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A Lesson before Dying

by Ernest J. Gaines

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What three literary devices developed the theme of A Lesson Before Dying?

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A literary device is defined as a technique a writer uses to produce a special effect in a work of literature. Such devices are methods designed to convey authors’ messages in a simple manner to their readers. They help readers to appreciate, interpret, and analyze a literary work. Some common...

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literary devices areallegory, allusion, conflict, dialogue, figurative language, foreshadowing, and anecdote.

In A Lesson Before Dying, author Ernest J. Gaines provides a variety of techniques to create different effects that move the plot and theme of the book forward. Readers should consider making notations while reading the novel, which is extremely helpful in identifying these devices. A few examples of stylistic techniques Gaines uses particularly well in the subject novel might be characterization, symbolism, and dialogue.

It is common in novels to trace the development of characters that encounter a series of challenges. Very often, both internal and external forces influence characters by requiring them to face their fears and question their values, which frequently results in profound changes. These challenges and motivations are certainly present in A Lesson Before Dying.Protagonist Grant Wiggins is challenged to teach an unjustly convicted and condemned man, Jefferson, to die with dignity like a man. In doing so, Grant is compelled to examine his own place in society and the purpose of his own existence. Simultaneously, the victim, Jefferson, must develop a sense of meaning and self-pride as he faces the reality of his death from an unjust execution. For example, at Jefferson’s trial, his defense attorney argues that he is not guilty because he is less than a man:

Do you see a man sitting here? ... Why, I would just as soon put a hog in the electric chair ...

Gaines uses character development to present complex personality changes, explicit and implicit, to demonstrate to his readers the transformation of the characters around whom the story is based.

Symbolism is another literary device the author employs effectively. Gaines uses symbols to signify ideas and qualities by giving them meanings that are different from their literal sense. For example, Jefferson sees himself as less than human and succinctly expresses his disconnection with the community by saying, “Nothing don’t matter.” However, as the plot develops, Jefferson is given a diary to record his experiences. The journal serves as a symbol of the beginning of his re-connection with humanity:

I aint never rote a leter in all my life cause nanan used to get other chiren to rite her leter an read her leter for her not me so I cant think of too much to say but maybe nex time

Dialogue is also an important literary tool Gaines relies on to make the experience more pleasurable for his readers. It consists of conversational passages that give the reader a sense of reality and convey deeper meanings than would otherwise be understood if the author simply summarized facts. For example, Grant states:

“Yes, I’m the teacher,” I said. “And I teach what the white folks around here tell me to teach—reading, writing, and ’rithmetic. They never told me how to keep a black boy out of a liquor store.”

To successfully analyze literature, a strong foundation in the use of literary devices is necessary to understand writing at a deeper level. Gaines uses such a variety of techniques in A Lesson Before Dying that it is imperative to read the novel with an eye toward identifying the ones that relate to the book’s themes. Characterization, symbolism, and dialogue relate directly to the theme of injustice resulting from racism.

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