Critical Analysis of Ernest J. Gaines’s A Lesson Before Dying

The year 1993 was an exceptionally good one for Ernest Gaines. Turning sixty, he married for the first time, won the MacArthur award, and published A Lesson Before Dying. Gaines had invested seven years in the writing of this novel, a book which echoes with familiar themes and characters. Set in Bayonne in 1948, A Lesson Before Dying centers around the education of two men: Grant Wiggins, a college-trained teacher in his early thirties; and Jefferson, a twenty-one-year-old field-worker condemned to death for a crime he did not commit. During his trial, Jefferson’s defense attorney will argue that electrocuting his client would be like executing a hog; thus stripping his client of his very humanity and rudimentary self-esteem. Recruited by his Aunt Lou and Jefferson’s godmother, Miss Emma, to teach Jefferson how to die like a man, Grant will, in the process, learn much about how to live. The lessons both men absorb concern the meaning of manhood.

Gaines had originally set his novel in 1988. However, unable to receive an answer from the warden of Angola Prison regarding whether a teacher could visit a death-row prisoner, he turned back in time to write a different novel, set in a period when racism was open and casual. Supplementing his own experience and knowledge by talking with sheriffs and death-row lawyers, Gaines blended factual details, such as Louisiana’s portable electric chair and the day and time of all state executions, with a created but representative experience regarding responsibility, justice, and human dignity.

STRUCTURE AND POINT OF VIEW

The novel’s action opens in late October, during the sugarcane harvest, and concludes soon after Easter in April, with the beginning of planting season. This six-month period comprises the academic year for Grant, when he teaches the children from the Pichot Plantation in his one-room school along with Jefferson. Six months also suggest the half measures of institutionalized education and justice accorded African Americans. While all of the physical supports of equal treatment, such as books and defense lawyers, seem to be in place, they are merely a sham. We see this immediately in Grant’s account of Jefferson’s trial. Though Grant has not been present, knowing in advance what the outcome will be, he feels as if he had been there precisely because the proceedings are so predictable. Furnished with the apparatus of American ‘‘justice,’’ Jefferson’s trial looks like any other, with his court-appointed defense attorney, prosecutor, jury, and judge—all white and all male. And the conduct of the trial contains some revealing practices, especially on the part of Jefferson’s lawyer. First of all, he doesn’t ask Jefferson to tell his story, thus denying him voice. Instead, his lawyer tells Jefferson’s story and in the process characterizes his client as ‘‘it,’’ ‘‘this,’’ ‘‘thing,’’ and ‘‘fool’’ (7). He continues his appeal to the jury’s prejudices by referring to the shape of Jefferson’s head as well as other physical and racial characteristics that seem to separate Jefferson from them. In fact, his oblique reference to the nineteenth-century ‘‘science’’ of phrenology, which ‘‘measured’’ character and intellectual capacity by the shape of the skull, emphasizes that there has been no change of mind regarding the legal and intellectual status of blacks since the nineteenth-century, when blacks were legally defined as property, not as human beings (Babb, ‘‘Old Fashioned Modernism,’’ 253). His ultimate argument, however, that justice would not be served by killing Jefferson since executing him would be like executing ‘‘a hog’’ not only denies the essential humanity of his client, it equates Jefferson with a domestic animal that generally thrives on scraps, lives in squalor, and is associated with utter uncleanliness. The courtroom scene, then, dramatizes and contains the ugly truth of how denial of legal rights and intellectual training have worked to imprison African Americans from their earliest days in this country.

The six months of Jefferson’s imprisonment parallel the academic year for Grant’s students, a ‘‘year’’ fully three months shorter than that of white students. Gaines plays on the legal justification of ‘‘separate but equal,’’ exposing its inequities in one of the novel’s strongest scenes, when the school superintendent arrives for his annual visit. Grant will point out that Dr. Joseph Morgan visits the black schools only once each year while visiting the white schools twice. Throughout the visit, Grant will address the superintendent as ‘‘Dr. Joseph,’’ his address suggestive of both familiarity and deference as he places the title with Morgan’s first name. In contrast, Dr. Morgan’s lack of interest in Grant or his mission is indicated by his repeated and mistaken address of Grant as ‘‘Higgins’’ instead of ‘‘Wiggins,’’ even after Grant introduces himself. More significant, though, is what Morgan chooses to inspect: hands, teeth, bible verses, and pledge of allegiance. These are telling indicators of what those in authority consider valuable as the children’s education. Recognizing Morgan’s inspection of the children’s teeth as being similar to that of a slave buyer, Grant ironically notes that ‘‘At least Dr. Joseph had graduated to the level where he let the children spread their own lips’’ (56). Declaring Grant’s students a ‘‘good crop,’’ and leaving them with a lecture on nutrition and the virtue of hard work, Morgan shows little interest in their intellectual achievements, and he dismisses Grant’s indirect plea for more school supplies and textbooks without missing pages. His final words urging more flag drill ring with irony since the final phrase of the pledge promises ‘‘liberty and justice for all.’’ Morgan’s visit reaffirms Grant’s belief that no matter what he teaches, his students will continue to be field-workers, and it sharpens Grant’s growing awareness of the connection between his students and Jefferson.

A Lesson Before Dying breaks into three distinctive parts told from differing perspectives. Chapters 1–28 and the concluding chapter 31, are told from Grant Wiggin’s point of view. Chapter 29 is Jefferson’s prison diary during the last weeks of his life. And chapter 30 is told from several narrative perspectives by members of the community as they feel the impact of Jefferson’s execution. These strategic shifts work to create a more comprehensive view than a single narrative angle, they detail Grant’s frustration as he struggles with emotional demands he would rather avoid, and they avoid stereotypical community responses on execution day. Most important, perhaps, is the role Jefferson’s diary plays. Throughout most of the novel Jefferson is silent, his lack of voice indicative of both his rage and inability to be heard. Convinced that no one will accord him human dignity, Jefferson avoids language because ‘‘hogs don’t talk.’’ Encouraged by Grant to write down anything that comes to him, Jefferson begins to reclaim his voice and stature.

President Obama presents the 2012 National Medals of Arts to Ernest J. Gaines in a ceremony in the East Room of the White House.

Grant’s narrative perspective is significant for a number of reasons. As a member of a small, intimate community, he has direct knowledge of gesture and nuance—the unspoken rules of behavior and expectation. Thus, he can literally feel his Aunt Lou’s eyes on various parts of his body and correctly interpret their meaning as well as give readers the actual meaning of such apparently simple words as ‘‘here.’’ Having grown up on the Pichot Plantation, Grant is aware of community history and the unspoken rules of caste and class. He can correctly and eloquently interpret the many silences so important to understanding, telling readers, for example, how Pichot’s gardener, Farell Jarreau, must gather information ‘‘by stealth or through an innate sense of things around him’’ (41). At the same time, Grant is also one of the few collegeeducated characters in the novel, and this makes him an anomaly not only because his grammar marks him as different from most characters— white or black—but because his experience has been broadened outside this confining system. Thus, Grant feels like an outsider, existing on the margins of his society, even while he is an insider. His feeling of estrangement and his reluctance to be involved add to his reliability as a narrator because readers understand that he acts and reports more out of honest duty than from personal interest.

Grant’s position is similar to that of Jim Kelly in Of Love and Dust. Both men become reluctant instructors for difficult characters, and, like Jim, Grant will change. Grant’s uniquely marginal status is important because it allows him to see quite clearly what goes on and to relate it in standard English. At the same time, Grant must have intimate knowledge so he can correctly interpret the meaningful silences and atmospheric nuances that comprise an essential part of human communication, especially among the oppressed. Thus, acting as a sort of translator, Grant becomes a conduit effecting communal change. His emotional distance is both an essential component of his character and his narrative reliability. Feeling superior to Jefferson, Grant believes that he has nothing to gain through their relationship. But he will, like Jim Kelly, reverse his initial opinion of his doomed student, coming to admire him. This transformation will carry in its wake Grant’s changing attitudes toward the children he teaches, his religious belief, and his need for emotional commitment. At the novel’s end, Grant, the most detached and eloquent character, will be unable to express the depth of his feelings in words.

By contrast, Jefferson’s diary, coming from the opposite direction, reveals a character whose humanity grows through the process of writing. Gaines’s decision to give Jefferson a written method of expression does more than allow him his silence throughout the novel, a silence that tells readers the depth of his lawyer’s insult and the degree of Jefferson’s rage. His diary, with its lack of capitalization and punctuation and its phonetic spelling, begins with the statement that he has nothing to say, thus suggesting Jefferson’s lack of voice and purpose. With Grant’s encouragement, however, subsequent passages quickly summarize his representative history, including Boo’s rebellious example and Jefferson’s admiration of him. Thus, readers are given a glimpse of spirit they couldn’t otherwise detect.

Like many students, Jefferson asks for a grade on his assignment, wanting Grant to place a value on his written expression of his emerging Self (Babb, ‘‘Old Fashioned Modernism,’’ 252). This accounts for Jefferson’s expression of disappointment when Grant, wanting him to plunge deeper into his consciousness, gives him a ‘‘B’’ instead of an ‘‘A.’’ Once Jefferson begins to write about the difficult subject of love, Grant raises his grade to an encouraging ‘‘B.’’ At this point, the diary conveys more strength and insight revealed by Jefferson’s claim that he knows the true characters of those around him, even though he has never said so. Jefferson’s spelling of ‘‘human’’ as ‘‘youman’’ emphasizes his kinship to all members of the community, including his jailers. And his value and relationship to the community are later underscored by their visits. As this chapter progresses, readers can trace Jefferson’s growing concern for others’ feelings when he writes that he has let Emma hold him for as long as she needs to, when he apologizes to Grant for having insulted Vivian, and most of all when he patiently waits for Bok, a mentally retarded character, to find an appropriate marble as a farewell gift. As Jefferson reclaims his humanity through language, his diary gains eloquence so that the last few lines command the power of poetry.

Chapter 30, written mainly from the third-person omniscient point of view, recounts execution day through the varying impressions and actions of the Bayonne community. From Sidney deRogers’s inattentiveness when the truck transporting the electric chair rumbles into town to the callous comments of a white sales clerk, readers are asked to witness a cross section of responses. By this means, Gaines maintains control over an emotionally charged situation. The fiction sustains its integrity without its author having to resort to such artificial and didactic methods as farewell speeches or melodramatic action. The very ordinariness of this chapter is the thematic point, which is further emphasized by its significant organization. Essentially, chapter 30 is a community catalog organized around the arrival and installation of the state’s portable electric chair. After introducing the truck’s image, successive sections will flash back to the night before, with the sleeplessness of those characters most affected by Jefferson’s death: Aunt Lou, Miss Emma, Vivian, Grant, and Reverend Ambrose. Then the chapter takes readers through the morning preparations: from Sheriff Guidry’s avoiding eye contact with his wife at breakfast, to the truck’s appearance and courthouse worker’s interest in the chair’s installation, to the generator hum as Bayonne literally vibrates with its current, and, finally to the physical preparation of Jefferson for execution. Embedding a good deal of authentic information in deceptively simple prose, Gaines’s verbal restraint triggers unexpected emotions, his objective invisibility the measure of an exceptional writer.

PLOT DEVELOPMENT

As suggested by the novel’s title, A Lesson Before Dying is structured largely through dramatic incidents in which the two main characters teach and learn from each other how to be men. This is a particularly difficult lesson because there are few models, little encouragement, and three hundred years of history working against them. Reviewing the lessons of living and dying around them, however, Grant and Jefferson will teach each other much about the essentials of true character.

When the novel opens, readers will experience, along with Grant and Jefferson, primarily lessons that deny manhood status to all males of African heritage. The legal classification of black Americans as ‘‘chattel,’’ or movable property, is a matter of historic record. From their earliest days in this country, black men have been thought of and called something other than men. These continuing denials, based on race, are explicit in forms of address like ‘‘boy.’’ Bayonne, Louisiana, in 1948 shows little indication of having changed its racial attitudes from those of a century ago. Thus, readers witness casual, everyday occurrences of personal insult designed to keep black people humble and intimidated, in other words, ‘‘in their place.’’ Since Grant has either been spared or has avoided much contact with the white power structure after his return to Bayonne, he must undergo a form of reindoctrination. He therefore enters through the back door to the Pichot Plantation, waits in the kitchen two and a half hours while the white folks eat their dinner, submits to other deliberate delays and searches at the jail, and holds his temper while being interrogated about his plans. These customary practices, designed to indicate Grant’s reduced social importance, also bring home the lesson that he and Jefferson share more commonalities than differences.

Grant’s education takes place in unlikely classrooms: the Rainbow Club and his room in Aunt Lou’s house. Listening to two men in the Rainbow Club discuss Jackie Robinson’s baseball feats, Grant connects this popular athletic hero to literary art by associating Robinson with Joe Louis and both with the James Joyce story, ‘‘Ivy Day in the Committee Room.’’ His apparently free association demonstrates to him how, rising from ordinary circumstances, the hero inspires pride in others. In other words, he is made to think about the role a hero can play in the community. Grant’s lesson centers, then, on individual actions that defy public expectation.

Ernest Gaines/Achievement.org

Grant also receives instruction from the women in his life, especially Aunt Lou and Vivian. Aunt Lou, of course, is memorable as a character who affects Grant by merely looking at him, her expectations of appropriate behavior long since implanted in him. Although Grant will at one point accuse Aunt Lou of helping white people instruct him in humiliation, he is usually conscious of her moral example and silent expectation. Grant uses the word ‘‘boulder’’ to describe both Lou and Emma, a word evoking their strength, endurance, and immovability. Aunt Lou obviously volunteers Grant’s services to teach Jefferson, insists upon his appearance at the Pichot Plantation, and expects his visits and consideration of both Miss Emma and Jefferson—all without her saying so. Refusing to hear Grant’s reasons for giving up, Aunt Lou exerts a moral pull. Late in the novel, Grant will tell Vivian that Aunt Lou requires from him exactly what Emma wants from Jefferson: a memory to be proud of after three hundred years of ‘‘failure’’ (166–67). If Aunt Lou holds Grant to a standard from the past, Vivian Babtiste presents an even stronger link to the future. Gaines has said that her role in the novel is to keep Grant in the community. Still married to another man and the mother of two small children, Vivian, a Roman Catholic, faces a number of restraints binding her to Bayonne. Vivian has already proven her willingness to make personal sacrifices for her beliefs through her commitment to teaching and to Grant. A light-skinned Creole rejected by her own family because she associates with darker-skinned people, she rejects discrimination based on color. She becomes Grant’s anchor, providing both encouragement and support when he most needs it and rejecting his pleas that they simply run away.

But it is Reverend Ambrose who possibly imparts the most important lesson by providing the missing block in Grant’s education. This scene, occurring at the end of chapter 27, brings the apparent conflict between religion and reason to a climax. Like many of Gaines’s protagonists, Grant has turned away from the church, finding its dependence on simple faith an inadequate justification for and management of the multiple injustices encountered by African Americans. Lacking belief in the power of the church, Grant feels suspended between two worlds, the past and the future. Despite Reverend Ambrose’s urging, Grant has consistently resisted encouraging Jefferson to find comfort in prayer because he believes he owes Jefferson the truth. But Grant’s thinly concealed contempt for Ambrose is replaced by a dawning understanding of his self-sacrifice for the good of the whole when Ambrose explains what Grant doesn’t see. Saying that he lies to ‘‘relieve hurt’’ hidden from the eyes of others, Ambrose directs Grant’s attention to Aunt Lou: ‘‘You ever looked at the scabs on her knees, boy? Course you never. ’Cause she never wanted you to see it’’ (218). And the reason, Ambrose concludes, that people cheat themselves and lie to those they love is their hope ‘‘that one they all love and trust can come back and help relieve the pain’’ (218).

Relieving Jefferson’s pain will prove to be acutely difficult not only because of the physical and temporal limitations set by authorities but also because Jefferson proves an exceptionally unresponsive student. Hurt and self-absorbed, he initially tries to live down to his lawyer’s description of him as a hog. Refusing to eat or respond to his visitors, he thus causes more anguish for his godmother, Emma.When Grant tries to make him see how his responses affect others, Jefferson retaliates by striking out at Grant. He insults Vivian and then threatens to scream, an act that will put an end to Grant’s visits. Sensing for the first time Jefferson’s need, Grant calls his bluff, telling him to scream if he wants to. Though Jefferson again tries to provoke Grant by continuing to insult Vivian, Grant now perceives what he had started to suspect, the pain beneath the grin. On his next visit, Grant will define the meaning of ‘‘moral’’ and ‘‘obligation,’’ thus beginning the intellectual aspect of his instruction.

Before he is ready for this level of instruction, Jefferson must come to know that he has a place in his community. Grant ensures this through having the children of his school work to purchase a Christmas gift for Jefferson, by imparting community news to him, and by buying him a radio. This last gift—obtained through cash gifts from several Bayonne citizens, including Grant—links Jefferson to the outside world even as he uses it to drown out interior thoughts. Significantly, it is one of the few new items ever purchased for Jefferson, and he keeps it on constantly, showing both a childlike obsession with it as well as his need for company. Having established Jefferson’s humanity and his connection to others, Grant moves into a more challenging phase of instruction. After ‘‘moral’’ and ‘‘obligation,’’ he defines ‘‘hero’’ as one who ‘‘does something that other men don’t and can’t do’’ (191). A hero, Grant continues, is something that he cannot be. Only Jefferson has the potential to rise beyond expectation to expose the ‘‘old lie’’ of myth for what it is (192). That Jefferson has absorbed the lessons Grant teaches becomes evident in his changing behavior.

CHARACTERIZATION

Gaines creates his main character, Grant Wiggins, largely through explicit presentation. In other words, we see who Grant is through what he says and does. Early in the novel, Grant will ask three perennial human questions: ‘‘Who am I?’’ ‘‘Do I know what a man is?’’ and ‘‘What will I have accomplished?’’ (31). That Grant asks these questions in relation to Jefferson doesn’t lessen their personal impact because, having been asked to teach Jefferson his value as a man, Grant must inevitably discover his own. While Grant would like to believe that he’s emotionally and physically isolated from Jefferson, he must discover their mutual human characteristics. To do this, he must own up to his deficiencies. Initially, readers encounter a character who says that he is detached and yet demonstrates barely controlled anger. The sources of Grant’s anger are everywhere since he is an educated black man living in the deep South after World War II. While there are abundant signs of technological change, social and legal changes have not yet occurred. Thus, Grant is allowed only one profession, and even this is limited by a white power structure. Not only does Grant actively hate teaching, he believes that his efforts are wasted since his students will have little choice other than to become field-workers. Living in a region that denies him manhood and working at a job he believes to be futile, Grant dreams of a life where he might enjoy choice. When Aunt Lou insists that Grant assume the seemingly impossible task of teaching Jefferson how to be a man, Grant is understandably angry since this, too, will add to his sense of failure.

What, then, changes him? First, he must review the lessons of his own life. Grant recalls his teacher at Pichot, Matthew Antoine, a Creole whoopenly hated his students because they were darker than he and who taught them only one lesson: leave the South. Filled with self-hatred, Antoine’s parting advice to Grant—‘‘forget about life’’—denies any value of living (65). A young man, Grant is understandably reluctant to accept this negative instruction, recognizing that Antoine merely reiterates the white rationale for denying human value to blacks. When Aunt Lou insists that Grant endure routine humiliations—which she has worked to spare him for ten years—she assists in his review of social practices designed to indicate the reduced value of blacks. Thus, when Grant enters the Pichot house using the back door, waits in the kitchen, and submits to searches at the jail, he undergoes a form of reindoctrination to the multiple social gestures denying his human value. Every time he meets Jefferson, then, Grant submits to a process in which he is conscious of his injured pride. Only when he abandons his sense of personal sacrifice and injury does he begin to make progress.

Grant says that he believes in nothing, and certainly he describes himself to Vivian as ‘‘running in place . . . unable to accept what used to be my life, unable to leave it’’ (102). His primary strategy for coping seems to be detached compliance. By his own admission, he merely teaches what the white folks tell him to, and he similarly follows Aunt Lou’s instructions when he makes mere motions in visiting Jefferson. Vivian, however, insists that Grant do his best for Jefferson—and for her—thus forcing Grant to move to a new level of interest. All along Grant has recognized parts of himself in Jefferson, especially the futility of their positions. Now, though, Grant begins to see possibility. Grant’s verbal confession that he needs Jefferson, because Jefferson represents his ‘‘need to know what to do with my life,’’ suggests not only a reversal of roles but also an emotional breakthrough (193). Gaines will emphasize this with Grant’s fight in the Rainbow Club, illustrative of his passionate commitment to Jefferson and all that he has come to represent. Provoked by the conversation of two mulatto bricklayers, this fight is Grant’s physical response to racism. Grant’s level of commitment has become so intense that the owner has to threaten one of the bricklayers with a gun and knock Grant unconscious to stop him.

Despite himself Grant discovers unshakable emotional ties to the people on Pichot and in Bayonne, especially Aunt Lou, Vivian, and the children. All require his service and commitment, which he often resents. Conscious of their demands, Grant asks Vivian, ‘‘What the hell do you all want from me?’’ (210). And while she cannot say specifically what she wants, Vivian recognizes that he has not yet given his best. Preciselywhat Grant is willing to give is initially both limited and measured, signified by the Westcott ruler he carries. Not simply a token of his authority, this yardstick indicates the measured gestures of Grant’s existence, his controlled responses to the conditions he encounters. What Grant comes to understand is that the unspoken demands of Vivian and Aunt Lou add meaning and value to his life. Ultimately, Grant discovers that the power of love has returned him to Pichot after going to California; love ensures his reluctant instruction of Jefferson and his continuing commitment to the children he teaches. Readers witness the depth of his respect and commitment to his aunt in Grant’s understanding of her unspoken demands, in his insistence upon the children’s academic performance, and in his appreciation of the pastoral elements of Bayonne. Ultimately, Grant will come to fully apprehend the meaning of God and love, telling Jefferson that ‘‘God . . . makes people care for people’’ (223). And while he will reject Paul Bonin’s compliment of his being a ‘‘great teacher,’’ Grant shows such promise by revealing his emotions to his students (254).

Ernest J. Gaines/Jennifer Zdon for The New York Times

While Grant is able to express his views about the world and his relation to it, Jefferson is almost entirely mute. Like Grant, Jefferson is angry, so angry, in fact, that he cannot express his rage except to turn it inward or on those who love him. Seeing Jefferson from Grant’s perspective, readers have no access to his thoughts other than his expressed intention of acting like a hog. Gaines presents us with a hurt, inarticulate character absorbed in his own pain. Readers begin to witness Jefferson’s changing attitude, though, when he agrees to Grant’s suggestion that he show Emma respect by eating her food. But it’s his diary that most fully brings to life Jefferson’s character. Here, readers encounter a character who suggests the life histories of the inarticulate and unrecognized many whose labor is unstinting and unrewarded. Jefferson’s simple description of beginning fieldwork when he was six years old gives readers only a glimmer of the conditions he endured. More important, though, is his recognition that he was never expected to respond to these conditions as a human being, only as a work animal. The representation of Jefferson’s interior thoughts compresses in a few pages an affecting portrait of an intelligent observer sensitive to the needs of others. As the community begins sharing Jefferson’s experience, he moves from his selfcenteredness. Knowing that others care, Jefferson becomes stronger, setting, in the end, an example of compassionate giving. Thus, when he tells Paul to say he ‘‘walked like a man,’’ Jefferson refers not only to his courage but his willingness to be a community hero.

Once again Gaines’s women are models of commitment and caring. Both Lou and Emma have raised others’ children as their own, sharing their meager livings with love and generosity. Though they don’t openly ask for any reward, Lou and Emma do expect some return on their investment of time and love. Several times when she asks people to help her see Jefferson, Emma will remind them of the sacrifices she has made, suggestive of her long history of service. Just once, before she dies, she wants someone to do something for her, she says. Vivian shows similar altruistic characteristics by having violated the racial strictures of her Creole family and through her community commitment. Grant credits Vivian with his commitment to Jefferson. Certainly, she encourages his interaction, telling him that he will ‘‘do it for us.’’ When Grant believes that his efforts are futile, saying that nothing is changing, Vivian assures him that something is. Finally, when Grant attempts to leave behind Jefferson and Vivian, he finds he cannot do so because there is nothing outside Vivian’s house for him. The women, then, serve as the unshakable support of this community.

THEMATIC CONCERNS AND LITERARY DEVICES

Gaines has often said that his writing career was motivated in part by his desire to create characters absent from other novels and stories he read. Unable to find people he knew in the scarce and generally stereotyped black figures he encountered in American fiction, Gaines would create his own characters representing the truth of his experience and imagination. In so doing, he would necessarily create a fiction counter to prevailing modes, a fiction that, by virtue of its different perspective, would expose racial myths. He gives Grant Wiggins a similar task in A Lesson Before Dying by having him expose the ‘‘old lies’’ of racial mythology. Jefferson’s lawyer blindly summarizes the reasoning underlying racial myths in his concluding argument to the jury. Linking Jefferson to an animal from ‘‘blackest Africa,’’ he confidently states that Jefferson would not recognize the names of Keats, Byron, and Scott. Nor would he be able to recite a passage from the Constitution or Bill of Rights (7–8). Gaines holds the ironies of American history up before his readers, placing in the lawyer’s mouth language outlining how, having denied human status to African Americans on the basis of physiological differences, legislative bodies proceeded to outlaw teaching blacks toread and write and then justified denial of political access partly on the basis of intellectual deficiencies. Grant’s job, and the novel’s primary theme, then, is to dispel racial myths, to disprove the lie of white superiority.

Grant’s main challenge is to address the issue of manhood. He already understands that the key premise of discrimination stems from a definition of black men as ‘‘three-fifths human.’’ After three hundred years of indoctrination, this looms as an almost insurmountable hurdle. To be a black man in the South of the 1940s seems almost impossible. Like many, Grant believes that the strongest, most ambitious have fled, leaving behind their more submissive brothers. Reviewing his own education, Grant understands that his teacher, Matthew Antoine, has believed his superiority a matter of skin color. And as he submits to routine customs emphasizing his inferior status, Grant wonders, ‘‘Do I know what a man is?’’ (31). Casting about for a model, Grant sees none. He rejects himself as a proper example, believing his conformity a form of cowardice. As he says to Vivian, he teaches only what the white people tell him to, nothing of pride and identity, only ‘‘reading, writing, and arithmetic’’ (192). Reverend Ambrose seems similarly guilty of following the direction of white people. But, as Ambrose will point out, Grant is the ‘‘gump,’’ ignorant of people’s experiences and pain (218). Grant has to see beyond surface elements before he learns to detect levels of sacrifice and achievement. And he will discover the meaning of manhood and heroism in giving of oneself. Grant will ultimately define a hero as someone motivated by love, someone who ‘‘would do anything for people . . . because it would make their lives better’’ (191).

Eventually Grant expresses both confidence and faith in Jefferson, believing that he can prove the lie of racial mythology. Jefferson is the only one who can prove the lie precisely because he appears so typical. Seemingly slow, barely literate, docile, and expendable, Jefferson summarizes multitudes of dispossessed and disenfranchised Americans. Mute and powerless, Jefferson has adopted a purely deterministic view of life, where nothing he does matters. Believing himself without importance, Jefferson at first appears another example of racial inferiority. Given this advantage, white money is both literally and figuratively riding on Jefferson, signaled by the bet between Henry Pichot and Louis Rougan made immediately following Jefferson’s trial. Repeated references to this wager, in addition to Sheriff Guidry’s periodic interrogation of Grant to ensure that he is not making progress with Jefferson, support the white power structure’s active interest in seeing Jefferson meet his death as a ‘‘contented hog’’ (50). From all appearances, then, Jefferson is a sure bet—at least until Grant discovers a means of reaching him.

The solution to Grant’s problem lies in the community itself, as Grant inadvertently discovers in the Rainbow Club. Hearing the two men reinact Jackie Robinson’s baseball plays, Grant recalls the hope and pride a single figure can inspire, particularly when the odds are against him. Remembering the role Joe Louis’s boxing victory played in his own youth, Grant involves his students in Jefferson’s life, not as an object of pity, but as a subject activating their energy and effort. They will work to purchase a Christmas gift for Jefferson, and they will continue to remember him through gifts of pecans and peanuts, gifts of the land linking the children to Jefferson. The radio, too, provides a necessary connection not only because it imports the outside world but also because the community insists upon participating in this purchase. As the community, including Grant, comes to recognize itself in Jefferson, it also begins to respect his value.

Bayonne has been a community for which Grant has little hope because it has seemed impervious to change. Early in the novel, Grant will describe Bayonne as a town of six thousand, almost evenly divided between blacks and whites. Black citizens, however, can move freely only ‘‘back of town,’’ out of white citizens’ sight. Multiple instances in this novel will indicate a willful blindness on the part of whites, who choose not to see the very people who stand before them. This segregated coexistence seems both normal and desirable to white residents. But as he usually does in his fiction, Gaines dramatizes the difference between public and private social dynamics, illustrating the mutual dependence of both races and within this context the potential for change. Bayonne’s public dynamic is separate and unequal, as we see in references to the limited school year for black students, the courthouse toilet facilities, the Confederate flag, and the deliberate acts of rudeness directed at African Americans. The private dynamic, on the other hand, leaves more room for negotiation, as readers see when Miss Emma insists that Henri Pichot influence his brother-in-law, Sheriff Guidry, to allow Grant’s jail visits. Deliberately fingering a vein of guilt by reminding the Pichots of all she has given them, Emma demands—and receives—some recompense for her lifetime of service.

Resentful of racially imposed limits, Grant detects no changes in his community until he remains in place long enough to experience slight shifts. Once again, Gaines’s fiction emulates the texture of reality, measuring social change through small, often personal alterations. As he frequently does, Gaines shows his protagonist modifying his perception and direction. Readers can trace one of Grant’s most significant changes in relation to religion. He will move from his original position, where he claims not to believe in God, to a more moderate one in which he doesn’t believe in the church, to a final position of defining God as love to Jefferson. His ultimate conclusion suggests a personal progression from denial to acceptance, a changed perspective from exclusion to inclusion. This pattern is reiterated in his changing attitude toward his students and Jefferson and in his tentative friendship with Paul Bonin, a white deputy.

These changes occur only after Grant sheds his anger and self-contempt. Angry, he’s a poor teacher to the children and Jefferson, rude to Miss Emma and Aunt Lou, and resentful of Vivian’s demands. Like a child, he cannot resolve the paradox that their spoken and unspoken demands, driving him to perform services he would rather avoid, grow from their love. All along, Grant has known that Aunt Lou and Miss Emma want someone to be proud of, someone to compensate for the missing men in their lives. But he believes himself unable to shoulder the burden of three hundred years of failure. Looking into a dark void from the door of Vivian’s house, however, he sees nothing for him away from her. At this point, Grant consciously decides to shoulder the burden of personal responsibility and reconcile the advantages of his community with its disadvantages.

Gaines’s use of vision as a metaphor is extensive throughout A Lesson Before Dying. Unlike many writers, however, Gaines will call special attention to what his characters fail to see. One means of pointing this out is through characters’ awareness of natural beauty. When Vivian visits Grant on Pichot Plantation one Sunday morning, they joke about its ‘‘pastoral’’ qualities, referring to the sparse furnishings of Aunt Lou’s house and the outhouse. Making fun of its limitations, they almost ignore the natural beauty of the landscape. Their subsequent lovemaking in the cane rows, however, suggests a literal and figurative intimacy with place, a new relationship underscored by Vivian’s conviction that they have just conceived a child. Throughout the text, characters will call Grant’s attention to what is literally before his eyes, what he doesn’t see. His most direct lesson comes from Reverend Ambrose, who tells Grant that he hasn’t seen Aunt Lou’s suffering because he hasn’t wanted to look. Grant has indulged in a form of willed blindness, but he will learn to appreciate the subtle indications of meaning. Seeing Jefferson’s simplenobility rise before him, he will say, ‘‘My eyes were closed before this moment’’ (225). Significantly, as the time for Jefferson’s execution approaches, Grant and Jefferson will both express growing appreciation for the natural life around them.

Gaines’s use of natural imagery to indicate heightened vision recurs at the end of the novel. While the children kneel in their church/schoolroom awaiting news of Jefferson’s execution, Grant wanders outside, wondering if life and justice are more than mere coincidence. His answer appears in a singularly beautiful image, a butterfly alighting on bull grass. The juxtaposition of something so lovely in the middle of weeds strikes Grant. He wonders, ‘‘What had brought it there?’’ (252). In his mind, the butterfly image, a classic literary symbol of life, the soul, or rebirth, is clearly linked to Jefferson (Cirlot, 35). Thus, following its flight out of sight, Grant believes the long wait is over for Jefferson. Underscoring this image of rebirth is the subsequent exchange Grant has with Paul Bonin. Paul’s parting words, Grant’s invitation for a school visit, and Paul’s acceptance are indicative of a renewal of life.

Setting his novel between late fall and spring, Gaines reinforces his theme of death and rebirth. This classic literary scheme is emphasized by multiple references to the Christian calendar and to Christ. To say that Jefferson is a Christ figure may be too facile, but Gaines clearly wants readers to acknowledge certain similarities between Jefferson and Christ by placing the novel’s action between Christmas and Easter. The state of Louisiana seems quite conscious of the Christian calendar. Fearful that the Roman Catholic constituency might be sensitive to having two executions before Lent, it schedules Jefferson’s execution two weeks after Easter, believing this delay will dim any conscious connection between Jefferson and Christ. Ironically, the state schedules all executions between noon and three on Fridays to emulate the time of Christ’s execution. Gaines stimulates readers’ association of Christ with Jefferson by having Jefferson ask Grant if Christmas was ‘‘when He born or . . . when He died?’’ (138). Another inescapable comparison occurs during the school nativity play. Dressed in the denim work clothes of the poor, Mary will receive the pennies offered by the Wise Men, surprised that they address her infant as ‘‘Savior’’ (150). Her comment reminds readers of the humble origins of Christ and the sacrifical nature of his life and death. Resisting the idea of being a sacrificial hero, Jefferson asks Grant, ‘‘Who ever car’d my cross?’’ (224). Believing himself someone who ‘‘never had nothing,’’ Jefferson naturally struggles with the idea that he must now be ‘‘better’’ than others (222).

But whatever touches him—whether Grant’s instruction about the nature of racial myths, Emma’s expressions of love, or his own discovery of voice—leaves its effect, and thus Jefferson finds in himself the courage to face his own mortality. Grant will remark on his growth by noting Jefferson’s physical stance, ‘‘big and tall,’’ at their last meeting (225). That Jefferson has risen to be a hero to his community is signaled by their insistence on paying their respect both in the form of visits before he dies and in their refusal to work on the day of execution. This last gesture ensures that the white community, which might prefer to ignore the execution, feels its impact. A demonstration of pride and solidarity, this communal act provides ample evidence of Jefferson’s lasting effect. Having walked to his death as ‘‘the bravest man in that room,’’ Jefferson has begun to change the lives of those around him (256). And Paul Bonin’s promise to tell Grant’s students of Jefferson’s courage suggests his continuing presence in the life of Bayonne.

September 23, 2014: Ernest Gaines at his home library in Oscar, Louisianna. (Paul Kieu, The Advertiser)

A FEMINIST READING

Given Gaines’s focus on male characters and his recurring theme of manhood, the feminine element of his novels might easily be overlooked. A feminist reading of A Lesson Before Dying, however, is certainly possible, and it offers readers an opportunity to examine more closely the role of women and their values in Gaines’s world. What, then, is a ‘‘feminist’’ reading? Since its emergence as a critical lens in the 1970s, feminist literary criticism has developed in a variety of ways mentioned in the alternative reading of Catherine Carmier. Drawing upon historical and Marxist theory, British feminist theory directs readers’ interest in social change through engagement with historical process. Gaines’s fiction, with its drama evolving from the conflict of change, lends itself to this kind of reading, and thus one feminist reading of A Lesson Before Dying might look closely at the role of feminine values with respect to social change.

Embodying the history of Pichot Plantation, Emma and Lou have accepted their roles as cook and laundress, raised others’ children, faithfully attended church, and remained silent. To all outward appearances, they conform to sexual and racial stereotypes as nurturing, submissive female figures. Grant, however, describes these women in terms of ‘‘stone,’’ ‘‘oak,’’ and ‘‘cypress,’’ indicative of their solidity and permanence. Later, he will use ‘‘boulder’’ in recognition of their immense strength and power. These women wield primarily silent power, illustrated by Grant’s consciousness of Aunt Lou’s meaningful looks, but they also know how to speak. Both will claim a hearing in inescapable terms. Still, their characters appear largely secondary in the construction of the novel. But like many elements of Gaines’s fiction, the more important elements are the unspoken and unseen. A feminist reading of this book will emphasize the women’s roles as revolutionaries.

The seeds of revolution have been planted in Grant as ideas. Lou insists that Grant learn everything he can from Matthew Antoine and promises him other, presumably more knowlegeable, teachers. She helps him to create a positive self-image by excusing him from using Pichot’s back door, and she willingly sacrifices for Grant’s university education. In short, she raises Grant not simply as someone to break racial stereotypes but someone who challenges it by his very presence in the community. Grant’s awareness of his role as challenger is frequently expressed by his dilemma over acting like a true teacher, or the ‘‘nigger that [he] was supposed to be,’’ a dilemma vividly expressed by his conscious use of grammar and his significant pauses before adding ‘‘sir’’ while addressing white men (47). Emma and Lou also act in concert to make Grant visit Jefferson, and they keep him at it, playing on the sense of duty they instilled. Most of their coercion is quiet, but Aunt Lou remains adamant that Grant will visit Jefferson, teach Jefferson his value as a man, and not quit until the very end. Grant will try to argue, sulk, and avoid contact with both women, but he cannot escape them.

Nor can he convince Vivian to simply run away with him from the weight of his responsibility. When Gaines created Vivian as a married Roman Catholic mother of two in 1940’s Louisiana, he effectively chained her to her community. Women do not typically write divorce law, especially not in Louisiana, which based its laws on Napoleonic code. Louisiana legally termed husbands ‘‘lord and master’’ of their homes, wives, and children. Thus, Vivian’s husband, despite having deserted his family, has legal precedence over her. Vivian will tell Grant that one condition of her husband’s agreeing to a divorce is that she remain in Bayonne. The implication of his condition is that if Grant wants to marry her, they must stay in the community. But she has other reasons for staying, not the least of which is her being the sole support of her two children. Apart from these constraints on her movement, Vivian has already shown her commitment to the community as a whole by rejecting her Creole family’s belief in its racial superiority. Choosing family exile over racism, Vivian demonstrates the strength of her morality. And she further demonstrates it by encouraging Grant to visit Jefferson. When she tells him to teach Jefferson ‘‘for us,’’ she may mean the two of them, but Vivian may also mean the community (32). The depth of Vivian’s commitment surfaces at regular intervals in A Lesson Before Dying, primarily in her refusal to run away with Grant. Like Aunt Lou, Vivian wants a man to stand up for himself and for others, she wants a man brave enough to give his best, and she is strong enough to show the way. Thus, her presence in the novel is more propelling than merely supportive. Vivian’s role is to make Grant act beyond his own selfperceived limits.

One historic measure of manhood has always been sexual prowess. Gaines will employ this metaphor throughout A Lesson Before Dying, and he will imbue it with a different meaning. Grant would like to believe his physical engagement with Vivian is evidence of his love and commitment. When his sexual performance falters after frustrating sessions with Jefferson, Grant is embarrassed, expressing his sensitivity by saying that things had not been going well lately. His belief that his manhood and sexuality are one and the same is directly contradicted by Vivian in their climactic argument. Vivian contends that sex is not enough, certainly not evidence of Grant’s best effort, his best expression of himself. She insists that his ‘‘best’’ involves ‘‘consideration,’’ implying action which takes others into account (210).

These values clash directly with those of the white establishment, particularly with reference to its treatment of black citizens. Taking them into account is something whites simply refused to do. Having created the myth of racial superiority and perpetuated its ‘‘truth’’ by rigging the educational and legal system, whites sustain the illusion of their right to power. Represented by Pichot the landowner, Rougan the banker, and Guidry the sheriff, Bayonne’s power is all white and all male; its values tend to be active, blunt, and authoritative. These characters say they know what happened, and they are convinced of their rightness. Grant, however, knows that there is another story, another set of values, such as self-abnegation, sacrifice, and silence often defined as ‘‘feminine.’’ Living in a culture that has systematically denied manhood to black males, Grant must redefine manhood in terms of what is both understandable and possible to achieve. He does this by embracing the feminine. As Grant’s understanding and description of heroic action sharpen, his language becomes distinctly feminine, with its emphasis on love and willing self-sacrifice. Rather than reverse the meaning of heroism, though, Grant co-opts it and gives it a more sustaining quality.

Thus, A Lesson Before Dying works to redefine manhood in terms of personal commitment and sacrifice. Though perhaps implicit in heroism, these terms are too often lost in the bombast of achievement. Gaines, however, shifts reader attention from epic action to domestic. Focusing on the ordinary, he points readers toward the extraordinary acts of courage required of those willing to remain in place to fight for change. The social revolutions Ernest Gaines writes about are individual and yet representative. At the very center of these revolutions are female characters who, like boulders, remain firm and immovable. From them emanate the moral actions his male characters reluctantly assume.

WORKS ABOUT ERNEST GAINES
Babb, Valerie Melissa. Ernest Gaines. Boston: Twain, 1991.
Bevers, Herman. Wrestling Angels into Song: The Fictions of Ernest J. Gaines and James Alan McPherson. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995.
Bryant, Jerry H. ‘‘Ernest J. Gaines: Change, Growth, and History.’’ Southern Review 10 (1984): 851–64.
———. ‘‘From Death to Life: The Fiction of Ernest J. Gaines.’’ Iowa Review 3:1 (1972): 106–20.
Byerman, Keith E. Fingering the Jagged Edge: Tradition and Form in Recent Black Fiction. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1985.
Estes, David C., ed. Critical Reflections on the Fiction of Ernest J. Gaines. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1994.
Folks, Jeffrey J. ‘‘Ernest Gaines and the New South.’’ Southern Literary Journal 24.1 (1991): 32–46.
Greene, J. Lee. ‘‘The Pain and the Beauty: The South, the Black Writer and Conventions of the Picaresque.’’ The American South: Portrait of a Culture. Edited by Louis D. Rubin, Jr. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1980.
Hicks, Jack. ‘‘To Make These Bones Live: History and Community in Ernest Gaines’s Fiction.’’ Black American Literature Forum 11 (1977): 9–19.
Lowe, John, ed. Conversations with Ernest Gaines. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1995.
Rowell, Charles H. ‘‘Ernest J. Gaines: A Checklist, 1964–1978.’’ Callaloo 1.3 (1978): 125–31.
———. ‘‘The Quarters: Ernest Gaines and the Sense of Place.’’ Southern Review 21 (1985): 733–50.
Shelton, Frank W. ‘‘A Gaines Gold Rush: A Review Essay.’’ The Southern Quarterly 34.3 (1996): 149–51.

BIBLIOGRAPHY
Babb, Valerie. ‘‘Old-Fashioned Modernism: ‘The Changing Same’ in A Lesson Before Dying.’’ In Critical Reflections on the Fiction of Ernest J. Gaines. Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 1994.
Ruben, Merle. Review of A Lesson Before Dying. Christian Science Monitor, 13 April 1993.
Senna, Carl. Review of A Lesson Before Dying. New York Times Book Review, 8 August 1993.
Sheppard, R. Z. Review of A Lesson Before Dying. Time, 29 March 1993.

Source: Carmean, Karen. Ernest J. Gaines: A Critical Companion. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, 1998.



Categories: Feminism, Literary Criticism, Literary Theory, Literature, Novel Analysis

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