A Lesson Before Dying
"A Lesson Before Dying" by Ernest J. Gaines
Ashes to ashes, dust to dust; Imagine that you were to perish tomorrow. Surely, it is difficult because most of us are troubled by the thought. What would you do? Would you bungee jump off a 200ft cliff, skydiving, go to the bahamas, even spend all your money on your dream car, rot away in a jail cell? Well, this was a life of Jefferson, HOG, a prisoner in search of peace, pride, and justice.
In the novel A lesson before dying, by Ernest J Gaines, Jefferson, a man is convicted of murder of 3 victims. For his crimes, He is sentenced to death on April 8th. While awaiting his fate, Jefferson chooses to learn how to become a man before his death date with the help of Grant Wiggins.
Grant Wiggins is a self centered person, who is the only educated one to go to college in his neighborhood. Although, he wants to teach at his neighborhood school. Even though he hates he stays there only to see his lifetime crush Viviana who is married with 2 kids. She resents her husband, yet remains married in fear that he will take her kids from her if she decides to divorce. Viviana desperately wants to be with Grant, so secretly they meet at The Rainbow Club most nights. It is interesting to note that, Grant Wiggins changes throughout the story along with Jefferson. Evolving from a man scorn with anger and bitterness to one of strength and courage to of face challenges in his own life and community. As a favor to his love Viviana, Grant’s becomes teacher destined to help Jefferson become a man before executed.
The literacy devices that were used in the story are the following: Foreshadowing (page 3) I was not there yet I was there. No, I did not go to trial, I did not hear the ever dict.., Symbolism (page 140) The radio symbolic to the humanity or the outside world., Characterization (page 78-79) Maybe I’ll go half way, maybe I’ll dump it in the river Mr. Wiggins says selfish and disrespectful, Lastly, Figurative language (page 186) I caught grinning like a fool… I felt like someone just found religion.
To elaborate, I did enjoy this piece because of the imagery which makes the story appear before your eyes seeming less like a book but, as if I were there. I would recommend this book for people who wish to seek a deeper meaning of life. This book should be a high school reading level because of its details and symbolism in the book. It might be banned in some areas because of the violence and language.
Jefferson Character in "A Lesson Before Dying"
The book I am going to be talking about is called A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest J. Gaines. We had to choose a character in this story, I chose Jefferson.
Jefferson is one of the main characters in this story. This book is about Jefferson being accused of a robbery, but he was only in the wrong place at the wrong time. He had to go to execution, but before he did Grant had to become him as a man. Jefferson has many traits, but the ones I am going to talk about being that he is uneducated, open-minded and rude.
This character (Jefferson) was released at the beginning of the novel in the first paragraph. It explains how he got into the hole electric chair situation. He was in a store with some people in an alcohol store. There was a robbery and everybody got shot by some white men. Jefferson was the only one that survived, so they blamed it on him.
The first trait I am going to be talking about is that Jefferson is uneducated. He went to school, but his spelling is horrible, he also didn’t know a lot of complicated words, and he also didn’t go to the school that much time. It wasn’t because he dropped out, it was because that was all the education they got. I know this because of chapter 29. It was his diary. His spelling was very bad, you could barely understand what he was saying. The other example is how he doesn’t know a lot of things. But it’s not his fault because that is all the knowledge they get. The quote that shows this is on page 226 mr wigin you sayrite somethin but i dont kno what to rite an you say i must be thinkin. There is no punctuation, so it never ends. This explains why he is uneducated because he doesn’t know how to spell. This trait doesn’t really affect the story, but it shows how African American people don’t get so much education. That is how much they get. This is because African American people don’t get so much respect. They don’t even get enough education.
The way that Jefferson changes throughout the story are by his attitude. In the beginning, he wouldn’t talk at all. He was only being rude and not talking but at the end, he started opening up. Jefferson was open-minded at the end of the story he started telling Grant his feelings. For example, he let grant read his notebook. He also started to listen and talk to Grant, because before he would only look at the wall. The quote I found was on page 220 I see you have been writing, personal or can I look at it? It ain’t nothin Do you mind? If you want. The bold is Jefferson talking. He let Grant look at his personal journal. But he didn’t do that at the beginning, he wouldn’t even look at Grant at his eyes. This definitely helps Jefferson because Grant can understand what he wants now. Because, he is actually telling him.
The next and last trait that I am going to talk about is that Jefferson was a little rude. Even though it was only at the beginning of the book when Grant and Ms.Emma went to visit him, he would stare at the wall and not do anything not talking or even eating. I also saw it when he was being rude to Ms.Emma when she made all the food for him and he wouldn’t say thank you or EVEN EAT IT. On page 71 How do you feel Jefferson? Ms. Emma said He didn’t answer…As you can see he wouldn’t talk to anyone. This trait hurts him because since he was being so rude and not talking to anyone Grant didn’t really want to help Jefferson. Vivian was the one making Grant go back. This affected the relationship with Grant because since he didn’t want to go back with Grant, but when he started opening up, Grant liked going with Jefferson again.If there was no change with Jefferson then the story would be so boring because he wouldn’t have started to talk and he would have become a man. That would have been bad.
I have learned a lot about how they treat American people. It is so not fair that he didn’t do anything, yet he gets the blame. I don’t think that 1 part of what happened to Jefferson is fair. I can’t even imagine what he went through having to know that he is going to die badly. I don’t know what I would have done if that were me. The thing that gets me so mad is that HE DIDN’T DO ANYTHING. If he did kill it well, I get it because he did do something, but he did nothing. He was just at the wrong place at the wrong time.
Racism as a Message in a "Lesson Before Dying"
As Jefferson finds himself, in the wrong place watching a robbery of a liquor store. He himself is convicted and sentenced to death by an electric chair. A lesson before dying by Ernest J.
Gaines writes with the message about how people are treated based on their race. Jefferson’s defense attorney pleads with the court as he’s being convicted to death by comparing him to a hog who isn’t even worth executing. Grant Wiggins is a character who is an educated black teacher in the same town, who is also treated differently compared to others based on his race. Nearing the end closing onto the time before Jefferson is about to die, he begins to regain his humanity and starts recording his thoughts in a diary. As Jefferson dies in the end, he turns into more of a human than a hog and, In the end, he dies with the dignity of changing himself into the person he wants to be.
Gaines book set in the time before the Civil rights movements has the main idea about the brutal system that is tinted in racism, judgment, and treatment of African Americans. Gaines supports his theme of racism throughout the book with certain sentences such as I had come through that back door against my will, and it seemed that he and the sheriff were doing everything they could to humiliate me even more by making me wait on them (44) as the author is explaining that white people are allowed to humiliate black people without facing them or even speaking to them. As the idea of entering in the back door brings the idea of the segregation of blacks and white being separated in entering through separate doors. The idea of the people who enter through the back door (African American) has to wait till the white people have eaten or been served which shows the idea of control over others lives. Ernest J. Gaines book’s setting takes place in the pre-civil rights movements in Louisiana with signs of segregation between blacks and whites. In Gaines book A lesson before dying, there are 3 main characters that reveal the main points in the book. Grant Wiggins plays the role as the protagonist in the book, the narrator who experiences the most changes throughout the book as he starts looking for what he can change and help his community after he had given up the change in education. The mentor in the book is the character, Jefferson. He starts out as a quite character, but gets thrown into a tough situation nearing the end, he doesn’t let people define who he is as a person, he defines himself as a man, and he helps to teach Grant to do that as well.
With the major idea of racism being the message Gaines is portraying to the reader, a sentence to the reader that helps support the theme of racism would be “”We black men have failed to protect our women since the time of slavery. We stay here in the South and are broken, or we run away and leave them alone to look after the children and themselves (166) this message said by Grant shows an inside to the historical effects of slavery on society and how societal structures and relationships are affected. Carl Senna, the writer of the article Dying like a man, says in his writing …a white sheriff tells a condemned black man to write in his diary that he has been fairly treated. Although the prisoner assents, nothing could be farther from the truth (Senna, Carl. Dying Like a Man. The New York Times, The New York Times, 8 Aug. 1993, archive.nytimes.com/www.nytimes.com/books/97/12/28/bsp/16002.html.) which goes along of stating that the white sheriff wants the black man to lie and write he has been treated well which is the opposite of what has happened. Throughout the Book, the author Gaines has one strong message that stands out more than others, which is about racism. How the treatment of people is based on the color of their skin, and the journey of one character being falsely accused of a crime he did not commit, but at the end of it all, learning to not let others define who he is and even though he ends up dying in the end, he dies with dignity and whom he wants to be as a person.
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.