Ernest J. Gaines’ Representation of the Inevitability of Change As Illustrated In His Book, A Lesson before Dying
Change is a part of life, everyone has to undergo it. From infant, to child, to teen, to adult and from these stages we become more mature as time goes on. Some never do learn important lessons, and most never get the chance as in order to mature, one needs to experience an ordeal. In the novel, A Lesson Before Dying, the most important thing one could learn is that you can never stop changing and growing as a person. The most important lesson one could learn before dying is that as humans we have the capacity to change, to learn, to grow, and to view things differently.
Jefferson’s character arguably embodied the most “change” anyone underwent in the novel, staying true to the important lesson we all must lean before we die. Jefferson’s sentence is warranted because he is not seen as a human being. The ideal of “[Jefferson]’s a hog” is used to dehumanize him, making it easier to believe he isn’t worth the execution but simultaneously making it easier to accept his death. The sheriff even adopts this when he says to Grant: “rather see a contented hog go to that chair than an aggravated hog.” (41, Gaines). The sheriff thinks that “there ain’t a thing you can put in that skull that ain’t there already.”(41, Gaines). This white-dominated society that sentences Jefferson to die feels that individuals like him aren’t capable of higher thought, and aren’t capable of change. Though, Jefferson changes because of Grant’s help and instruction. What Grant teaches him is what helps give him a larger awareness of the world and his place in it. Before Grant’s “teachings”, Jefferson believed his identity was static and he could not change from the expectations placed on him as a black man in that society. This can be seen in his criminal life as Jefferson was not actively assaulting/robbing the store. He did not plan the crime, and by going along with it, it showed he believed he was incapable of change and that he was a criminal through and through. ‘The human ability to grow and “be a man” is something that Grant goes over in his lessons: “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.”’ (158, Gaines). Jefferson learns that he can change and he learns of his own humanity. Jefferson shows this when he writes that “Man walk on two foots; hogs on four hoofs.” (180, Gaines). It is what he reads that enable Grant to understand Jefferson’s emotions and ideas at the time: “tell them im strong tell them im a man good by mr wigin.” (190, Gaines). By requesting Paul to pass along this message, Jefferson has embodied the change of “becoming a man”, which is confirmed when Paul says that “Jefferson was the strongest man in that crowded room.” Moreover, Jefferson’s final words to Grant heavily emphasized the importance that the community of their town knew he died as a man. He knows that the students, the rest of the black community, and his family need to realize he faced his death as more than just what the white man named him.
Grant is another example of a character who recognized the importance of this lesson. He learns through Jefferson that humans have the ability to change their ways and thus the way we perceive them. After giving a speech to Jefferson on what a hero is and how HE (Jefferson) could be one, Grant says: “He looked at me in great pain. He may not have understood, but something was touched, something deep down in him—because he was still crying. I cry, not from reaching any conclusion by reasoning, but because, lowly as I am, I am still part of the whole. Is that what he was thinking as he looked at me crying?” (158, Gaines), showing that Jefferson recognized he could be more than just a hog, and that before death, he could change to be better than the white men that condemned him. Grant, a cynical, pessimistic man had gone from referring to Jefferson as a lost cause, to believing in him with all his heart: “My faith is in you, Jefferson.” (199, Gaines). Now that he has seen the change he can make in one person, he is able to see that it could be possible, after all, to make a difference for the school children he is teaching. Against his own self-doubt or disbelief, just as he managed to help Jefferson, he might be able to help some of those students. Grant shed some of his cynicism, gaining a stronger connection to his community, to the family he once resented, all because of Jefferson and his example. Grant himself had also undergone his own change, unbeknownst to him and he learned an important lesson as well. The lesson that they both learn is the capacity of human growth.
Paul, the deputy sheriff, didn’t undergo any big metamorphosis/changes over the course of the novel, but, he was an active participant in the change and growth of Jefferson. He believed in Jefferson’s ability to “become a man” and supported Grant’s endeavors all the way. He offered to bring a radio in to distract Jefferson from his fate, as well as talk to Grant about his status: “Paul wanted to know how everything had gone between Jefferson and me, and I told him it was better than ever. He looked at me as if he felt I was making this all up, but I could see in his face that he wanted to believe it” (141, Gaines). He was genuinely interested in the development of Jefferson as he was concerned for him; Paul was the only white character to truly acknowledge the wrongness of the situation and try to help in any way he could. He was the messenger for the martyr that was Jefferson, sending his message on to Grant by saying “He was the strongest man in that crowded room, Grant Wiggins,” Paul said, staring at me and speaking louder than was necessary. “He was, he was. I’m not saying this to make you feel good, I’m not saying this to ease your pain. Ask that preacher, ask Harry Williams. He was the strongest man there. We all stood jammed together, no more than six, eight feet away from that chair. We all had each other to lean on. When Vincent asked him if he had any last words, he looked at the preacher and said, ‘Tell Nannan I walked.’ And straight he walked, Grant Wiggins. Straight he walked. I’m a witness. Straight he walked.” (202, Gaines). Jefferson, in his last moments, died a man and Paul was the evidence that was true; he (Paul), a white man-same as the men who put Jefferson in this situation-was one of the last people to witness the dying wish of a man who learned to walk on his own two feet once more.
Everyone undergoes change, it is a fact of life; it occurs at anytime and can be jarring or it could be expected and welcomed. Jefferson, Grant Wiggins, and Paul Bonin have all witnessed or experienced the most important thing one could learn in their lifetime. They have all had a part in that growth they had each undergone in the short time they had together. While Jefferson and Grant had affected each other more, it is undeniable Paul had been affected greatly as well. In conclusion, the greatest lesson anyone could learn before dying is the human capacity for growth.
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