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A Lesson Before Dying

A Lesson Before Dying is Ernest J. Gaines' eighth novel, published in 1993.

Author and his times

Ernest J. Gaines was born in 1933, during the height of the Great Depression. His father was a sharecropper on the River Lake Plantation in Oscar, Louisiana which meant that Gaines was expected to work in the fields growing up. During this time, he had been a witness and a victim to and of racism. He attended school for the first six years in the plantation church where he went to classes for five to six months out of the year depending on the harvest schedule. After this, Gaines then spent three more years at the St. Augustine School, which was for African Americans only. At the age of fifteen he moved to Vallejo, California to join his mother and stepfather who had left Louisiana during World War I.

In A Lesson Before Dying, there are many similarities between Ernest Gaines’ life and his novel. This book is set at Henry Pichot’s plantation. Gaines grew up Pointe Coupee, Louisiana, where he was reared by his Aunt Augusteen. Many critics believe that this is the reason for many of his books’ settings. One of the main settings in this book is the church where Grant is the teacher; this is similar to Gaines’ life as he grew up attending a segregated school in the local church. As the novel progresses Grant travels into town for various meetings, this can be compared to the time in his life when Gaines moved to California after World War II.

Plot summary

A Lesson Before Dying is set in the fictional city of Bayonne, Louisiana in the late 1940s. It tells the story of two African American men struggling to attain their manhood in a deeply prejudiced society. Jefferson, a young man with little formal education, is an innocent bystander at a deadly shootout between a white store owner and two black robbers. He is later convicted of murder and sentenced to death. During the trial, Jefferson’s defense lawyer calls him a “hog,” claiming he is less than human and therefore should not be killed. Jefferson’s distraught godmother Miss Emma asks Grant Wiggins, the local school teacher, to “make Jefferson a man” before he dies. Over the course of the novel, Grant must find the courage within himself to face many diverse situations: a hateful white society; an indigent black community with high expectations; a pained young man convicted of murder and slated for execution; and his own reluctant feelings to shoulder the many burdens of the black community.

Grant faces many different types of opposition during the novel. Though Miss Emma, Jefferson’s Godmother, has worked for Henry Pichot, the plantation owner, for years, he is reluctant to help Grant make Jefferson a man. At one point, Miss Emma gets down on her knees and begs for help from Mr. Pichot. Grant is often asked to visit Mr. Pichot’s house to meet with him, and then is forced to wait in the kitchen for hours until Mr. Pichot is ready to see him. During his many trips to the jail to visit Jefferson, Grant is scrutinized and ridiculed by the white sheriff. The plantation school is horribly under-funded, yet when the white superintendent of schools, Dr. Joseph Morgan, visits, he only examines the children’s teeth as though they were cattle, and instructs Grant to place "more emphasis on hygiene." (p. 57) When Grant suggests that the children have never seen a toothbrush before, the superintendent replies that they can gather pecan nuts to pay for the brushes: “Get (the kids) off their lazy butts, they can make enough for a dozen toothbrushes in an evening.” (p. 58). He ignores Grant when he tells him that the money from gathering pecans "usually goes to helping the family": that is to say to buy essentials such as food and clothes. Not only does Grant face oppression from white characters in the novel, but also must face the struggles within the black community. Grant grapples with his own ability to even make an impact on his students. Grant's former teacher, Matthew Antoine, had told him that teaching was useless. He constantly grapples with his internal motivation for staying at the quarter and not leaving for an easier life. Though Grant is educated, he is, unlike the majority of the other characters in the book, not Christian. As such Grant constantly wrestles with the local black minister, Reverend Ambrose, who wants to save Jefferson’s soul before he dies. Both men are looked up to in their community, but both have sharply contrasting views about what is best for people.

Characters in A Lesson Before Dying

  • Grant Wiggins - The plantation school teacher.
  • Jefferson - Young man falsely accused of murder and robbery.
  • Miss Emma - Jefferson's Godmother.
  • Tante Lou - Grant's aunt.
  • Reverend Ambrose - Reverend of the local church.
  • Vivian Baptiste - Grant's girlfriend.
  • Matthew Antoine - Grant's former Creole school teacher.
  • Henri Pichot - The local, white sugar cane plantation owner.
  • Dr. Joseph Morgan- The white superintendent of schools.
  • Irene Cole - Grant's student teacher.
  • Sam Guidry - The sheriff who provides his prisoners some freedom and sympathizes with the African American struggle, but does not truly sympathize with it like Paul does.
  • Paul - Young deputy who sympathizes with Grant, Jefferson, and the struggle of African Americans in the south.
  • Brother and Bear - the robbers who were good friends of Jefferson and were killed in their robbery.
  • Alcee Gropé - the shopkeeper who was robbed by Brother and Bear, and was killed in the resulting shootout after killing both of them.

Grant

Grant Wiggins is the protagonist of this novel. Of all his friends, he is the only one who had the ability to leave the Louisiana plantation to go to college. After this he returned home and took a job as the local school teacher. Grant says he believes in God, but is decidedly un-religious and critical of the community's reliance upon religion, much to Miss Emma and Tante Lou's dismay. Grant makes several comments about his disbelief.

"I believe in God. Every day of my life I believe in God" (214).
"I don't know anything about the soul, Reverend Ambrose."
"He stared at me as though I was one of the worst of sinners. Maybe I was. Backsliders were usually worse than those who had never been converted. At least that is what people like him tried to make you believe."
Even though Grant was highly educated, he never gained the respect of the local white community. The treatment of the black society infuriated him, but still he did not pursue the matter. This anger eventually caused him to separate himself from those he loved. He thought that it was a hopeless cause to attempt to change the persecution of the blacks. This cowardice began to gradually fade away once Grant began teaching Jefferson. In turn, Grant learned the lesson that he was to teach Jefferson. With the help of Vivian, Tante Lou, Miss Emma, and Jefferson, Grant was able to break free from his selfish enclosed shell into a brave new world. Grant’s character development proves that individual and communal enhancement is feasible, but there is no sudden fix for the prejudices in society. He cries in the end due to this realization.

Jefferson

Jefferson is a very abstract character. As he is described from Grant’s perspective, and talks very little, much of his mindset must be assumed from his behavior and reactions to certain scenarios. As the novel progresses, the core of man’s being seems to be expressed through Jefferson’s emotional displays. Jefferson is degraded by society, isolated, treated as though he were less than human, deprived of an education, and then sentenced to death for a crime he did not commit. At first, Jefferson reacts to the settings he is placed in accordingly. His crude behavior mirrors the inhumane way he has been treated. Yet, his ability to love at the end of the story, even considering the pain and hurt he has endured is unbelievable. This drastic transformation speaks to the ability of man to change one another through love.

"He turned toward her. His body didn’t turn, just his head turned a little. His eyes did most of the turning. He looked at her as though he did not know who she was, or what she was doing there. Then he looked at me. You know what I’m talking about, don’t you? his eyes said. They were big brown eyes, the whites too reddish. You know, don’t you? his eyes said again. I looked back at him. My eyes would not dare answer him. But his eyes knew that my eyes knew." (p. 73)

"His eyes mocked me. They were big brown eyes, and the whites were too reddish, and he had been thinking too much the past few weeks, and the eyes mocked me." (p. 74)

The previous two passages are excerpts from the first meeting between Jefferson and Grant. Gaines’ paradox of the references to Jefferson’s eyes show much about Jefferson’s mindset and Grant’s reaction to Jefferson. Jefferson has just received the worst news possible. Not only does Jefferson know he is going to die, he now has months to dwell on it. The effect Jefferson’s eyes have on Grant show much about human kind in general. Both men know that Jefferson is going to be executed for a crime he did not commit solely because he is black. Both men know the many injustices done by the hands of all humans everywhere. Yet, neither man will act out against this blind oppression. They know it would be futile to do so. At this point in the novel, both men believe that there is nothing they can do to have some control over this situation. Little do they know that their future behavior will achieve more than any conceivable action.

"He had not washed his face or combed his hair for days. He wore one of my old khaki shirts and a wrinkled pair of brown pants. He didn’t have on shoes. They were stuck under the bunk." (p. 82)

"He knelt down on the floor and put his head inside the bag and started eating, without using his hands. He even sounded like a hog." (p. 83)

This passage shows the effect of isolation and seclusion on a person. After being separated from society, Jefferson loses all self-esteem and care for his own hygiene. He cannot find any reason to live decently knowing that soon he will be executed. Jefferson’s quarters have a deep effect on his mentality. The jail cells would not be considered humane by any of society’s standards. The dark, secluded jail cell causes Jefferson to begin to behave as though he weren’t a man. Jefferson eats as though he were a hog, just as the lawyer described him. The ability of one’s abode to have an effect on one’s lifestyle and behavior is made clear by these passages.

Reverend Ambrose

"The minister was a small man and seemed timid, but he did possess a strong, demanding voice when he prayed. He asked God to visit the jail cells all over the land and especially in Bayonne and to go with the guilty and the innocent. He asked God to go with all those who did not know Him in the pardon of their sins and thought they did not need Him. No matter how educated a man was (he meant me, though he didn’t call my name), he, too, was locked in a cold, dark cell of ignorance if he did not know God in the pardon of his sins." (p. 146)

Reverend Ambrose is the local black minister at the plantation parish. Grant and the Reverend constantly argue about what is best for Jefferson-giving him comfort or saving his soul. The Reverend acts as a foil for Grant’s character. Both are looked up to in the local community. Grant was educated at a university, the Reverend at a bible school. Grant believes in God, but does not believe in heaven or going to church. The Reverend constantly prays for Grant’s conversion, and repentance. Both men are asked to help make Jefferson a man. The following monologue by the Reverend is the culmination of the tension between the two characters in the novel. It comes as they discuss whether Grant should lie about his belief in heaven for Jefferson’s sake.

"Yes, you know. You know, all right. That’s why you look down on me, because you know I lie. At wakes, at funerals, at weddings-yes, I lie. I lie at wakes and funerals to relieve pain. ‘Cause reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic is not enough. You think that’s all they sent you to school for? They set you to school to relieve pain, to relieve hurt-and if you have to lie to do it, then you lie. You lie and you lie and you lie. When you tell yourself you feeling good when you sick, you lying. When you tell other people you feeling well when you feeling sick, you lying. You tell them that ‘cause they have pain and you don’t want to add yours-and you lie. She been lying every day of her life, your aunt in there. That’s how you got through the university- cheating herself here, cheating herself there, but always telling you she’s all right. I’ve seen her hands bleed from picking cotton. I’ve seen the blisters from the hoe and the cane knife. At that church, crying on her knees. You ever looked at the scabs on her knee, boy? Course you never. ‘Cause she never wanted you to see it. And that’s the difference between me and you, boy; that make me the educated one, and you the gump. I know my people. I know what they gone through. I know they done cheated themselves, lied to themselves-hoping that one they all love and trust can come back and help relieve the pain." (p.218)

Vivian

“She was quite tall, five seven, five eight, and she wore a green wool sweater and a green and brown plaid skirt, and both fit her very well. She had light brown skin and high cheek bones and greenish-brown eyes, and her nostrils and lips showed some thickness, but not so much. Her hair was long and black, and she kept it twisted into a bun and pinned at the back of her head. Vivian Baptiste was a beautiful woman, and she knew it; but she didn’t flaunt it, it was just there.” (p. 27-28)

Vivian, a school teacher in town, is the only character in the novel that Grant describes in such length and detail. He is obviously enamored with her, and she seems to be of him. She has been seeking a divorce with her husband for quite some time. Grant and Vivian have been having sexual relations for quite some time. Vivian seems to be the sole person that can give Grant satisfaction and happiness in life, the time he spends with her is almost the only time he is not upset or angry. Vivian also helps bring Grant back into reality, whenever he talks of leaving the quarter for a better life, she reminds him of his commitment to the local community. As Vivian lives in town, she is more sophisticated and educated than any of the blacks at the plantation. It may be because of this reason that Grant can find solace only in her presence.

Tante Lou

Tante Lou is very quiet and restrained. Although she has a fairly subdued nature, Tante Lou is a very powerful woman whose dreams for Jefferson came true. Her spiritual nature was very influential in her decisions and values in life. She greatly disapproved of her nephew Grant's atheist beliefs and continually tried to convert him to her faith. Despite her race and level in the community, Tante Lou demanded the respect that she deserved as a human being. She has a very cynical sarcastic nature, which sometimes got her into trouble. One instance at Henry Pichot’s house, Tante Lou told Grant,

“But if you need me to hold your hand, I’d be glad to go.”
At this point she decided that Grant was young and ready to make a difference. Sarcastically, Tante Lou offered her help to Grant, knowing that he would be the one to facilitate her goals for Jefferson’s life. This instance was the beginning of Grants transformation. In many ways this all came with the help of Tante Lou. He could have never achieved this alteration on his own. Without the strong stubborn nature of Tante Lou the view of blacks in society would have never been altered for the better.

Miss Emma

"Miss Emma was in her early to mid-seventies; my aunt was in her seventies, and I figured they were pretty much the same age. Miss Emma's hair was gray and combed up and pinned on top... Her name was Emma Glenn, but no one except her closest friends and the white people on the river ever called her anything but Miss Emma."

“She is of average height, five four, five five, but weighs nearly two hundred pounds…She never got up once to get water or to go to the bathroom down in the basement. She just sat there staring at the boy’s clean-cropped head where he sat at the front table with his lawyer.”

Miss Emma is a woman of faith, devoted to ensuring that her godson Jefferson died ‘like a man.’ She is a very well-spoken woman who articulated her feelings generously. Although saddened by the trial of her godson, Miss Emma remained confident and strong throughout the entire ordeal

Point of view

A Lesson Before Dying is narrated from Grant’s point of view. Because of this, the reader is given a unique outlook on the situation. Grant is the only educated black man living in a plantation set deep in the oppressive South. As the only black in the local community who has ever been free of oppression, because of this he yearns to leave the disparaging situation he is in. Grant feels that he is trapped by a myriad of forces, his aunt’s incessant wants, the children’s need for a teacher, and the community’s need for leadership. Grant cannot bring himself to carry these burdens for multiple reasons: want for his own personal freedom and happiness, lack of hope in the idea of progress, and fear of failing the black community. These feelings have been nurtured by years of white oppression, and blacks who have suffered that oppression only to pass it onto the next generation. As such, Grant has become very pessimistic towards the idea of helping others, yet wants his own needs fulfilled. Grant’s reaction to life’s events is reflective of this point of view and noticeable by the reader. Grant cannot see himself capable of meeting the needs of everyone in his local community. Because of this, Grant becomes cynical of others and cannot find motivation to help Jefferson. Grant’s relationship with Jefferson is the best indicator of his thought process. His observations also Jefferson’s life mirrors his own life and the black community. Jefferson, not yet a man, is waiting on death row to be given the date of his execution. His only contact with the outside world is through a small window high on his cell wall. The only interaction he receives with others is when Grant or Jefferson’s godmother comes to visit him. Grant too feels isolated, and oppressed. Neither Grant’s nor Jefferson’s needs are met yet both characters are asked to sacrifice for the greater community. He knows that the black community does not deserve the poverty they suffer just as he knows that Jefferson is innocent of murder. As the novel progresses, the reader observes Grant’s mindset open as he realizes the entirety of Jefferson’s sacrifice for the entire community, and the ability of one man to make a difference.

Setting

Plantation
"All there was to see were old gray weather-beaten houses, with smoke rising out of the chimneys and drifting across the corrugated tin roofs overlooking the yard toward the field, where some of the cane had been cut. The can had not been hauled to the derrick yet, and it was lying across the rows. A little farther over, where another patch of cane was standing, tall and blue-green, you could see the leaves swaying softly from a breeze.”
“Left of the weighing scales and the derrick was the plantation cemetery, where my ancestors had been buried for the past century. The cemetery had lots of trees in it, pecans and oaks, and it was weedy too.”

About half of this novel is set in Henry Pichot’s Plantation in Louisiana. This provides a country atmosphere in which the story to takes place. As described in the above quotes, this area is a farm community. Many of the important character traits come from this setting. The calm, slow paced nature of the plantation provides an escape for Miss Emma, Tante Lou, and Grant. Unlike the town and courthouse, the plantation provides a peaceful ambiance. The people living in this area seem more pleasant and helpful than those in town. This leads to a common perception of selfishness among the white community in this novel. The most important part of this location is the homes of Miss Emma, Tante Lou, and Grant. Home is a place where trust is found. Grant eventually learns to trust those around him with the help of his loving family.

School

“My classroom was the church. My desk was a table, used as a collection table by the church on Sundays, and also used for the service of the Holy Sacrament. My students’ desks were the benches upon which their parents and grandparents sat during church meeting. Ventilation into the church was by way of the four windows on either side, and from the front and back doors. There was a blackboard on the back wall. Behind my desk was the pulpit and the altar. This was my school.”

Ironically, Grant an agnostic, spends most of his time in the church on the Henry Pichot Plantation. The school that he teaches in is the same place in which the town gathers on Sunday morning for praise and worship. Grant is continually challenged with the fact that he is an outsider in his place of work; he does not attend church with the rest of his settlement. Throughout the entire novel, this school is seen as a place of discrimination. Segregated schools provide another example of racial persecution.

Bayonne

"Bayonne was a small town of about six thousand. Approximately three thousand five hundred whites; approximately two thousand five hundred colored. It was the parish seat for St. Raphael. The courthouse was there; so was the jail. There was a Catholic church uptown for whites; a Catholic church back of town for colored. There was a white movie theater uptown; a colored movie theater back of town. There were two elementary schools uptown, one catholic, one public, for whites; and the same back of town for colored. Bayonne’s major industries were a cement plant, a sawmill, and a slaughterhouse, mostly for hogs. There was only one main street in Bayonne, and it ran along the St. Charles river."

Bayonne, the closest conglomerate of people to the plantation, is a symbol of sophisticated society in the eyes of the blacks living in the quarter. Yet, this piece of civilization is also heavily segregated and the social classes are split according to color. There are even separate Catholic churches based on the pigment of one’s skin, as if God is endorsing the racial prejudice. Grant finds relief in town at the bar, his escape from the anguish and poverty at the plantation. In town, he is able to find a hint of education and more important, alcohol to ease his own tension and clear his mind.

Jailhouse

"We followed him down a long, dark corridor, passing offices with open doors, and bathrooms for white ladies and white men. At the end of the corridor we had to go up a set of stairs. The stairs were made of steel. There were six steps, then a landing, a sharp turn, and another six steps. Then we went through a heavy steel door to the area where the prisoners were quartered. The white prisoners were also on this floor, but in a separate section. I counted eight cells for black prisoners, with two bunks to each cell. Half of the cells were empty, the others had one or two prisoners. They reached their hands out between the bars and asked for cigarettes or money. Miss Emma stopped to talk to them. She told them she didn’t have any money, but she had brought some food for Jefferson, and if there was anything left she would give it to them. They asked me for money, and I gave them the change I had."

The jail cell where Jefferson is kept is separated from the rest of society. Not only are all of the prisoners distanced from everyone in the jailhouse by numerous flights of stairs and a long hallway, but the black prisoners are separated from the white prisoners. Jefferson is further isolated from the other blacks. The diction Gaines uses to describe the prison greatly affects the mood of the passage. He uses harsh, cacophonic words like “sharp,” “heavy,” “dark,” and “steel.” When Miss Emma and Grant finally reach the prisoners their one desire is cigarettes to mollify their anguish and anxiety, or money, presumably to buy cigarettes.

Jail Cell

"The cell was roughly six by ten, with a metal bunk covered by a thin mattress and a wooden army blanket; a toilet without seat or toilet paper; a washbowl, brownish from residue and grime; a small metal shelf upon which was a pan, a tin cup, and a tablespoon. A single bulb hung over the center of the cell, and at the end opposite the door was a barred window, which looked out onto a sycamore tree behind the courthouse. I could see the sunlight on the upper leaves. But the window was too high to catch sight of any other buildings or the ground."

Jefferson is kept in a room barely long enough to sleep in and impossible to fit more than two people without discomfort. Not only was Jefferson dehumanized by his own lawyer when he calls Jefferson a “hog”, but he is further shunned by society with his bleak and isolated living quarters. Jefferson’s single connection with the outside world is a window that is too high to even catch sunlight. One can just barely make out the sunlit leaves high on the sycamore tree. This may be symbolic of the hopelessness of Jefferson's situation.

Tone

In A Lesson Before Dying, Ernest Gaines creates a gloomy, melancholious, depressing mood, but later finishes the book with a sense of peace and tranquility. Setting plays a key role in defining this depressing mood. Each time Jefferson, Grant, or other family members head to the town, courthouse, or prison they are bombarded with this sense of hatred. One example is when Jefferson is called a hog by the attorney while on trial.
“But let us say he was not. Let us for a moment say he was not. Why justice would there be to take this life? Justice, gentlemen? Why, I would just as soon put a hog in the electric chair as this.”
This racial remark from the court spreads an attitude to the entire beginning of this novel. Not only does this remark affect Jefferson, but it plagues the readers’ concepts of all blacks in general. Creating a tone of inadequacy and helplessness of the African Americans in this novel was Ernest Gaines way of bringing in his childhood of persecution Coloring is also used to add to this same tone.
“My Gray ’46 Ford was parked in front of the house. Tante Lou, in her black overcoat and black rimless hat, and Miss Emma, in her brown coat with the rabbit fur around the collar and sleeves and her floppy brown felt hat, followed me out to the car and stood back until I had opened the door for them."
This is just one example of how Gaines repeatedly used dark colors such as gray, brown, and black to establish a cheerless mood in this novel.

Ernest Gaines uses the character of Jefferson to switch the mood from sad to glad. As the novel progresses, Jefferson slowly learns the importance of his life. This is to be the one black to show everyone that he is just as much a man as anyone else in the entire world. There are many different instances in which Jefferson is able to lighten the mood.

“I raised my head, and I saw him standing there under the window, big and tall, and not stooped as he had been in chains. ‘I’m go’n do my best, Mr. Wiggins. That’s all I can promise. My best.’ ‘You’re more a man than I am, Jefferson.”
This is the first point in the novel in which Grant realizes Jefferson is ready to die like a man. He has lived up to his aunt’s desire to turn Jefferson into a man. Just like this instance, he continues throughout the rest of the novel to brighten the tone and make a lasting impression on the completion of this novel. Due to this, this novel is not considered a tragedy. blow job

Title

The title of this novel is imperative in understanding one of the major themes. The entire book focuses on Grant’s attempts to teach Jefferson a lesson. In order for Grant to be able to show Jefferson how to ‘become a man,’ he must himself understand the meaning. Symbolically, the butterfly towards the end of the novel is proof that both of these men have succeeded in their goals.

“I probably would not have noticed it at all had a butterfly, a yellow butterfly with dark spots like ink dots on its wings, not lit there. What had brought it there? …I watched it fly over the ditch and down into the quarter, I watched it until I could not see it anymore. Yes, I told myself. It is finally over.”
At this point Grant realizes that Jefferson really did learn a ‘lesson before dying.’ When he says “It is finally over,” he is not only referring to Jefferson’s life, but also that his cowardly nature is “finally over.” He has once and for all taken a stand for what he believes in. This insures that he too, has benefited from this entire experience. Jefferson’s life was sacrificed in order for the white people in the community to gain a better understanding of the valuable nature of the black members of society.

Awards and nominations

Film, TV or theatrical adaptations

On May 22, 1999 HBO premiered A Lesson Before Dying, which subsequently received two Emmy Awards for Outstanding Made-For-Television Movie and Outstanding Writing for a Mini-Series or Movie (South African writer Ann Peacock).

A play by Romulus Linney (playwright) and a Southern Writers' Project, based on the novel and having the same title, had its World Premiere at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival in January 2000 and Off-Broadway in September 2000.

References

External links

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