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A Lesson before Dying

by Ernest J. Gaines

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What definition of manhood or humanity does A Lesson Before Dying provide?

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A Lesson Before Dying, while focusing on the story of Jefferson's kidnapping by the state and state sanctioned execution, provides readers mostly with Grant's inner thoughts and turmoil as he navigates visiting Jefferson throughout his incarceration and eventual murder by the state. Grant is portrayed as an individual who is not inclined to reach out to other people for support or to support others. Rather, his consistent experiences of racism in the world has left him justifiably reserved and pessimistic. Grant immediately recognizes the white supremacy at play within the court system that has sentenced the innocent Jefferson to incarceration and death. While he is immediately outraged by the sentence, Grant is initially unwilling to visit Jefferson as he does not desire human connection and cannot bring himself to face such injustice.

However, upon eventually agreeing to regular visitation with Jefferson, he begins to connect empathetically with him and both men see each others humanity. This humanity is seen through each other's expression pain, desires, fears, vulnerabilities, dignity, and the small moments of joy they are able to share with each other before Jefferson is murdered by the state.

The novel also speaks to the absolutely horrific side of humanity. Jefferson should never have had to find his dignity in the face of impending murder because he never should have had to face such a horrifying situation to begin with. The novel romanticizes being courageous in the face of death and in the face of some of the worst aspects of humanity—racism and authoritarianism.

It also homogenizes what "humanity" means, and seems to suggest that to be human one must exude dignity, even in the face of absolute injustice. Jefferson did not need to prove his humanity through some noble acceptance of his death, or by facing it with a outlook of courage. He could have cried and screamed and raged and mourned and fought and ate with ferocity every single day while he was incarcerated until his murder and his humanity would have been just as pronounced and valid.

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A Lesson Before Dying says much about humanity and what it means to be human.

For one thing, Jefferson initially believes he has no worth. At the trial, his well-meaning lawyer claims he is no better than an animal, since he is black, and therefore cannot be tried as a human being who knows right and wrong. When he ends up on death row anyway, Jefferson comes to believe that this must be so, even eating like a pig out of despair when dinner is brought to his cell.

As a result of Grant's visits, Jefferson overcomes his own despair and realizes his own dignity as a human being. When he is led to the electric chair, even the guards take note of how erect he stands and how he does not seem afraid. He transcends society's view that black men are all criminals or fools, facing death with courage and dignity.

Grant learns that being human means caring for others. Before the story proper, he is a selfish and bitter man, resigned to the unfairness of the system. However, his experiences with Jefferson make him realize how important it is to reach out to other people. He becomes a force for good, striving to help others any way he can. Even if he cannot save Jefferson from execution, he can help him regain his self-respect, and this has long-ranging consequences, even beyond Jefferson's experience.

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A Lesson Before Dying follows the wrongly convicted Jefferson and his teacher, Grant. While Jefferson does learn a great deal leading up to his eventual death, his thoughts are not generally shared with the reader, leaving open the question of what lesson he learned from the events.

Grant's character development can more clearly show a definition of humanity. His initial character can be summarized as self-absorbed. Born into a poor family working on a cane-cutting plantation, he escaped to get a college education. When he realized that upper-class white society would always look down on him because of his background, he became angry. His life is spent wallowing in his own pessimism.

Through Jefferson's imprisonment and trial, Grant rages at racism, injustice, and people's unwillingness to speak out against those social wrongs. However, he stays silent and even initially resists Miss Emma's requests to teach Jefferson.

Over the course of his visits with Jefferson, and through their growing friendship, Grant begins to realize his cynicism makes him as much a part of the problem as anyone else. He accepts he has a responsibility to strive for positive change, even if his actions will only have minor effects.

This acceptance of social responsibility is a lesson taught by the novel. The idea is that humanity requires trying to help others and that a recognized social wrong cannot be ignored.

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