Belief and Teachings
Faith has always played a role in human society. Some put their faith in a divine being, while others put their faith in more physical things. In the historical fiction novel A Lesson Before Dying, by Ernest J. Gaines, a reader can see the motivation that people gain from faith, whether it be their own faith or the faith of others. This novel takes place the town of Bayonne, Louisiana during the 1940s. It depicts the struggle that two black men face in their lives, one having been wrongly accused of murder and the other trying to accept the state of his community. Jefferson was called a hog by his defense attorney and sentenced to death after being falsely accused. Throughout the book, Grant Wiggins, a schoolteacher, tries to help Jefferson learn how to act and die like a man. With the narration focusing on Grant, the reader sees how Grant struggles to live in a community where everyone he loves is oppressed. However, both Grant and Jefferson learn what it means to be a man in their struggles. Faith gives people the strength to accomplish anything is the ever-present theme in Ernest Gaines’s novel, A Lesson Before Dying.
Symbols are scattered everywhere throughout A Lesson Before Dying. When Jefferson is in jail, he does not have much to live for. After his defense attorney called Jefferson a hog, he takes those words to heart and loses the ability to act like a human. Grant spends time building that trust back up; reaching a human side of Jefferson thanks to the radio. Jefferson gets this radio with the help of the community. Thelma and Claiborne from the Rainbow Club donate money to Grant in order for him to buy this radio (Gaines 173). Jefferson clearly has the community behind him and they want to support him. Grant is not the only one who wants Jefferson to be a man. The radio represents everyone’s desire for Jefferson to become a man and die with dignity. The radio helps Jefferson to realize who he really is and how much hope the community has in him. The play that Grant organizes with his schoolchildren also represents the faith of the community. Grant is held in high esteem by most people he interacts with, especially by his students. After the play, “[they] waited onstage to hear what [Grant] thought of the program. [He] told them that it was fine, just fine” (Gaines 151). Here, the reader sees that Grant is losing faith. Most teachers would be very excited with the performance that the students put on. However, Grant thinks of the play as a representation of the constant, never-ending state in Bayonne. To him, it shows how year after year, nothing changes in this town. It is a symbol of the futility that he lives with, day in and day out. However, the performance of that year was subtly different: “The children found a nice little pine tree this year. Before, it was oak or anything else they could find” (Gaines 141). This pine tree symbolizes Bayonne’s steady improvement. In the past years, the children could not put enough effort into finding a pine. However, this year Grant motivated them enough so that the children wanted a pine tree for their performance. The pine tree shows that Grant is getting through to both the children and to Jefferson thanks to his and to others belief in those people. Symbols allow Gaines to convey the theme that faith allows people to achieve any goal.
Gaines also expertly uses metaphors to show the theme about faith. These metaphors occasionally range span entire pages within Gaines’s writing; conveying much about the book, its theme, and the characters. On one of his visits to Jefferson, Grant attempts to encourage Jefferson that there is the ability for everyone to change, no matter who they are. Before this, a feeling of futility could be found in Grant’s visits. Each seemed to have almost no effect on Jefferson, ending in an unfulfilling manner. However, Jefferson listened to Grant as he described:
how Mr. Farrell makes a slingshot handle. He starts with just a little piece of rough wood–any little piece of scrap wood–then he starts cutting…, then shaving. Shaves it down … till it’s not what it was before, but something new and pretty. … And that’s all we are, Jefferson, all of us on this earth, a piece of drifting wood, until we–each one of us, individually–decide to become something else. … [Y]ou can be better. Because we need you to be and want you to be. … Do you understand what I’m saying to you, Jefferson? Do you? (Gaines 193)
In this passage, Grant relates the construction of any item to every life. He says that “[h]e starts with just a little piece of rough wood,” showing how everyone starts out as an unsculpted work, waiting to be worked on and recreated. The fact that Grant discusses an item from childhood is also very important. It shows that while one may be unaware of it, one’s life is constantly changing. Grant then shows that evolution does not just occur in one step. Mr. Farrell needs to first cut the wood into a similar shape, and then spend just as much time shaving it until the slingshot has been created from a simple piece of wood. After beginning with a slingshot, Grant explains that everyone needs to find their own way and “decide to become something else.” However, this does not mean that everyone needs to find their path alone. Grant is encouraging Jefferson to change the future of their community while also coming to terms with his own fate. Describing the slingshot as “something new and pretty” reflects the potential for everyone to become beautiful in their own way. Throughout the passage, Grant’s faith in Jefferson is evident. In this metaphor, Gaines described the relationship between Grant and Jefferson while remaining vague and giving the reader a choice. Due to the fact that Grant is speaking, it seems clear that Grant is Mr. Farrell, shaping Jefferson into a man, and Jefferson is the slingshot. Later in the book, this is called into question. It becomes evident that Jefferson has also done so much for Grant with his growth. The reader begins to question if Grant truly was Mr. Farrell and if he was not the slingshot. This passage clearly displays the mutual faith that Grant and Jefferson had for each other. Furthermore, it reflects that the faith of each other motivated both Grant and Jefferson to move on in their lives and achieve their goals. The passage on page 193 clearly shows that A Lesson Before Dying has a theme which shows how faith provides strength to people in any circumstance.
The slingshot metaphor is not the only one in the book. A Lesson Before Dying contains many more metaphors, most of which show the strength and faith of the characters in the book. While in the Rainbow Club, Grant overhears a group of men discussing Jackie Robinson. Grant finds himself reflecting on Joe Louis, contemplating how he used to be the hero of the black community. Grant then thinks about the execution of another black victim and his final words: “Please, Joe Louis, help me. Please help me. Help me.” (Gaines 91). Here, it is clear that this nameless man was put to death for a crime which he hoped to escape. Not much is told to the reader about what happened in this scenario, but the parallels to Jefferson’s story are clear. They both need the help of others to reach their goal. However, Jefferson received this assistance while the Floridan victim did not. This plea for help shows how a lack of faith can leave people struggling to survive. Grant also finds himself in a tough spot right after Tante Lou and Miss Emma request his help in re-civilizing Jefferson. He goes to the Rainbow Club and has a few drinks while waiting for Vivian. Once she arrives, Grant displays his contempt for Bayonne. He thinks that they should just leave town right away. Vivian replies that she is committed to this town, and reminds Grant that he is as well (Gaines 29). Vivian clearly has faith in everything she does. This motivates her to keep moving in a society where she is not quite white but not quite black; Vivian does not fit in. Despite this, she continues to work and help Grant in his life. Vivian motivates Grant to do the what is right with her faith, and Grant mocking her commitment shows that he knows this fact, simply choosing to ignore it. The relation between Grant and the saleswoman also shows lots of faith in Bayonne. When Grant walks into the store, the saleswoman does not believe that he will even buy a product of hers. Once she discovers he will, the saleswoman becomes slightly more interested, but not much (Gaines 175). The saleswoman clings to her faith that her skin makes her superior to blacks. Grant attempts to change this in his tutoring of Jefferson. Each person in this interaction shows that their faith gives them the strength to make the wrong and right choice respectively. Metaphors show that faith drives people and gives them strength in the novel A Lesson Before Dying.
Faith plays a large role in everyday life. Some people show faith in a divine being. Others put their faith in people and objects. Whatever faith one has, it drives them to accomplish tasks in one’s day-to-day life. The novel A Lesson Before Dying clearly displays this through metaphors and symbols found throughout the book. The symbols show that faith can be found anywhere and anyone can have faith. A specific metaphor about a slingshot shows that people inspire and give faith to others no matter who they are. The metaphors display faith in action and how there are different ways to interpret faith. The faith in A Lesson Before Dying applies itself to almost any situation. Ernest Gaines teaches the reader how to believe in themselves and others; a skill that leads to success throughout life. Faith can be found anywhere in the world, driving humanity to greater heights.
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