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 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.