Critical Context (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series)
In some important ways, the artistic antecedents of A Lesson Before Dying lie in Gaines’s first novel, Catherine Carmier (1964). There are, for example, close parallels between character pairs, notably Tante Lou and Grant Wiggins and the earlier book’s Aunt Charlotte and Jackson Bradley. The two spinster aunts, spiritually identical, are moral preceptors for their searching, disillusioned nephews, both of whom attempt to find themselves in romantic entanglements with Creole women.
The principal locales of the two novels are much the same, except that Catherine Carmier is set in the early 1960’s, when a young, educated black man such as Jackson had some alternatives to teaching. Despite the pain it causes for his aunt, Jackson rejects the option in his quest for a new, personally rewarding identity. Grant, facing the less hopeful world of 1948, at least goes through the motions of teaching, though he longs, however vaguely, for something better. Racial injustice permeates both novels. Both books relate that injustice to a generational change and conflict between the older, tradition-bound members of the community and the increasingly alienated youth, who can find nothing to bind them to their heritage. Further, both works treat that passing of a way of life with a mixture of relief, sadness, and some compensatory humor.
In A Lesson Before Dying, Gaines also returned to a simpler method of presenting his story. In the novel’s immediate predecessor, A Gathering of Old Men (1983), he used the collective point of view of more than a dozen voices, but in A Lesson Before Dying, he confines point of view primarily to the single voice of Grant Wiggins. The novel thus shares the narrative directness of Catherine Carmier. It is similar, too, in its plain but lyric style—rich in colloquial speech, understatement, and bare diction— and in its characteristically even-tempered handling of the passionate issue of racial intolerance.