Given the dramatic situation at its center, it is inevitable that a major theme of A Lesson Before Dying must be that announced by the questions that trouble Grant: What is a man? How must a man live? How must a man die? The word “man” here must be understood in two senses. One of these is the inclusive sense, according to which “man” is synonymous with “human being.” This usage has become suspect as sexism in language has become an issue. In this case, in a novel in which this issue arises in an especially poignant way for a male character, the word “man” obviously speaks to the human condition as such. At the same time, “man” is also to be understood in its gender-specific sense. Certain of the issues raised in the novel touch on what is specifically expected of a male human being in a particular context, the context of southern Louisiana in 1948.
It would be too much to expect that a single novel could provide final answers to questions that go as deep as these. What readers can expect is that a novel that raises such questions as insistently as this one does will at least illuminate some aspects of what the answers might be.
The possibility of change, and of positive change, has been a frequent theme of Gaines’s fiction. That possibility propels the action of his two best-known novels, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1971) and A Gathering of Old Men (1983). That theme is present here as well. It is the possibility of change, of development, of transcendence that comes from within, from an awareness of self, that defines the humanity of both Jefferson and Grant. The inner action of the novel can be described as the gradual coming to recognition of this possibility in both characters. The way to this recognition may vary, but for both Jefferson and Grant it seems to involve openness to others and acceptance of the responsibilities that this openness entails. Jefferson accepts that he may be responsible for Miss Emma’s pain and becomes resolute through that acceptance. Grant accepts as his own the responsibility initially imposed on him by Miss Emma and Tante Lou and thereby becomes capable of moving beyond his earlier acquiescence in futility. Jefferson must stand for the possibilities and potentials that Grant previously has been unable to see in his pupils.
The meaning of the novel rests as well on the psychological truth of its observations. For all the novel’s emphasis on transcendence, it also shows, especially in most of the white characters, the strength that can be embodied in the struggle against change, whether individual or social. Henri Pichot seems related to characters found elsewhere in Gaines’s work: white men (they usually are men) who are aware at some level of the inevitability of change but who refuse to be the agents of change. The transcendence that occurs in Jefferson and in Grant comes in tiny increments; there is for neither man a privileged moment of awakening.
The possibility of transcendence found in the individual human being may point to possibilities for the human community as well. Much of the interaction of black and white characters in this novel is based on conventions established over generations; the power of the past is strongly felt. The relationship of Paul to Jefferson and Grant suggests that the past may be transcended, a suggestion consistent with the thematic emphases of Gaines’s earlier novels.
In its attention to social interaction, to the casual injustices of the period, and to the nuances of interaction, A...
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Lesson Before Dying manifests the concerns associated with social realism. Social realism, however, tends to define character as a social product: We are what society makes us. In depicting characters who transcend social determinism, the novel moves on to the psychological, or, as some might say, to the spiritual.
In A Lesson Before Dying, the personal problems of the black and Creole characters are the bitter fruit grown from seeds sown in the soil of racial bigotry. For them, the injustice of the caste system is the central, inescapable burden that weighs them down with poverty and ignorance, often with little hope of amelioration. That fundamental fact of their life is gleaned at the novel’s outset, when, with prophetic resignation, Grant explains that he did not go to Jefferson’s trial because he knew what the verdict would be, what it inevitably had to be.
What Gaines shows is that even in the face of such abysmal conditions, a man or woman can reveal courage and dignity—or even, like Jefferson, regain them when they are lost. Some of the novel’s characters, especially Tante Lou, define their humanity by their faith both in God and tradition. Others, such as Grant, must define it on their own terms through personal exorcism, not of the devil, but of doubt and despair, and through contact with their own innate decency.
A Lesson Before Dying reads a bit like a sophisticated morality drama. It is not, of course, a religious allegory in the mode of the medieval morality plays, but like them, it involves an outward test that reflects the psychomachia, or mind struggle, within the protagonist. Grant’s inner conflict is between despair, articulated by Matthew Antoine, and hope, held out by Vivian. At stake is his secular redemption, and the challenge he must meet and overcome in achieving it is objectively manifest in Jefferson, who has been reduced to the very thing that Antoine had claimed Grant was fated to become. Grant must redeem Jefferson to redeem himself, and he must accomplish this from an initial condition of existential uncertainty that approaches despair.
Through education, Grant has distanced himself from the faith that steadies Tante Lou and fires the righteous anger of Mose Ambrose. He is the new Southern black, struggling to redefine himself in the face of changes that are eroding a way of life that for prior generations had at least allowed a modicum of pride and self-respect. The time is not yet right for collective action, the boycotts and sit-ins of the next generation; for Grant, therefore, the only hope seems to lie in his love for Vivian and their anticipated flight.
Ironically, it is Vivian’s situation that keeps him at his school, not any sense of self-sacrifice or humanistic concern for his charges. In fact, at first he seems to have accepted Antoine’s assessment of his worth, much as Jefferson, in jail, accepts the view of himself as hog. Like Jefferson, Grant must learn in his own prison, his racially inherited place under a brutal Southern sun, that it is possible to find both dignity and hope.
How the individual relates to society, in particular his own society and history, is the pervasive theme of A Lesson before Dying. Within that relationship are those of the individual to his elders, his family, the children in the community, the religious beliefs held by the community, and the segregation of the community. Gaines explores a social structure and the manner in which it teaches individuals to be civilized human beings. Gaines shows how Jefferson's selfesteem grows as he learns his place and worth in his community. The relationship between Grant and Jefferson, the relationships between these two men and their fathers, relationships that have failed, is a continuing theme in Gaines's work. Paul Desrisseaux, writing in the New York Times Book Review, quotes Gaines: "I've worked with relationships between fathers and sons since I started writing. Even when the father was not in the story, I've dealt with his absence and its effects on his children."
At issue is the execution of an innocent man, who, because he is Black, has no chance for a fair trial; the jury is made up of White males who certainly do not consider themselves his peers. Jefferson's attorney has so little respect for him that in his closing statement he says he would just as soon electrocute "a hog as this thing." The entire trial takes only a Friday morning, ending after lunch, when the jury returns a verdict of guilty of robbery and murder in the first degree. On Monday at ten o'clock AM the judge sentences Jefferson to die by electrocution on a date set by the governor. Jefferson is as much a victim as the people whose deaths he is blamed for.
Folks tells us that the "issue of capital punishment has been displaced by an interest in relating and underscoring the positive resources of the traditional Black community." Jefferson becomes the strongest character in the story because of his decision to reject the roll of victim. Miss Emma helps Jefferson by realizing that he must be made to know that "he's not a hog, he's a man" as she tells Mr. Henri when she asks him to help her get permission from the sheriff for Grant to visit Jefferson in jail. Miss Emma is setting the stage for the community to show support for Jefferson, working within the system.
The relationship between the Black community and the White community in the 1940s in the South is underscored first by Miss Emma's attitude about the sentencing of Jefferson. She knows, even before the trial, what the outcome will be and what she will have to do to help Jefferson. This relationship is further underscored by the treatment that Tante Lou, Miss Emma and Grant receive when they visit the plantation house to see Henri Pichot. Miss Emma was cook and housekeeper there for many years before she got too old for the job. She is made to stand in the kitchen and wait for Mr. Henri to come out to see her even though she is old, tired, and ill. She cannot sit unless invited to do so, and she is not invited. She asks that Grant be allowed to visit Jefferson because she is too old and ill to see him. Mr. Henri asks Grant what he plans to do for Jefferson, and Grant replies, "I have no idea," and receives a stare from Mr. Henri until he realizes he needs to add, "Sir." Grant tells him that he will try to help Jefferson because it is what Miss Emma wants—his first admission that he owes something to the elders of the community and the community itself. Mr. Henri agrees to speak to the sheriff, but refuses to say when he will do it. There is no doubt that Mr. Henri is a descendant of the plantation owners and that Miss Emma, Tante Lou, and Grant are the descendants of slaves.
The next day Grant is summoned to the big house for a meeting with Mr. Henri. Mr. Farrell, the handyman, tells him, "He say it be all right if you come up by five this evening." Grant arrives about ten minutes before five, is let into the kitchen by Inez and offered a seat, which he declines, remembering his aunt and Miss Emma not being asked to sit the night before. Inez tells Grant that Mr. Louis is trying to get Mr. Henri to bet with him on whether Grant can get Jefferson ready to die. Grant is cynical enough to hope Mr. Henri does not bet on him, since he does not believe he can accomplish the task. At five-thirty, the sheriff and his wife arrive for dinner. Mr. Henri knows Grant is waiting in the kitchen, but does nothing to facilitate the meeting until after dinner; Grant has been standing, waiting for two and one-half hours. The conversation that follows underlines the contempt the sheriff feels for Black people. The sheriff tells Grant that "there ain't a thing you can put in that skull that ain't there already" and that he would "rather see a contented hog go to that chair than an aggravated hog." With this, he puts Grant on notice that the visits will stop at the "first sign of aggravation."
The visit from the superintendent of schools shows how low the expectations for the school and the children are. The superintendent, called Dr. Joseph, does not know Grant's name is Wiggins; he calls him Higgins this year, as he did the previous year, having called him Washington the year before that. Grant tries to ask for additional supplies and better books and is brushed off by Dr. Joseph, who tells him to emphasis hygiene and have the children pick up pecans to pay for toothbrushes.
On the first visit to the jail, Grant takes Miss Emma into town. She has a basket of food, fried chicken, bread, baked sweet potatoes, teacakes, and clean clothes for Jefferson. After the basket and Grant have been searched, they are taken up to the cell block on the second floor and led to the cell at the end where Jefferson is. There is an empty cell between Jefferson and the rest of the prisoners. Grant and Miss Emma are locked in with Jefferson, with no chairs to sit in. Miss Emma sits on the bunk beside Jefferson. At first he refuses to talk to her, and then tells her that nothing matters. The next two visits are very much the same.
On the fourth visit, Miss Emma decides that Grant needs to visit by himself. Grant realizes that all the other visits have been leading up to this one. Miss Emma apologizes for "helping them White people to humiliate you" since there is no one else to whom they can turn to help Jefferson. On this visit, Grant is searched in front of the sheriff and reminded that the visits will stop at the first sign of "aggravation." During the conversation with Grant, Jefferson calls himself a hog, gets down on the floor, and eats like an animal, using only his mouth. Grant tells him he will not tell his godmother how he ate, since it would hurt her feelings, and challenges him to show he is a human being and can understand what is happening to him.
At first Grant is reluctant to assume the responsibility of mentor for Jefferson until he realizes that part of the problem in the Black community is that the young males have no one to be a positive roll model for them. Many of the young men Grant went to school with in the Quarter are dead or in prison. Grant realizes that there is a pattern of the men deserting the women, leaving them to raise the children as best they can. One lesson Grant learns from Jefferson is that he can make a difference with the children he teaches, a difference that can lead to a better life for everyone.
Justice and Injustice From the beginning until the very end of A Lesson Before Dying a sense of injustice prevails. While this theme derives from the larger theme of racism, Gaines uses specific incidents to demonstrate how underlying racist beliefs can result in miscarriage of justice. Jefferson innocently accepts a ride with two conniving young men who are planning to take advantage of a white businessman. When the three other men die in the resulting struggle, Jefferson, who is slightly retarded, does not really understand what has happened or even remember how he got there. Unfairly accused by two white men who come into the store and find Jefferson leaving with money and whiskey in his pockets, Jefferson is later tried and convicted for the crime and sentenced to die in the electric chair. The injustice continues after Jefferson is jailed, and it extends to the people he loves. Tante Lou, the Reverend, and Grant Wiggins suffer ill treatment when they try to arrange visitation and each time that they visit Jefferson thereafter. The intolerance shown by the white accusers, jurors, judge, and jailers results from their racist belief that they are superior to black people.
Civil Rights and Racism The story takes place in the late 1940s when the country’s Civil Rights movement was moving towards integration. Integration enables equal rights to all people, allowing them to live together in harmony regardless of their race or skin color. In the South, however, during the time this novel is set, segregation still reigns. Segregation, the opposite of integration, separates races. Racism results when one race views itself as superior over another and determines that it should have more rights than the other. This view held true in the South, particularly on the large plantations where many blacks labored for white landowners. Whites considered blacks inferior human beings. Whites did not want to associate with blacks in any way. Gaines provides clear examples of racist behavior and the varying effects racist behaviors have on people’s lives.
In A Lesson Before Dying whites treat Jefferson unfairly through their actions, their words, and their attitudes. Not only are people inconsiderate of Jefferson, they also disenfranchise Jefferson’s friends and family. For example, when his nannan, Miss Emma, Tante Lou, and Grant Wiggins visit Mr. Pichot, they must enter through the kitchen. They are expected to remain there until Mr. Pichot and his associates summon them, which was, in one case, two hours later. Mr. Pichot and his companions also expect Grant Wiggins to act a certain way because he is black. Even though they know Wiggins is an educated man, they make it clear to him that he should mumble, use improper grammar, and not meet them eye-to-eye.
Not only did racism exist between the blacks and whites, but also between the blacks and mulattos. The mulattos were of mixed black and European heritage. They refused to work side-by-side on the plantations with “niggers” and became bricklayers instead. Grant Wiggins fights two of them at the Rainbow Club one night when he hears them making derogatory comments about Jefferson and making light of Jefferson’s impending death.
While racism abounds in the story, destroying people’s lives along the way, one equitable relationship between a black man and a white man blossoms to serve as a beacon of hope for the future. Grant Wiggins and Paul Bonin forge the beginnings of a friendship. Paul, the young white deputy at the jail, sees beyond the color of Jefferson’s skin and feels compassion for his situation. He appreciates, too, the part Grant Wiggins plays in trying to make the rest of Jefferson’s life, and the thought of his upcoming death, more bearable. Paul tries to treat Wiggins with respect. He shows a deference for his education as well as his consideration for Jefferson and his nannan. When he speaks to Wiggins, he looks him in the eye and encourages Wiggins to do the same. He completes the required weapons searches on Wiggins less thoroughly than he might on someone he does not know or trust. Wiggins feels the same way about Paul. Wiggins understands that he and Paul have an appreciation for one another, although Wiggins does not feel worthy of Paul’s. In the end, Paul compliments Wiggins on his teaching talent, even though Wiggins does not agree that he deserves the compliment. Paul tells Wiggins that he would like to be his friend.
God and Religion Jefferson’s relationship with God, and his understanding of faith, heaven, and salvation concern Miss Emma, Tante Lou, and Reverend Ambrose. Miss Emma and Tante Lou think that Wiggins’s visits to Jefferson will prepare Jefferson to die with some dignity. They think that Wiggins, with his education, knows what it will take to instill in Jefferson some sense of self-worth. They believe that Wiggins can tell what Jefferson’s deepest thoughts are about life and his upcoming death. When Wiggins gives Jefferson a radio, Reverend Ambrose, Tante Lou, and Miss Emma are appalled, calling it a box of sin and telling Wiggins that Jefferson needs God in his cell rather than a disembodied radio announcer. Wiggins tells them that he himself is not the one to provide Jefferson with spiritual guidance, admitting that he questions heaven’s existence and God’s love.
Jefferson, too, struggles with faith issues until his dying day, wondering if God loves only white people. Yet, he walks to the chair a man rather than an unsure, beaten-down slave. Paul credits Wiggins’s teaching for the transformation. Wiggins sarcastically attributes it to God’s work.