Illustration of a man visiting another man in jail

A Lesson before Dying

by Ernest J. Gaines

Start Free Trial

In A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest Gaines, how does one literary element develop the central idea?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Gaines's style in Grant's narration is a literary element used to communicate the text's central idea.  

The style of Grant's narration is distinctly different at the start of the narrative from how it is at the story's end.  Consider the style in the story's opening lines:

I was not there, yet I was there. No, I did not go to the trial, I did not hear the verdict, because I knew all the time what it would be. Still, I was there. I was there as much as anyone else was there. Either I sat behind my aunt and his godmother or I sat beside them. Both are large women, but his godmother is larger. She is of average height, five four, five five, but weighs nearly two hundred pounds. Once she and my aunt had found their places—two rows behind the table where he sat with his court-appointed attorney—his godmother became as immobile as a great stone or as one of our oak or cypress stumps.

Grant's narration is cold and detached.  He affirms how he was not present for the verdict in Jefferson's case.  What he knows, he heard from others.  His style of relating information is factual.  This is seen in how he talks about the proportions of the women sitting in the gallery. He uses terms like "great stone" and "stumps."  This helps to convey a sense of distance, almost like an outsider.  It is reflective of his perception of the world and the fact that he is not able to immerse himself in much of anything.  This demeanor follows him in the early stages of the narrative.

However, Gaines's style becomes more emotive as Grant learns his lesson through working with Jefferson.  It becomes richer and more invested.  This can be seen when Jefferson and Grant talk about belief in the divine:

“But then I’m lost, Jefferson," I said, looking at him closely. "At this moment I don’t believe in anything. Like your nannan does, like Reverend Ambrose does, and like I want you to believe. I want you to believe so that one day maybe I will.”

The diction of "looking at him closely" and the confessional tone of "I don't believe in anything" along with "I want you to believe" is distinctly different than what opened the book.  Gaines's style has changed to reflect the greater interaction between Grant and Jefferson.  The emotional style with which Grant now speaks is reflective of what he has learned as a result of his time with Jefferson.  When he later tells Jefferson that his "eyes were closed before this moment" and that they "have been closed" through his life, it is clear that the lesson is having an impact.

On the day that Jefferson is scheduled to die, the language that Grant uses shows the intensity of his learning.  As opposed to one whose "eyes were closed," Grant speaks with an openness about his own shortcomings:

But who was with him? Who is with you, Jefferson? Is He with you, Jefferson? He is with Reverend Ambrose, because Reverend Ambrose believes. Do you believe, Jefferson? Have I done anything to make you not believe? If I have, please forgive me for being a fool...  I know now that that old man is much braver than I. I am not with you at this moment because— because I would not have been able to stand. ... You just watch. He is brave, braver than I, braver than any of them—except you, I hope. My faith is in you, Jefferson.

Gaines' change in style is reflective of the power of life lessons shared between human beings.  Grant was to "teach" Jefferson.  Yet, as his language becomes more contemplative and honest about his own failures, Grant is the one who has learned.  When Grant remarks that he noticed a butterfly that he "probably would not have noticed at all," the full extent of Grant's learning is displayed.   

Gaines' changing style is a significant literary element that helps to emphasize the text's central idea: that human beings have the capacity to grow and learn from one another.  No individual is static, incapable of maturation.  To reflect this, Gaines' changing style reflects Grant's perceptual and linguistic shift from detachment to emotive immersion in his world.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Approved by eNotes Editorial