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A Lesson before Dying

by Ernest J. Gaines

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A Lesson Before Dying

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Last Updated on May 14, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2321

Readers had been waiting ten years for a new novel by Ernest J. Gaines, author of The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1971); his impressive A Gathering of Old Men appeared in 1983. Interest in A Lesson Before Dying, when it appeared early in 1993, was therefore bound to be high. From the first the critical response indicated that Gaines’s new novel confirmed his high standing among African American novelists of his generation. Most critics found in Gaines’s new novel the features they had admired in his earlier work; a few suggested that A Lesson Before Dying might be Gaines’s finest novel. The book won the National Book Critics Circle award for fiction. In recognition of his achievements over the course of three decades, Gaines was awarded a 1993 MacArthur grant.

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Gaines’s fiction has always been characterized by the absence of melodrama in treating material that might lend itself to melodramatic excess; the consistent avoidance of the propagandistic; and, more positively, a broad and generous humanity. A reflective rather than “angry” writer; he has always been sensitive, as he is here, to nuances of behavior, especially in interactions between different races and different generations. This attention to nuance has led some critics to find his work too gentle, too forgiving in its portrayal of certain characters. It is impossible, however, to question the integrity and moral consistency that characterize his work. Few critics have failed to note the quiet assurance of his art.

What may prove most problematic about this new novel is that, in choosing to return to the rural southern Louisiana of 1948, Gaines has rejected the option of probing the African American condition in more contemporary and, a less sympathetic reader might argue, in more relevant terms. Read more sympathetically, Gaines’s exploration of another time and place may provide a useful orientation toward the confusions of here and now.

The strong will of two elderly women sets in motion the action of A Lesson Before Dying, and the tension between two young men who have something to learn about what it is to be a man provides the central structural principle of the novel. Miss Emma and Tante Lou are elderly in 1948. They have learned the practice of humility required by their position in a racially ordered society, and they also know a deeper humility that is part of their Christian faith. Yet they also know their own worth, and they realize how important that knowledge is. The intensity of that realization motivates their determination that Jefferson will not go to his death thinking himself less than a man.

It was Jefferson’s misfortune to be a bystander at a shooting that resulted in the death of a white man. In rural Louisiana, in 1948, acquittal is out of the question. In a desperate attempt to save his client from the electric chair, Jefferson’s defense attorney has argued that, while a man must be held accountable for his plans and actions, Jefferson cannot be judged as a man is judged: Too simple to plan and act responsibly, he lives at a level of consciousness scarcely above that of any farm animal. To execute Jefferson, in the attorney’s conclusion, would be like putting a hog in the electric chair.

The strategy fails, but its effects continue to be felt, not by the jurors but by Jefferson and those who care about him. Accepting that her godson must die, Miss Emma is determined that he will not die without an awareness of his own dignity and humanity.

To teach Jefferson the lesson he must learn, Miss Emma, with the active support of her friend Lou, turn to Lou’s nephew, Grant Wiggins. A product, like Jefferson, of the black quarter, Grant is a university graduate who now teaches the children of the quarter between the months of October and April, when they are not working in the fields. At first Grant resists the call. He has plenty on his mind, including the complexities of his relationship with Vivian, a schoolteacher who is in the process of divorcing her husband. Moreover, Grant’s allotment of hope seems just about used up. He cannot convince himself that his work with the children of the quarter can make a positive difference in their lives. What, then, can he hope to do for Jefferson? Who am I, Grant wants to know, to say what a man is, or how a man should die? Is it not hard enough to figure out how a man should live?

Miss Emma and Tante Lou bring to bear on Grant all the power of their expectations. Winning his tentative acquiescence, however, is only part of their task: They must also win the cooperation of the local white power structure. Gaines is at his best in observing the intricacies and ironies of negotiation between white men and black women within the institutions of racism. The women know what they can claim for themselves within the place society has defined for them. Miss Emma can claim a right to special consideration because of the services she has rendered to powerful white families over the years. Henri Pichot, a white man whose influence makes his approval a necessity, is bound to acknowledge Miss Emma’s right, for even this insane social system has its rules. Still, in asking for what they are undeniably entitled to, the women must speak in the tones required by their position within the system. Fortunately, Miss Emma, Tante Lou, and Pichot know the rules of the game. Pichot seems related to characters found elsewhere in Gaines’s work: white men who, although aware at some level of the inevitability of change, refuse to be agents of that change.

In spite of Pichot’s agreement, other whites remain dubious. It is hard for a member of the white community, in this time and this place, to understand any need to affirm the humanity of a black man. Also, the visiting rights Miss Emma wants go beyond what would normally be granted to a prisoner in Jefferson’s situation. What the sheriff wants is a quiet, smooth execution. Will granting Miss Emma’s wishes stir up trouble, especially as she brings in an educated black man, Grant, whose precise grammar in unguarded moments strikes some whites as a provocation? The approval, when it comes, is grudging and conditional.

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Grant and Jefferson form at first glance an obvious contrast. Grant, an educated man, has known the world beyond the quarter, while Jefferson may seem to represent Grant’s worst fears of what the quarter will normally produce. Jefferson has never thought much about being a man, and he has scarcely been encouraged by his environment to regard himself as one. He is altogether too ready to accept his lawyer’s assessment. He has known few possibilities in his life, he has had very few choices, and now a freakish set of circumstances has determined that he must die. Can this be the history of a man? At one point, he even goes down on all fours and, hog-fashion, pushes his snout into the food dish.

It gradually becomes clear, however, that both men need to work toward a recognition and acceptance of their own humanity. Grant lives inside a psychological prison. He is helpless to bring about a satisfactory resolution to his relationship with Vivian, and he is convinced that his efforts to educate the children of the quarter are an exercise in futility. That he is required by social convention to conceal the signs of his education when talking to white people intensifies his hopelessness. He lives in a constant, barely repressed awareness of his impotence.

Grant is not the only man involved in the effort to do something for Jefferson. The Reverend Ambrose has his own agenda. His concern is not with whether Jefferson will affirm his humanity but with whether he will find salvation. Though not an orthodox believer, Grant is not unsympathetic to the reverend’s project and is more than willing that Jefferson derive whatever strength he can from the consolations of religion. Still, tensions remain between Reverend Ambrose and Grant.

Given the dramatic situation at its center; it is inevitable that a major theme of A Lesson Before Dying must be embedded in the question that troubles Grant: What is a man? One answer, Gaines implies, may lie in the possibility of transcendence, originating from within the self. The inner action of the novel may be described as the gradual coming to recognition of this possibility in both characters. The way to this recognition for both Jefferson and Grant involves openness to others and acceptance of the responsibility this openness entails. Jefferson accepts that he may be responsible for adding to Miss Emma’s pain and becomes resolute through that acceptance. Grant internalizes the responsibility initially imposed on him by Miss Emma and Tante Lou and thereby becomes capable of moving beyond his earlier acquiescence in futility. The call to teach Jefferson, a call he had resisted, makes it possible for Grant to find his own dignity and humanity. The success he finds in his efforts with Jefferson, moreover, invites a reexamination of Grant’s belief that there is no hope for the boys and girls he teaches. Still the law takes its course. At the time designated by the state, Jefferson dies in the electric chair. Yet Paul, a white jailer who has treated Jefferson and Grant with sympathy and respect, reports to Grant that Jefferson was the bravest man in the room. He also brings the diary that Jefferson was keeping at Grant’s suggestion. Capitalization is nonexistent, the spelling is weak, the punctuation is uncertain, the style is inelegant, but the message of Jefferson’s diary is clear: “tell them i’m a man.”

The interaction among the principal characters is enriched by an abundance of sharply drawn minor characters, black and white. As is customary with Gaines, there are no stereotypes or caricatures in this novel. He treats all of his characters, even those of whose conduct he must disapprove, with imaginative sympathy and generosity.

The possibility of transcendence Gaines finds in the individual human being may be meant to point to possibilities for the human community as well. As in much of Gaines’s fiction, the power of the past is strongly felt in this novel. Yet the relationship of Paul to Grant and Jefferson suggests that the sociohistorical past may be transcended, a suggestion consistent with thematic emphases in Gaines’s earlier novels, which turn so often on the choice between holding on and moving on.

For all the novel’s emphasis on transcendence, Gaines’s honesty compels him to acknowledge also, especially in most of the white characters, the strength that can be embodied in the struggle against change, whether individual or social. The transcendence that does occur in Jefferson and in Grant comes in tiny increments; there is no privileged moment of awakening. It is not a Pollyanna version of individual or group psychology that Gaines offers in A Lesson Before Dying. Rather, this novel is imbued with the spiritual generosity and affirmation that readers rightly cherish in the fiction of Ernest J. Gaines.

Bibliography

Auger, Philip. “A Lesson About Manhood: Appropriating The Word in Ernest Gaines’s A Lesson Before Dying.” The Southern Literary Journal 27 (Spring, 1995): 74-78. Auger explores the issues of dignity and self-worth in Gaines’s novel, focusing on the problems black men face when attempting to define their manhood. His discussion also includes an examination of Gaines’s other works that deal with the same theme.

Babb, Valerie M. Ernest Gaines. Boston: Twayne, 1991. A major critical introduction to Gaines, with a chronology and bibliography. The best general introduction to Gaines published before A Lesson Before Dying. Strongly recommended as starting point for further study.

Gaudet, Marcia, and Carl Wooton. “Looking Ahead.” In Porch Talk with Ernest Gaines: Conversations on the Writer’s Craft. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1990. In an interview, Gaines discusses A Lesson Before Dying as a work in progress. Comparisons of his comments and the finished work provide valuable insights into the processes of creation and revision.

Larson, Charles R. “End as a Man.” Chicago Tribune Books, May 9, 1993, 5. More than any other novel of African American life, A Lesson Before Dying is about being a man in the face of adversity and about the morality of connectedness, of each individual’s responsibility to his community.

Rubin, Merle. “Convincing Moral Tale of Southern Injustice.” The Christian Science Monitor, April 13, 1993, 13. A review for the general reader. Gives a synopsis of the novel and an upbeat appraisal typifying the book’s reception in most reviews. For Rubin, A Lesson Before Dying is an important “moral drama.”

Senna, Carl. “Dying Like a Man.” The New York Times, August 8, 1993, p. G21. An enthusiastic review that helps illuminate the racial lines and tensions among the book’s black, white, and Creole characters. Senna does claim that the novel has an occasional “stylistic lapse” but gives no specific examples.

Sheppard, R. Z. “An A-Plus in Humanity.” Time 141 (March 29, 1993): 65-66. Reviews A Lesson Before Dying, giving a short plot synopsis. Praises the author’s level-headed ability to convey the “malevolence of racism and injustice without the usual accompanying self-righteousness.”

Wardi, Anissa J. Review of A Lesson Before Dying, by Ernest Gaines. MELUS 21 (Summer, 1996): 192-194. A highly favorable review that explores the “role of language in symbolic enslavement.” Wardi also offers a brief plot synopsis and character analysis. She praises the novel as “an extraordinary literary accomplishment.”

Yardley, Jonathan. “Nothing but a Man.” The Washington Post Book World 23 (March 28, 1993): 3. A brief but excellent explication of the novel. Focuses on Grant as protagonist and notes that the lesson referred to in the work’s title is one learned by him as well as by Jefferson. Also remarks on Gaines’s admirable restraint in treating racial themes.

Historical Context

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Black Civil Rights in the Late 19th Century
With the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, President Lincoln freed the slaves. Congressional Acts after that date granted blacks various civil rights. In 1866 and 1870, blacks received the rights to sue, be sued, and own property. With these rights, blacks gained the “privileges” of white citizens.

The Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, in 1868, further extended black privileges, making former slaves eligible for citizenship. The Fifteenth Amendment gave blacks the right to vote and prevented state or federal governments from denying any citizen of this right on the basis of race. Blacks received further acceptance through the Civil Rights Act of 1871, which made it a crime to deny citizens of equal protection under the law, and the Civil Rights Act of 1875, which guaranteed blacks the right to use public accommodations. The political climate in the United States shifted in the mid-1880s, however, to an attitude of indifference towards social justice. The Civil Rights Act of 1875 (right to public accommodations) was declared unconstitutional. Then, the Supreme Court legally instituted segregation through its decision in the case of Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896. Homer Plessy had been arrested and convicted for refusing to sit in a railroad car that was designated for African Americans. When he appealed his conviction on the grounds that it denied him his rights under the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments, the Supreme Court overruled him. The Court upheld the principle of “separate but equal” facilities for blacks and whites. Even into the 1930s when Ernest Gaines was born, this principle and attitude towards blacks prevailed. Gaines set A Lesson Before Dying in the late 1940s, but the remnants of segregation still existed. The jail where Jefferson was incarcerated had a separate block of cells for African-American inmates, in addition to separate restroom facilities for African-American visitors to the jail.

Segregation in the South
Taking a step backwards after the Supreme Court’s decision in the Plessy case, integration seemed impossible. Segregation was well established in the Northern states through custom rather than law. This was known as “de facto” segregation. Following the Plessy case, however, the South decreed laws that legalized racial segregation. This legal segregation is called “de jure” segregation. The laws that accomplished de jure segregation in the South are known as the Jim Crow laws, named after a pre-Civil War minstrel show character. These laws created a racial caste system in the South that held strong until 1954, when the Supreme Court declared public-school segregation unconstitutional in the Brown v. Board of Education case in Topeka, Kansas.

Early Steps Towards Integration in the 20th Century
The early 1900s saw steps being taken towards integration through two movements. One group worked towards equal treatment through integration; the other group wanted to establish a separate black state. In 1909, W. E. B. Du Bois founded the National Association for the Advancement of Col- ored People (NAACP). The NAACP still exists today and works for equality through integration. Another leader in the integration movement was Marcus Garvey, who founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) in 1914 to work towards a separate black state through black nationalism. While the UNIA no longer exists, the black nationalist movement continues.

Efforts to integrate continued to progress through the 1930s and 1940s. Black leaders found powerful support in black unions such as the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters who helped apply economic pressure to pass such acts as the 1947 Fair Employment Practices Act. This legislation prevented discrimination in hiring on the basis of race or national origin. In 1948, Harry Truman ordered the integration of the armed forces. These early efforts to end segregation culminated in the Supreme Court ruling in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case. The ruling declared separate schools for blacks and whites unconstitutional.

Literary Style

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Setting
Gaines sets A Lesson Before Dying in and around the fictitious Bayonne, a small town in Louisiana. It is 1948. Some events occur on the plantation, either in the school where Grant Wiggins teaches or in the homes of Henri Pichot, Tante Lou, or Miss Emma. Other events occur at the jail or at the Rainbow Club.

The church serves as the school for the black children whose parents labor on the plantation. There are no desks; the children write on their laps or kneel in front of the benches that are pews on Sundays. Grant Wiggins’s desk is the collection table during church services. A woodburning stove for which there is never enough fuel heats the classroom.

The same sparseness exists in the homes of both Tante Lou and Miss Emma. Tante Lou shares her small home with Wiggins. The furniture is old, and the wallpaper peels away from the walls. While Tante Lou has added her own homey touches, the house has a tired feeling to it. Wiggins refers to it as “rustic.” Miss Emma’s home is even smaller, with the bed in the living room. Henri Pichot’s house, however, is a huge house with modern appliances. Instead of a woodburning stove, the cook uses a gas range for cooking. The same black iron pots that Wiggins remembers from childhood hang on the wall, but the old icebox he had known has been replaced by a sparkling white refrigerator. The important events of the story take place in the jail. The jail is located in the old red-brick courthouse that resembles a castle. Housing both black and white prisoners in different areas, the cells themselves are located on the second floor of the courthouse, at the top of a set of steel stairs. The cells of the other African-American prisoners have two metal bunks each. Jefferson’s, however, has only one bunk, equipped with a mattress and wool blanket. A toilet, a washbowl, and a small metal shelf take up the rest of the six-foot by ten-foot cell. For light, there is only a single light bulb hanging from the center of the ceiling and a small, high, barred window.

Wiggins goes to the Rainbow Club for company and comfort. Green, yellow, and red neon lights advertise the combination bar and cafe. In the bar, Wiggins can choose to sit on a barstool at the counter or at one of the white-clothed tables in the dimly lit room. The cafe boasts both a lunch counter and tables with cheery red-and-whitecheckered tablecloths.

Point of View
Gaines uses the first person point of view to tell the story of Grant Wiggins. That is, Wiggins tells the story himself as the events affect him. By using his voice, Gaines can easily portray the intense emotions that Wiggins feels in relationship to the other characters and the struggles they endure. The resulting narrative enables Gaines to connect his fiction with historical reality. Gaines shares his own life experiences and perceptions with his readers through the lives and emotions of his characters. He aptly weaves fact and fiction to present his reflections on the Southern world that he knows existed. A twist to the typical personal narrative, though, is Jefferson’s journal. Reading the entries, Wiggins knows Jefferson’s innermost thoughts. By definition, a first-person narrator does not know what another character is thinking.

Style
Critics often compare Gaines’s stories to epics. Although epics are usually in the form of long narrative poems, there are similarities between the two: both describe extraordinary achievements or events; and both have epic characters that stand heroic in the face of large-scale deeds. In the case of Wiggins, there is no hope that he can save Jefferson from the death that he will suffer as a result of a society’s large-scale racist beliefs. Yet, Wiggins does help Jefferson gain self respect before he dies, in spite of the efforts of those who would persecute Jefferson for his skin color. Paul Bonin views Wiggins as a hero even if Wiggins, himself, does not.

Literary Techniques

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Gaines uses the Southern rural folk tradition, learned in his aunt's home in a plantation Quarter similar to Bayonne, to present the workings of this cultural system. "Gaines's novels link individuals to their social context with the explicit purpose of combating the alienation of capitalist and racist society," says Folks. Gaines tells us he is writing "for the Black youth of the South, to let them know that their lives are worth writing about, and maybe in that way I could help them find themselves . . . [and] for the White youth of the South to let them know that unless they know their neighbor of three hundred years, they know only half of their own history" (National Forum, Winter, 1998).

To accomplish this, Gaines describes the community of Bayonne, from its physical setting to the language of the people. The reader is left in no doubt that the Black community and the White community are as separate as if they were on different planets. The men in authority in the White community expect Grant to tailor his language and actions to fit the stereotype of the "nigger" they are used to. He begins by doing this, saying "Sir" when he is expected to, and gradually changes, using correct grammar, holding his head up and looking into the eyes of the White people. Gaines spells phonetically to reflect the language of the people in the Quarter. Jefferson says "yer" for "here," and writes his journal phonetically and without punctuation or capitalization.

The school on the plantation is in the church. There are blackboards on the back and right walls; the student desks are the church pews; the teacher's desk is the table used for the collection plate on Sundays. A wood stove heats the building, the wood provided by parents of the children. The children are defenseless against the bad humor of the teacher. Discipline is meted out with the Westcott ruler. Grant is unconcerned with the children's feelings, not even those of Estelle, Jefferson's cousin. After the Christmas program, Grant gradually reverses this, finally giving Jefferson's journal to the children.

The fields surround the Quarter; the road is dirt, mud if it rains. There is little indoor plumbing, and wood stoves are used for both heating and cooking. The life of the community is dependent on these fields and the weather. Prior to the Christmas program at the school, the rain turns the road and the fields to a quagmire, making harvest of the sugar cane impossible. It is cold and wet. The people stay at home, huddled around fireplaces and stoves. The weather has benefited the program, since the children have been unable to work after school and have had more time to practice. The turnout for the program is large, since no one is in the fields or their gardens. Part of the audience must wear their coats because the stove does not adequately heat the church.

The program is a combination of secular and non-secular material: a recitation of "The Night before Christmas" and the Biblical Christmas story, and memories of all the Christmas trees from over the years— what kind of trees they were and how they were cut, brought in and decorated. Folks says the language of the Nativity is the "communal language . . . transferring the words and the imagery of the Biblical story into local experience." When the program is over, Grant thinks about the sameness of the program over the years, wondering about changes Vivian has told him are happening, changes he does not see.

Descriptions of food prepared and served at various times in the story is a thread in the life of the community and its people. The importance of food to life, to wellbeing, to the harmony of the community, knits the people together. Food is offered by the women to others to show their belief in the dignity of man and the dignity of their culture.

Ideas for Group Discussions

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A Lesson before Dying is set in the late 1940s, before desegregation, the Civil Rights movement, and the court decisions that have changed many things in our society. The Civil Rights movement has changed many things in American life, for the Black community, women, and other minority groups, such as the Indians, the Hispanic- American population, and the Asian-American population. These changes came about because of the social changes brought about when various populations within our society demanded change for equality.

1. Schools in the 1940s were different from schools today. Discuss some of the differences you notice from the description of Grant Wiggins's school.

2. What characteristics of a good teacher did Grant Wiggins exhibit? Do you think his students liked school?

3. Would Grant and Jefferson have had the same teacher during their school careers in Bayonne? What made the difference between the outcome of the education received by Grant and by Jefferson?

4. How has the judicial system changed since the 1940s? Do you think Jefferson's trial would be conducted today as it was then?

5. What divisions in cultures still exist in America? Do you see any of these divisions in your community? Should these divisions continue, or should the community be working to bring about changes?

6. What makes a hero? Who are some of the people you consider heroes today? Why do these people assume the status of hero?

7. Find examples of ebonies in the novel. Discuss ebonies as a different language.

8. At least one child in Grant's school has a goal beyond working in the fields in the Quarter. Do you think there is any possibility she will reach that goal? Do you suppose any of the other children have goals that are not expressed directly in the novel? Do they have the potential to reach these goals?

9. One of the themes from several of Gaines's works is the alienation between fathers and sons. How is this theme expressed in A Lesson before Dying? Who would you characterize as a father and who a son in this story? What are some of the conflicts between generations that you have noticed or experienced? Do these characters manage to bridge the gap that so often exists between generations?

10. Discuss the importance of the women in the Quarter. Would this be considered a matriarchal society? In what ways does Grant acknowledge this?

Social Concerns

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Years after A Lesson before Dying was published, Ernest J. Gaines is still concerned with the ways that Black people in rural Louisiana live and treat each other, and are treated by people outside the Black community. His descriptions of life in this community (called the Quarter), in the White community, and in the town of Bayonne are based on a plantation community in Pointe Coupee Parish, near New Roads, Louisiana, where he was born and lived for a time. He writes of the divisions in communities in the South in the late 1940s. Gaines moved to California as a teenager and had visited the plantation of his birth. In 1963, when he decided to write his first novel about the area, he returned to Baton Rouge to live for six months with relatives. From this experience, having reestablished his connections to life in rural Louisiana, he was able to describe the feelings and attitudes of the people. Gaines describes life before desegregation—the quality of education, the expectations for life, discrimination, and the many layers of prejudice. It is his viewpoint that members of a community who understand how they fit into its history can bring about social change.

A Lesson before Dying takes place in Bayonne during the late 1940s. Discrimination and prejudice go hand in hand within both White and Black communities there. Schools are segregated, as are churches, restaurants, bars, hotels, and residential areas. The Black community lives mainly in the Quarter, an area of the plantation where the slaves were housed before emancipation. Within the Quarter, people live in houses built during the time of slavery, on a dirt road impassable when it rains, with very little indoor plumbing. The school, located in the church building, includes grades one to six, children ages six to fourteen, and one teacher. Grant Wiggins, the teacher, was born in the Quarter, but left to live in California where he attended college, returning to the Quarter each year to teach for six months. School lasts from late October to the middle of April, beginning and ending with the harvest and planting seasons. The sugar cane fields surround the Quarter, as they have for over one hundred years. The children are disciplined as they have been as long as they have been allowed to go to school, with the slap of a ruler on the hand or buttocks. Older children are assigned to teach the younger ones. School supplies are in short supply— there is not enough chalk to go through the short school year. The level of education is that of minimal literacy skills in basic reading, writing, and arithmetic. The protagonist, Jefferson, accused of robbery and murder and sentenced to electrocution without a fair trial, keeps a journal. Jefferson's journal, kept in the last weeks of his life, suggests that the school is failing, but despite that failing he feels connected to the community, so much so that his pride in both the community and himself enable him to die bravely.

In town, Blacks live in an area sometimes known in the South as "across the tracks" in housing that resembles that in the Quarter, only with better indoor plumbing. The stores, restaurants, bars, and churches are segregated, with those for the Black population at the back of town, down a dirt road, and the White community on the paved main street. The schools are segregated, but the Black school has a building and buses for the children. The quality of education received by the Black children in town may be higher than that of the children in the Quarter; at least they go to school a little longer each year.

Segregation and prejudice are presented throughout the story as facts of life. The people of both communities, Black and White, live with segregation because that is how it has always been. No one questions the system, not even the Black community that knows Jefferson should not have been sentenced to die. The concern instead is that he receive the punishment with as much self-respect as he can, and the community bends all its efforts to insure that he has the strength to "die like a man." The people in the Black community realize that they cannot save Jefferson. The only way they can demonstrate equality with the White community is to send Jefferson to the electric chair with his dignity intact.

Segregation and prejudice are not limited to interaction between the Black and White communities. There is also prejudice within the Black community, as evidenced by the relationship Grant's girlfriend, Vivian, has with her family. Her first marriage, to a man whose skin is darker than hers, is not acceptable to her family. She tries to visit them after her marriage and the birth of her first child, but her parents refuse to accept her husband or child because of the color of their skin. Grant is also darker than her family can accept, leaving Vivian with no hope of reconciliation with her parents.

Jeffrey J. Folks, writing for The Mississippi Quarterly (Spring, 1999), says "the basis for any civilization is an inherited culture with roots in folk and popular tradition." Folks thinks that Gaines is facing a problem central to African-American communities, a problem created first when Africans were brought to America as slaves, fracturing their folk culture, then later, by many freed slaves migrating to the North and West, thereby undermining the development of a New World culture. Gaines wrote in Southern Review, May, 1990 that by suppressing his historical identity, "not only was I lying to myself, but I was denying knowing the others, the ones I had left, and wasn't that the same as denying who I was?" Grant also has questions, to which Jefferson helps him find answers.

Literary Precedents

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There are similarities in the work of Alice Walker, particularly The Color Purple. Both novels are set in the rural South in farming communities. Both deal with growth in self-esteem, pride in one's self, and each has a character who serves as a role model for the protagonist. Though Walker's protagonist is female and Gaines's is male, each needs support from others to become a strong adult. Each author uses language to differentiate between his educated and uneducated characters. The oppressed characters in both novels use the written word to express their feelings and gain self-respect.

The authors themselves have much in common. Each grew up in the rural South; each left and received higher education in another area, Walker in New York and Gaines in California; each then brings another perspective to their views of the South and African-Americans who live there. Both authors have won awards for their work, and the adaptations to film of these works have also won awards.

According to Alice Walker in the New York Times Book Review, Gaines "claims and revels in the rich heritage of the Southern Black people and their customs; the community he feels with them is unmistakable and goes deeper even than pride." Gaines tells us that he feels "too many Blacks have been writing to tell Whites all about 'the problems,' instead of writing something that all people, including their own, can find interesting, could enjoy." He credits writers William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, Gustave Flaubert, and Guy de Maupassant for influencing his use of language and his style, and Russians Nikolai Gogol, Ivan Turgenev and Anton Chekhov with exemplifying a way to write about the people of rural Black America.

Adaptations

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The HBO Original Movie, A Lesson before Dying, aired on May 22,1999. The film stars Don Cheadle as Grant Wiggins, Mekhi Phifer as Jefferson, Irma P. Hall as Miss Emma, and Cicely Tyson as Tante Lou. Cheadle received a Primetime Emmy nomination for Outstanding Actor in a Miniseries or Movie for this role. The film won Emmys in 1999 for Best Television Movie and Best Writing.

In a review in the Christian Century, May 21, 1999, M. S. Mason says that the question at the heart of the novel and the film is "How shall we live?" He calls the movie "an excellent, beautifully acted, star-studded event calculated to hearten even the most jaded" and goes on to remind us to ask ourselves the "great questions" and "to choose our answers wisely." Mason concludes that these questions are: "How shall we live, with dignity or without it? How does one become a whole person? What shall my life mean—will it be all for self, or for others as well? The fact that the answers are arrived at humanely, believably, with the inevitability of ancient truths is what makes this film so powerful—and what will turn viewers back to the novel as well." Added to this, producer Robert Benedetti says, "At first Grant is blind to the innate dignity and richness of his own culture. And he learns as much from Jefferson about being a man as Jefferson learns from him. . . . He has been a head without a heart, and he comes out of this experience a whole person."

Media Adaptations

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An unabridged audio version of A Lesson Before Dying, read by Jay Long, is a 1997 Random House production (ISBN: 0375402586).

Juneteenth Audio Books offers an abridged edition of A Lesson Before Dying produced by Time Warner Audio Books (ISBN: 1570422230).

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources
Alvin Aubert, “Ernest J. Gaines: Overview,” in Contemporary Novelists, 6th ed., edited by Susan Windisch Brown, St. James Press, 1996.

Jerry H. Bryant, Iowa Review, Winter, 1972.

Paul Desruisseaux, in New York Times Book Review, May 23, 1971.

Joseph McLellan, in Washington Post, January 13, 1976.

Larry McMurtry, in New York Times Book Review, November 19, 1967.

Alice Walker, in New York Times Book Review, October 30, 1983.

For Further Study
Alvin Aubert, “Ernest J. Gaines: Overview,” in Contemporary Novelists, 6th ed., edited by Susan Windisch Brown, St. James Press, 1996. The author provides not only points of comparison between the work of Gaines and Faulkner, but also an overview of how black-white relationships become the basic element in each of Gaines’s novels.

H. A. Baker, and P. Redmond, P, editors, AfroAmerican Literary Study in the 1990’s (Black Literature and Culture), University of Chicago Press, 1989. This is first in a series of volumes dedicated to the scholarly study of African-American literature and culture.

B. Bell, “African American Literature,” in Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia [CD-ROM], Grolier Interactive, Inc., 1998. An explanation of the tradition of African-American literature and its attributes. The author explains the effects of race, ethnicity, class, gender, and nationality on literature and discusses African-American literature in terms of genres and their contributing writers.

J. Dizard, “Racial Integration,” in Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia [CD-ROM], Grolier Interactive, Inc., 1998. The author defines and gives the history of racial integration in the United States and provides references to Civil Rights acts of particular importance.

D. C. Estes, Critical Reflections on the Fiction of Ernest J. Gaines, University of Georgia Press (Athens), 1994. This series of essays provides a comprehensive look at Gaines’s work, including the themes he addresses, the techniques he uses, and his use of humor. The author also presents comparisons to other writers’ works.

R. Laney, Ernest J. Gaines: Louisiana Stories, Video Production by Louisiana Public Broadcasting, Louisiana Educational Television Authority. [Online] Available http:// oscar.lpb.org/programs/gaines/, 1998. This video production provides viewers with an overview of the life of Ernest Gaines. Through interviews with Gaines, his lifetime acquaintances, and prominent writers and scholars, the viewer will come to an appreciation of Gaines and the influences on his writing.

V. Smith, and A. Walton, editors, African American Writer, Charles Scribner Sons, 1991. A compilation of essays that are a combination of biography and literary criticism. They focus on the unique experiences of African Americans and their culture and tradition in the context of American history.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 14, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 449

Auger, Philip. “A Lesson About Manhood: Appropriating The Word in Ernest Gaines’s A Lesson Before Dying.” The Southern Literary Journal 27 (Spring, 1995): 74-78. Auger explores the issues of dignity and self-worth in Gaines’s novel, focusing on the problems black men face when attempting to define their manhood. His discussion also includes an examination of Gaines’s other works that deal with the same theme.

Babb, Valerie M. Ernest Gaines. Boston: Twayne, 1991. A major critical introduction to Gaines, with a chronology and bibliography. The best general introduction to Gaines published before A Lesson Before Dying. Strongly recommended as starting point for further study.

Gaudet, Marcia, and Carl Wooton. “Looking Ahead.” In Porch Talk with Ernest Gaines: Conversations on the Writer’s Craft. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1990. In an interview, Gaines discusses A Lesson Before Dying as a work in progress. Comparisons of his comments and the finished work provide valuable insights into the processes of creation and revision.

Larson, Charles R. “End as a Man.” Chicago Tribune Books, May 9, 1993, 5. More than any other novel of African American life, A Lesson Before Dying is about being a man in the face of adversity and about the morality of connectedness, of each individual’s responsibility to his community.

Rubin, Merle. “Convincing Moral Tale of Southern Injustice.” The Christian Science Monitor, April 13, 1993, 13. A review for the general reader. Gives a synopsis of the novel and an upbeat appraisal typifying the book’s reception in most reviews. For Rubin, A Lesson Before Dying is an important “moral drama.”

Senna, Carl. “Dying Like a Man.” The New York Times, August 8, 1993, p. G21. An enthusiastic review that helps illuminate the racial lines and tensions among the book’s black, white, and Creole characters. Senna does claim that the novel has an occasional “stylistic lapse” but gives no specific examples.

Sheppard, R. Z. “An A-Plus in Humanity.” Time 141 (March 29, 1993): 65-66. Reviews A Lesson Before Dying, giving a short plot synopsis. Praises the author’s level-headed ability to convey the “malevolence of racism and injustice without the usual accompanying self-righteousness.”

Wardi, Anissa J. Review of A Lesson Before Dying, by Ernest Gaines. MELUS 21 (Summer, 1996): 192-194. A highly favorable review that explores the “role of language in symbolic enslavement.” Wardi also offers a brief plot synopsis and character analysis. She praises the novel as “an extraordinary literary accomplishment.”

Yardley, Jonathan. “Nothing but a Man.” The Washington Post Book World 23 (March 28, 1993): 3. A brief but excellent explication of the novel. Focuses on Grant as protagonist and notes that the lesson referred to in the work’s title is one learned by him as well as by Jefferson. Also remarks on Gaines’s admirable restraint in treating racial themes.

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