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A Lesson before Dying

by Ernest J. Gaines

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Did Grant and Jefferson both teach and learn lessons in A Lesson Before Dying?

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Both Jefferson and Grant Wiggins act as teachers and students to one another over the course of A Lesson Before Dying. Jefferson's need to know that he is a human being with inherent dignity and not an unthinking animal (as his lawyer argued and as much of white society believes) is vital in his last days. Miss Emma and Tante Lou want Jefferson to learn this from Grant so that he can walk to his execution without fear or feelings of worthlessness.

Jefferson's anger and despair are transformed into dignity and a Christlike acceptance of suffering through his encounter with Grant. Jefferson cannot change his situation, but he can be an example of inner strength to his community by not facing the electric chair with terror. His attitude does not denote servility, but rather defiance of a system that claims black men are cowering beasts. Despite his lack of education, Jefferson is an intelligent, sensitive man—far from the "hog" his white lawyer claimed him to be—and he discovers this through Grant.

Through teaching Jefferson, Grant is able to escape his own feelings of powerlessness. He resents that he has to hide his schooling whenever he speaks with white people and he is unable to open up fully to his girlfriend Vivian. He feels his teaching career is fruitless and that the young people under his tutelage never retain what he teaches them. Through his encounter with Jefferson, he realizes that he can make a difference by helping to provide hope and self-respect to a community in need of it. In the final chapter, he is finally able to cry openly and his encounter with the yellow butterfly right after Jefferson's death suggests he too has been transformed.

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