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A Lesson before Dying

by Ernest J. Gaines

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Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 708

Gaines’ sixth novel, A Lesson Before Dying, provides more support for his reputation as a talented writer. Since the 1964 publication of Catherine Carmier, his writing has served to present African-American culture in the same authentic light as the stories shared orally by the people who have lived them. Reading the stories of Ernest Gaines nearly equals having the experiences.

Critics agree that Gaines has a true sense of characterization. He asserts that his characters appear realistic because he has shaped them from people he knew while growing up on a Louisiana plantation. He cites the influence of Russian writers on his characterization. Russian writers relate stories about their peasant countrymen in a way that is caring, yet not cloying. These writers present truths without being harsh or disapproving. Gaines presents his people, his characters, in this same manner. He describes Southern blacks as he knows they truly are, not as they are represented in stories he read as a young man. The characters he encountered in those books were foreign to him. After failing to find accurate stories about his people, he decided to write them himself. Gaines told Joseph McLellan in the Washington Post, “If the book you want doesn’t exist, you try to make it exist.” The strength of his characters complements his exceptional writing. Just as “a swimmer cannot influence the flow of a river …” says Larry McMurtry in the New York Times Book Review, “the characters of Ernest Gaines … are propelled by a prose that is serene, considered and unexcited.”

Gaines’s “serene” prose belies the serious nature of his writing. Part of the appeal of his work lies in the way that he handles life’s intense themes in his stories. In fact, his stories do not always have happy endings. Gaines presents truths in his novels; critics applaud this. They commend him, for example, for confronting the tough issues that destroy relationships among people, yet build character and strength. His characters often struggle with questions that test their belief systems and pit friends or family members against one another. To illustrate, in one story, a young woman must choose between her father and her lover, a choice forced by the racial and social differences between them. In others, characters search for human dignity and pride. They face alienation and loneliness as well. As an example, both Jefferson and Wiggins experience isolation and desolation in A Lesson Before Dying. Yet the story really honors man’s natural instinct to persevere in the face of adversity. This is demonstrated in Jefferson’s learning the lessons that enable him to walk to his death with a sense of who he really is.

Reviewers often compare his writing to William Faulkner’s. The story for example, takes place on a plantation near the small, imaginary town of Bayonne, Louisiana. This region compares to Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, a fictional county in rural Mississippi. Like Faulkner, Gaines created the place and its people from experiences and relationships he actually had as a child. Another comparison made between Gaines’s and Faulkner’s writing has to do with the characters the two writers portray. Faulkner writes about two families. One, the Sartoris family, boasts years of wealthy prominence in the community. The other, the newly rich Snopes family, lacks the social graces of people born into the area’s aristocracy. Gaines aristocracy and “lesser quality” people are the southern white plantation owners and the Cajuns, respectively. The plantation owners, although French descendants themselves, consider themselves a higher class than the Cajuns, who are direct descendants of Canadian French. Of even lesser nobility, according to the southern class structure, are the blacks and the Creoles. The Creoles are often of mixed black and European heritage and referred to as mulattos. As do Faulkner’s works, his stories reveal the complex socioeconomic interactions among his characters but even more explicitly point out the relationships between the blacks and whites.

Critics agree that his African-American heritage lends a uniquely original perspective to his stories. According to Alvin Aubert in his essay in Contemporary Novelists, “Gaines’s peculiar point of view generates a more complex social vision than Faulkner’s, an advantage Gaines has sustained with dramatic force and artistic integrity.”

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