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A Lesson Before Dying Essay

“Without love for my fellow man and respect for nature, to me, life is an obscenity “This quotations from Ernest J Gaines author of A Lesson Before Dying portrays his compassion for men. Ernest Gaines’s “A Lesson Before Dying” is a novel of self-discovery and conflicting responsibility in the face of injustice. This novel explores themes that embody truths about life in a late 1940’s Louisiana setting of intricate conflicts. The setting of the novel indicates an arduous sense of acceptance for injustice due to racial discrimination and a stressed idea of responsibility for this, all attributable to the unavoidable death of bystanders. Gaines constructs an obscure web of human connections, using the developing characters of Grant Wiggins and Jefferson to portray the effect people have on one another. By centring on this relationship, the novel evolves as each of these characters, as well as those around them, strengthen as people. Both Jefferson and Grant grew dependent on each other so they could both grow into men, “He needed me, and he wanted me here if only to insult me”(Gaines 130).

One could thus refer to the title A Lesson Before Dying as the lesson that these individuals must learn to reach a level of integrity that African American people are expected to lack. A Lesson Before Dying regards the lessons learned by Grant, who learns to have respect for those who surround him; Jefferson, as he believes himself to be better than a hog; and the Community, who come to believe that an African American victim of injustice can die with integrity. Grant Wiggins struggles through life because he does not seem to find his way and cannot break free of his background and family. His right to be free in the novel is questioned; although he is an educated black man, because of the racist society, he struggles to cut loose from those who love him. Grant often ponders over Matthew Antoine, his most influential teacher, who made him believe that failure in the black society was inherent.

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Antoine insisted, “It doesn’t matter anymore. Just do the best you can. But it won’t matter” (Gaines 66). However, throughout the novel, Grant’s true desire grows apparent with the obligation of teaching Jefferson. With time he comprehends that as an educated man he must disprove Antoine’s defeatist outlook by following his responsibility as a teacher and instructing a new generation to have integrity and dignity so that they don’t fall into Jefferson’s situation. He portrays this objective when claiming to his student “I’m supposed to make him (Jefferson) a man…exactly what I’m trying to do here with you now: to make you responsible young men and young ladies” (Gaines, 29). Thus, Grant learns that running away did not represent the only sure way to avoid failure, along with the fact that failure in African American men was not inevitable. Consequently, Grant transforms from a faithless, resentful man, reluctant to teach Jefferson to die like a man, into a revived man with hopes for the improvement of the community.

The plot of A Lesson Before Dying focuses on the struggles of Jefferson, a poor and oppressed man, trying to gain a measure of pride and dignity within a hostile and racist environment. In the novel, Jefferson exemplifies the average African American man over whom the white community has utter control. However, Jefferson grows into a symbol of the potentiality of black empowerment against the prevailing racial injustices. When trying to defend Jefferson from being convicted of murder, his attorney reduces him to the level of an animal, stripping him of any human dignity left in him. “What 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” (Gaines 8). This animalistic characterization reflects the view held by the white society toward blacks, thus, making Jefferson a symbol of all African American men. This description deeply affected Jefferson in his belief that as a hog, he was worth nothing and deserved the treatment he was receiving in jail.

But as the novel progresses and Grant teaches Jefferson the honour he upholds, Jefferson discovers his own value and defies the implications behind these words in the name of an entire oppressed community. “Goodbye, Mr. Wigin tell them I strong tell them I’m a man” (Gaines,234). These words, written for Grant in Jefferson’s diary, portray his learned lesson and how he understands precisely what his life and his death signify. Jefferson was a sullen, withdrawn man, believing himself to be no better than a hog, and who lived a life of submission, acting out like an animal and disrespecting people who loved him. Nonetheless, Jefferson grew into a respectful and loving person, who acknowledges that to be a man means to reciprocate love.

A Lesson Before Dying portrays the generalized idea within the community that African American people are inferior, therefore, have no dignity or honour. Jefferson’s newly found dignity confounds white expectations that he will die as he has lived, an ignorant hog. By the end of the novel, Jefferson understands that by dying like a man, he will defy the society that wrongfully accused him and convicted him not just of murder, but also of being African American. He knows that by refusing to bow down in his final moments, he will make his community proud. For these reasons, he walks to his execution resolute, and onlookers say he is the strongest man in the room. “Tell them he was the strongest man in that room today”(Gaines, 256). The effect that Jefferson’s execution had on the community and the lesson it conveyed upon it is portrayed when Grant claims, “I want you to show them the difference between what they (the white community) think you are and what you can be” (Gaines 191).

Jefferson’s execution becomes symbolic and the community will long remember it, so he asks that his final moments make an impact on the whole society. With Jefferson’s dynamic last impression the whole community learns the most important lesson of all, Jefferson’s death with dignity marks the beginning of acknowledgement of human equality. Racism and discrimination of African Americans have never been portrayed so vividly and severely as in Ernest Gaines’ A Lesson Before Dying. One must acknowledge the symbolism encompassed by the title, this lesson; that is expected to be learned solely by Jefferson, the unjustly convicted African American, is accepted by a wider range of characters. As Grant struggles to impart a sense of pride to Jefferson before he must face his death, he learns an important lesson as well: heroism is not always expressed through action, sometimes the simple act of showing identity is sufficient. In Jefferson’s attempt to accept his upcoming death, he struggles to comprehend the significance of his execution and how it has gained him a sense of respect he had not previously attained. Lastly, one must recognize the most symbolic lesson learned throughout the novel, that of the racist community who come to see Jefferson’s execution as a beginning of black empowerment.

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