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A Lesson before Dying

by Ernest J. Gaines

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The Inaction of Grant Wiggins

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Readers who do not want to take the time to learn from fiction, who want a novel to have a straightforward, simple message, might find Ernest J. Gaines’s A Lesson Before Dying a frustrating experience. This is definitely a moral book, with a distinct sense of right and wrong, but it is also too wise about the ways of the world to oversimplify the morals of its characters. For instance, if Jefferson were merely a witness to the liquor store shootings, then readers could easily agree that he is victimized by the legal system, but Gaines, rather than leaving him one hundred percent innocent, has him empty out the store’s cash register. His lawyer certainly commits an offense against humanity by comparing Jefferson to a hog, but he does so for a good cause, to save the boy’s life. Tante Lou and Miss Emma are too abrupt and narrow-minded to be thought of as saints, but they are too compassionate to be dismissed as comic types. It is not easy for a reader to interact with well-rounded characters: by their very nature, they challenge our assumptions. The more difficult they are, the more we can learn about the complexity of life.

For me, Grant Wiggins was a difficult character. I admired him at times, but more often I found myself annoyed with him. This annoyance was tiny, more like an itch than a headache, so that at first I could not be sure that I was feeling it at all. Once I accepted the fact that I was not comfortable with Grant, I had to question what it was about him, and, more importantly, about me, that was causing the problem. As much as I liked the book, why couldn’t I get along with its narrator? It wasn’t that he had bad circumstances, because seeing characters overcome bad circumstances is what reading is all about: we can detest a character’s circumstances and still admire the character. It wasn’t that he had too much misery for me to bear, because his life really wasn’t that bad. The good things he did have, he didn’t appreciate, but that should not have bothered me—there is no reason a reader should have to agree with the values of the narrator in order for the book to be a meaningful experience.

I kept waiting for him to choose what he wanted to be, to be what he chose to be. I was kept in an uneasy middle ground, watching him do the wrong things, bickering and storming out in the middle of conversations. I waited for him to quit blaming and hating the people who cared about him. For a while I thought that my complaint might be a charge against the author’s artistry: Grant seems to be more passive than a protagonist ought to be, observing and complaining but avoiding interaction with his surroundings when he can, and writers and critics generally agree that passive protagonists are the cause of weak novels. But he has to be reserved in order for the novel to work—its whole point is to lead us to the last two words, when Grant shows emotion that he kept bottled up throughout. Then I considered whether my impatience with him was cultural: I am a white man from the North, born a few generations after the time of the book, and I checked and rechecked my values to see if I was turning against the oppressed, using that “Why don’t these people quit complaining?” nonsense that we have all used to filter out other people’s problems throughout history. It’s a...

(This entire section contains 1898 words.)

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lot easier to believe in self-determination when mainstream society welcomes you. Still, even accounting for my own distance from the situation, it seemed that Grant knew himself well enough to have more control over his destiny than he exercised here.

Thinking it over, I am convinced now that there is no other way Grant can be but frustrating. The story would be more pleasant to read if he would either do something heroic or something that readers can clearly disagree with, but a novel like that would make a different point than the one Gaines makes here.

There is a parallel here that is obvious but nicely left unstated, between the cell that Jefferson is held in and the fact that Grant, free as he is, feels locked into a position he never asked for. He sees himself as being penned in, circumscribed, as having his options cut off at all sides. To begin with, being a black man in the South limits his options drastically, narrowing his life to such a degree that any encounter with white people is bound to end in an insult to his intelligence, his compassion and his humanity. And if it wasn’t bad enough that the cultural mainstream works to keep out Grant and people like him, he feels his life narrowed further still by the people within his own society. He feels trapped by his aunt Lou and those of her generation (note that the book begins with Grant feeling hemmed in between the hugeness of Tante Lou and Miss Emma at an event he did not even attend); by Vivian, who he blames for holding him back, keeping him from wandering the world; and by the responsibilities that come of being a teacher, of having to care for the problems of students and their parents and having to uphold a certain position of respect in a community where education is rare and valuable.

The beauty of Gaines’s achievement here is that he does not feel that he has to make Grant Wiggins suffer like a saint in order to make readers sympathetic. There is undeniably some reference to the suffering of Christ surrounding the way Jefferson is treated, but that is not presented as any sort of hidden meaning: even Jefferson, uneducated as he is, recognizes the unavoidable symbolism. Grant himself is too sophisticated to be seen as a martyr. He is too well-educated to entirely hold our sympathies: we expect him to come up with a reason for putting up with being involved in this, but he keeps saying that he is only there to please others. He alternates between blaming Vivian for tethering him to this small parish and moaning that he loves her, but he cannot answer her when she asks what he means by love. He lives in his aunt’s home while trying to avoid contact with her friends and her beliefs. He seems to never be in the classroom with his students, and finds himself distracted whenever he starts to grade their papers, all the while complaining that they never seem to learn. The white deputy, Paul, tries to reach out to him at the end, to span the gulch that divides the races, and Grant stays mum. As Reverend Ambrose explains, he is trying to keep himself above the complication of hypocrisy, to avoid telling the lie that is necessary to save someone’s feelings. Is it really circumstances that have penned him in? Or has he jailed himself? He’s just likable enough as a narrator for me to want to see the world as he sees it, but I also have learned through years of reading to not fully trust a narrator who feels that his problems are caused by bad luck, that things just have not been going his way.

Grant himself would deny that he is claiming bad luck for the problems that make him unhappy with the world around him. He has his own view of the universe that explains, in very sensible and objective terms, why he does not belong, and why those around him need to feel that he does belong with them and therefore fool themselves into thinking that they love him. Social forces drive black men from the South, he tells Vivian, and those who stay are broken by the system. Having not left, though he would like to, Grant feels that his education, and the social position that comes with it, make him the most high-profile unbroken figure around. He feels like a conspicuous target for Irene, his aunt, Miss Emma, or any other woman who feels the absence of a strong man. To him, then, it makes sense that the world that he does not want to be part of does not want to let him go. He doesn’t take their love personally, nor does he feel any responsibility for it.

To his credit, he sees the strength to be a part of society and to be strong as something that Jefferson can achieve better than he can. I think the reason I am unconvinced by his case, though, is that I don’t understand why being part of society has to equate with “being broken,” even if it is an oppressed society like a black community in the rural mid-century South. Obviously, this might be the cultural difference between me and Jefferson showing—I am certainly not broken by being a part of my society, but then, for me, social success is not tied to keeping my eyes down and my mouth shut, waiting, or calling people I do not respect “Sir” and “Ma’m.” I can understand why Grant would consider a black man accepted by white society to be “broken.”

But what about within his own society? Every society has its outcasts, who like to believe that they are not a part of the group that they actually do belong to. I have known too many people in social situations that are nothing like Grant’s, but who fear becoming a part of the world around them. They think of themselves as radicals, as free spirits who don’t want their own uniqueness to be ruined by rubbing up against the commonness of the people around them. Grant calls it being broken; others call “selling out”; still others have no name for it, they just aren’t content with where they are and they wish that people would leave them alone. These are the passive protagonists in life. Their stories don’t usually make pleasurable reading.

That uneasiness I mentioned before has to be there. It is the sign that Ernest Gaines did not make Grant too comfortably sympathetic, which a lesser writer would do without thinking, and that he also did not make Grant so obnoxious that a reader would stop before traveling 256 pages with him. I wanted Grant to choose what he wanted to be and to be what he’d chosen—imagine, if the story had been tailored to my comfort, how little I would have learned about the world he lives in. Grant Wiggins is a complex character, neither saintly nor profoundly flawed, just smart enough to paint over his personal quirks to make them look like the consequences of the world around him. I don’t know if I would like to know him. but I’m a much better person for having seen his world, and having seen it through his eyes.

Source: David J. Kelly, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale, 1999. David J. Kelly is a literature and creative writing instructor at College of Lake County and Oakton Community College in Illinois.

Dying like a Man: A Novel about Race and Dignity in the South

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Near the end of Ernest J. Gaines’s novel A Lesson Before Dying, set in the fictional town of Bayonne, Louisiana, 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 is an extension of the oppressive Jim Crow world outside.

A black primary school teacher, Grant Wiggins, narrates the story of Jefferson, the prisoner, whose resignation to his execution lends credence to the lesson of Grant’s own teacher, Matthew Antoine: the system of Jim Crow will break down educated men like Grant and prisoners like Jefferson to “the nigger you were born to be.”

Grant struggles, at first without success, to restore a sense of human dignity to Jefferson, a semiliterate, cynical and bitter twenty-one-year-old man, who accepts his own lawyer’s depiction of him as “a hog” not worthy of the court’s expense. The social distance between the college-educated Grant and Jefferson appears as great as that between the races, and class differences often frustrate their ability to communicate. It does not help that Grant has intervened only reluctantly, prompted by his aunt, a moralizing scold and a nag, and by Jefferson’s godmother, Miss Emma.

Mr. Gaines, whose previous novels include A Gathering of Old Men and The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, admirably manages to sustain the somber tone of the issues confronting the black citizens of Bayonne. What is at stake becomes clear. We find Grant vicariously sharing in the triumphs of Joe Louis and Jackie Robinson. The larger-than-life achievements of these black heroes make it intolerable to the black folks that Jefferson die ignobly. For that reason, Grant, who makes no secret of his disdain for Jefferson, reluctantly becomes their instrument in trying to save him from disgrace. Justice, or Jefferson’s innocence, becomes secondary to the cause of racial image building— no trifling matter.

With the day of Jefferson’s execution approaching, Grant begins to despair. Jefferson himself dismisses appeals from Grant and the blacks of Bayonne that he die with dignity—like a man, not like a hog.

To complicate the plot further, Grant must overcome another racial divide, crossing the color line to love a divorced Creole woman, Vivian Baptiste. She becomes yet another reason why Grant must save Jefferson’s dignity, if not save him from execution. By rejecting Creole prejudice against blacks, Vivian must accept that she too has a stake in how Jefferson confronts the electric chair. She crosses the black-brown line, to the horror of other Creoles and the subtle animosity of Grant’s black relatives.

It is a tribute to Mr. Gaines’s skill that he makes the conflicts convincing. Jefferson, chained and securely behind bars, still has one freedom left, and that is the freedom to choose how he accepts death.

Despite the novel’s gallows humor and an atmosphere of pervasively harsh racism, the characters, black and white, are humanly complex and have some redeeming quality. At the end, Jefferson’s white jailer, in a moving epiphany, is so changed that he suggests the white-black alliance that will emerge a generation later to smash Jim Crow to bits.

The New England abolitionist preacher William Ellery Channing observed just before the Civil War that “there are seasons, in human affairs, of inward and outward revolution, when new depths seem to be broken up in the soul, when new wants are unfolded in multitudes, and a new and undefined good is thirsted for.” A Lesson Before Dying, though it suffers an occasional stylistic lapse, powerfully evokes in its understated tone the “new wants” in the 1940s that created the revolution of the 1960s. Ernest J. Gaines has written a moving and truthful work of fiction.

Source: Carl Senna, “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.

End as a Man

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The incident that propels the narrative of Ernest J. Gaines’s rich new novel is deceptively simple. Shortly after World War II, in a Cajun Louisiana town, a twenty-one-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 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 twelve 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. In his cell, after receiving the death sentence, Jefferson is close to catatonic. As his aged godmother, Emma, and her friends try to make contact with him, he withdraws further into himself. In one wrenching scene when they bring him homecooked food, he gets down on all fours and ruts around in the food without using his hands.

The complexity of this painful story is richly enhanced by Gaines’s ironic narrator, Grant Wiggins. Only a few years older than Jefferson, Grant is college educated and a parish school teacher. Bitter in his own way and aloof from the community he has come to loathe, Grant is initially uninvolved, until his aunt (Miss Emma’s friend) asks that he try to make Jefferson into a man. This quest for manhood becomes the emotional center of the story and a challenge for Grant himself to become reconnected to his people.

Assuming he will fail, Grant articulates his feelings to his mistress:

“We black men have failed to protect our women since the time of slavery. We stay here in the South and are broken, or we run away and leave them alone to look after the children and themselves. So each time a male child is born, they hope he will be the one to change this vicious circle—which he never does. Because even though he wants to change it, and maybe even tries to change it, it is too heavy a burden because of all the others who have run away and left their burdens behind. So he, too, must run away if he is to hold on to his sanity and have a life of his own.… What she wants is for him, Jefferson, and me to change everything that has been going on for three hundred years.”

Grant’s task is further complicated by the local minister, who believes that saving Jefferson’s soul is more important than making him into a man. The tensions between the teacher and the preacher add still another complex dimension to Gaines’s formidable narrative.

Nowhere is the story more moving than in the scenes in which Grant and Jefferson are together in Jefferson’s cell, agonizing over his horrific past—for Jefferson has been shaped not only by the animalistic designation thrust upon him in his twenty-first year but also by the deprivations of the previous twenty.

When Grant can finally mention the unspeakable— the last day of Jefferson’s life—Jefferson tells him, “I never got nothing I wanted in my whole life.” When asked what he wants to eat that last day, Jefferson responds, “I want me a whole gallon of ice cream.… Ain’t never had enough ice cream. Never had more than a nickel cone. Used to … hand the ice cream man my nickel, and he give me a little scoop on a cone. But now I’m go’n get me a whole gallon. That’s what I want—a whole gallon. Eat it with a pot spoon.”

More than any other novel about African- American life in the United States, A Lesson Before Dying is about standing tall and being a man in the face of overwhelming adversity. And, equally important, Gaines’s masterpiece is about what Ralph Ellison and William Faulkner would call the morality of connectedness, of each individual’s responsibility to his community, to the brotherhood beyond his self. This majestic, moving novel is an instant classic, a book that will be read, discussed and taught beyond the rest of our lives.

Source: Charles R. Larson, “End as a Man,” in Chicago Tribune Books, May 9, 1993, p. 5.


Critical Overview