appreciation of humanity" is the key to his success.]

Ernest J. Gaines grins when he's told that more and more professors are now analyzing his novels in their classrooms. "They think they know more about me than I do myself," he says.

His amusement is easy to understand. He knows he is hard to categorize.

Mr. Gaines has joined the canon of...

(The entire section is 2125 words.)