Critical Context (Masterplots II: African American Literature)
Because critics had waited ten years for a new novel by Ernest J. Gaines, it is not surprising that interest in A Lesson Before Dying was high. Widely reviewed, the novel has been received very favorably by most critics, some of whom regard it as Gaines’s finest work. Critics have especially called attention to those features of the novel most characteristic of Gaines’s work in general: the absence of melodrama in treating a situation that might lend itself to melodramatic excess; the consistent avoidance of the propagandistic; and, more positively, the broad and generous humanity felt everywhere in the novel. Other forms of recognition include a nomination for the Southern Book Award for 1993. In June of 1993, it was announced that Ernest Gaines was a recipient of the prestigious MacArthur Grant, sometimes called the “genius grant,” in recognition of his work over the years.
In A Lesson Before Dying, Gaines is true to the concerns and qualities manifested in his fiction throughout his career. He has always been a reflective, rather than an “angry,” writer, and he has always been sensitive, as he is here, to the nuances of behavior, especially in the social interaction between different races and different generations. This attention to nuance has led some critics to find his fiction too gentle, too forgiving in its portrayal of characters who might easily be seen as villains. It is nevertheless impossible to question the integrity and moral consistency that characterize his work. Few critics have failed to note the quiet assurance of his art.
Readers familiar with the masterworks of African American fiction may be tempted to find in A Lesson Before Dying an intriguing relationship to Richard Wright’s novel Native Son (1940). Most African American fiction writers to emerge since World War II have been aware of Wright’s shadow, and some, such as James Baldwin, have apparently found it necessary to attempt to topple this giant as they struggle for their place in the sun. Gaines has rejected Wright as an influence, finding Native Son too urban to serve as a model for his own fiction. There is an interesting parallel between A Lesson Before Dying and the last section of Native Son. Both involve a character awaiting execution and the attempt of another character to establish some kind of communication with the condemned man. This is not the place for a detailed analysis of Wright’s masterpiece, but the communication, or communion, that occurs between Grant and Jefferson might be read as Gaines’s humanistic answer to the majestic bleakness of Richard Wright’s vision.