A Lesson Before Dying
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|Author||Ernest J. Gaines|
|Publisher||Knopf Publishing Group|
|Media type||Print (paperback)|
A Lesson Before Dying is Ernest J. Gaines' eighth novel, published in 1993. While it is a fictional work, it is loosely based on the true story of Willie Francis, a young black man sentenced to death by the electric chair twice in Louisiana, in 1945 and 1947.
The story begins with the murder of Mr. Grope by two black men. An innocent bystander named Jefferson is charged with and convicted of the murder. He is sentenced to death. In his trial, Jefferson's attorney explains to the jury "What justice would there be to take his life? Justice, gentlemen? Why, I would as soon put a hog in the electric chair as this." That statement causes Jefferson to believe that he is indeed a hog, not a man. Jefferson's godmother Miss Emma Glenn, and Tante (Aunt) Lou, the aunt of the local schoolteacher, ask Lou's nephew Grant Wiggins to turn Jefferson from a "hog" to a "man." However, they must first get permission from Sheriff Sam Guidry, who is racist. To accomplish that, they successfully ask Sheriff Guidry's brother-in-law Henri Pichot for assistance.
When Grant is not there, Miss Emma, Tante Lou, and Reverend Ambrose also visit Jefferson. Over the course of the novel, Grant and Jefferson form a close friendship. Unusual for the time, Grant also forms a friendship with Deputy Paul Bonin. In early February, it is announced that Jefferson will be executed on April 8. Around then, Reverend Ambrose becomes concerned that Grant, an agnostic, is not teaching Jefferson about God and thus begins visiting him regularly. The conflict reaches a head when Grant buys Jefferson a radio, which the seniors in the black community, or "quarter," see as sinful. The novel ends with Jefferson's execution and, much to Grant's surprise, a visit from Paul in which he tells Grant that "Jefferson was the strongest man in that crowded room" when he was executed.
Point of view
The reader is given a unique outlook on the status of African Americans in the South after World War II and before the Civil Rights Movement. We see a Jim Crow South through the eyes of a formally educated African American teacher who often feels helpless and alienated from his own country. In "A Lesson Before Dying," Grant is the only educated black man in the area and the only member of the black community who might be considered capable of becoming free of overt oppression. Nevertheless, his life and career choices are severely limited and he must refer to white male authority figures as "Sir." Because of this, he yearns to leave his disheartening situation. Grant feels that he is cornered by myriad forces: his aunt's incessant wants, pressure to conform to a fundamentalist religion that he does not believe, the children's need for a teacher, and the community's need for leadership. Summed up, Grant can leave and could make a good life for himself if he does, but he doesn't because he feels trapped.
This section contains too many or overly lengthy quotations for an encyclopedic entry. (March 2013)
This book can be dated based on close reading from chapter 12 when the book mentions Jackie Robinson. The quote "All three stood talking baseball. Jackie Robinson had just finished his second year with the Brooklyn Dodgers," tells us all that we need to know to date this book. The book takes place in early October 1948.
"All there was to see were old white weather-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 cane 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.”
“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.”
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.
Despite Grant's personal atheism, much of the black culture and community focus on religion. This occasionally annoys Grant.
"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 ]red. 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 is an actual city in France, but also the fictional Louisiana town depicted in the novel.
"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 . 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 cell was roughly six by ten, with a metal bunk covered by a thin mattress and a woolen 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."
Constructive lying is a remedy commonly used in the novel 'A Lesson Before Dying'. It is especially used by Grant, Jefferson and Reverend Ambrose.
The aim of constructive lying is mainly to spare others from pain by keeping the truth from them.
When Jefferson talks to Grant with the help of constructive lying this expresses his hopelessness. Another intention of him is to build distance.
Another instance of constructive lying can be found between Grant and Miss Emma. Grant deliberately avoids the conversation with Miss Emma to think of a suitable lie first. Furthermore, he cleverly steers the conversation in another direction. During his conversation with Miss Emma after his visit to Jefferson, Grant lies and tries to present Jefferson in a good light.
When Grant visits Jefferson, he is displeased because he does not eat the food of his godmother Miss Emma. Knowing that Miss Emma is being in a bad health condition Grant decides not to tell Miss Emma about this incident and rather lie by telling her what she wishes to hear about her godson. These lies can be seen as constructive since they aim to prevent Miss Emma from getting hurt. However, later on, Miss Emma realizes that Grant lied to her because when she visited Jefferson, the picture Grant painted of him did not match reality. Therefore, in retrospective, the constructive lie created more pain than the truth.
Grant uses constructive lying to present himself better and thus meet the expectations of others.
Finally, Reverend Ambrose appeals to Grant that constructive lying is necessary. He refers to Aunt Lou and lists what she "accepted" earlier for Grant.
Religion, Cynicism and Hope
Community and Religion
The church has a great impact on the community. It is not only to integrate a person to be a complete part of the group, but also to define someone's worth. The belief in God strengthens the members of the community and helps them cope with the adversities of life. In addition an early part of the children's life is strongly influenced by religious education in school.
Central Conflict: Grant, Reverend and Jefferson
Even though the teacher Grant Wiggins is not religious, he struggles with the question of what to believe in. His absence at the church on Sundays is not only an act of rebellion, but it also shows an ongoing process of reflection. In the following, it becomes clear that Grant's belief in God and his urge to remain truthful are strongly related to the belief in existence. His sources of hope are the loving relationships within this life. Still, he detects too much injustice and hopelessness to agree with the idea of a universally applicable God. Grant feels trapped by the unjust system of racial discrimination. Therefore, he develops some cynical manners: Instead of seeing the spark of potential, he observes the predetermined future of his students. Still the reader watches Grant grow and realizes that he does teach Jefferson a lot about human dignity and hope that can be found in earthly existence.
Reverend Ambrose, in contrast, is described as a simple and devoted believer and embodies a very important member of the quarter. Ambrose finds his hope and drive in religion. Therefore, he is capable to bear not only personal issues but to stand by others in their pain. While this makes him a consistent character, he also stands out due to his lack of criticism against the earthly circumstances. In addition to that, the reverend presents a black-and-white mindset regarding anything opposing his beliefs.
Those two opposing characters both influence the young prisoner strongly. While Grant explains earthly concepts of dignity, hope and pride to the living Jefferson, the reverend donates the religious hope for the executed one. The young man manages to combine a strong belief in his worth with confidence in whatever might come. In consequence Jefferson “takes the cross”.
Women and Femininity
Main Feminine Roles
Tante Lou is a large black woman in her early to mid-70s. She cared for Grant Wiggins when his parents left him and brought him up as a child. That strengthens her image of a maternal figure. Her best friend is Miss Emma Glenn, the godmother of Jefferson. The two women dress respectfully and try to resist and overcome racism in Bayonne County. Tante Lou finds freedom for her soul in her deeply religious faith in God and the church. Being linked up with this fact, her family is very important to her and her dignity and pride are where she gets her power and motivation from. Although she often says hard, cold words to Grant she loves him like her son and does not want to lose him to another woman. That is why she is very cool towards Vivian (Grant's girlfriend). Tante Lou plays a major role in motivating and guiding Grant. She is the one who demands Grant speaking with the Pichots in order to gain visitation rights at the prison and always wants him to help Jefferson. Therefore, Tante Lou can be seen as a positive force in Grant's life and the community. Tante Lou can be made responsible for Grant's development because she always claims him for being true to himself, knowing that failure to do so would ruin him. She is a powerful and strong woman who is very self-confident. She cannot be influenced very well what makes her a difficult dialogue partner. But in the end, Tante Lou is very important for Grant and his attitude towards Jefferson. Without Tante Lou, the novel would miss one of the most important side protagonists.
Miss Emma Glenn
Miss Emma is a black woman in her mid-70s. She has grey hair, which is comped up and pinned on top. She is of average height but weighs nearly 200 pounds. Moreover, she has a close relationship with Tante Lou, who supports Miss Emma's plans to ask Mr Pichot's brother-in-law, the sheriff, if Grant is allowed to visit Jefferson in jail. In her past, she worked as a cook for Mr Pichot's family. Miss Emma is a deeply religious, churchgoing woman who wants her godson Jefferson to die like a man, which is why she asks Grant to visit him in jail. She presents herself as determined for achieving her aim. She hopes to get Mr Pichot's help and pursues her goal persistent. Thanks to her stubbornness, Miss Emma gets Mr Pichot's promise that he will try to help her. In public, Miss Emma hides her feelings which you can tell from her behaviour in the courtroom. She seems to be absent-minded and just stares in front of her as if she was „a great stone “. One can say that Miss Emma is a controlled, strong-willed and dignified woman who pursues her aims with persistence.
Vivian Baptiste is Grant's girlfriend. She has children and is still married to another man but they are in the divorcing progress. She is not as outspoken and overbearing as Miss Emma and Tante Lou but Vivian is definitely a strong black woman. In many instances, her strength emphasizes Grant's weakness. She has defied her family by marrying a dark-skinned black man, even though her action causes her to be ostracized from her family. Although she loves Grant she does not hesitate to point out his shortcomings, tactfully, without challenging his male ego. Vivian is a lady, refusing to let Grant take advantage of her. After nursing his wounds following his barroom brawl, she gives him an ultimatum: Unless he is willing to show her some consideration, she will leave him. Vivian is a mother, teacher, and lover and is totally aware of her responsibilities. For Vivian being a teacher indicts to be a leader and role model. Vivian takes an active role in trying to change the status quo. Her goal is to instil hope in her students for a brighter future and a life outside the limited plantation community. She does this by building their self-esteem and helping them become contributing members of the community,
Edna Guidry is the sheriff's wife. She is an extremely kind woman with a deep heart and ability to sympathize people. Actually, this woman is one of the rare characters in the book that can deeply and sincerely sympathize with black people. Being a wife of the sheriff, Edna makes all she can to better the position of Jefferson and let his people visiting him. The woman is not able to do much, but it is clear how crossed she is with the situation. One can notice how this situation touches her heart. It is important to mention that Edna sympathizes not only Jefferson. She is also crossed with the condition of the widow Grope. The woman does not take the one side protecting someone's rights. She just empathizes to those who are crossed and look broken. She is ready to hug Madame Grope, and at the same time, she sincerely asks Gran to say Miss Emma how sorry she is about Jefferson. Both sides have their pains and Edna is compassionate with all of them. Throughout the story Edna's addiction to drinks is noticeable. It is not accurately told but one can easily notice the hint on this condition.
- Miss Emma: cooked at the Pichot house - Tante Lou: maid at the Pichot house - Vivian: teacher at a black catholic school in Bayonne - Edna Guidry: housewife - Shirley: waitress at Rainbow Club
They do not own leading roles in politics or community. Vivian is the only one who visited a university, the only one who experienced a further education. Due to their position in the community, they are not really capable of influencing the court.
The Role of Women
The women in this novel are the moving roles. Without them the whole plot would not be happening because of their activity and them taking action. It is clear that Jefferson would have died like a “hog” if it was not for Tante Lou and Ms Emma. The feminine characters like Vivian are mainly responsible for the outcome of the situation. She convinces Grant to stay in Bayonne which allows Jefferson a death in dignity. Tante Lou and Emma Glenn treat Grant and Jefferson like their maternal children and care selflessly for their family members. Thanks to Edna Guidry sympathizing with the other women it is possible for them to visit Jefferson. Ms Emma is the first black woman having tea in the house of the white sheriff which conducts that gender, for woman, creates bridges across the racial segregation. The Feminine is desired to keep their communities stable. Emma, Lou and Vivian sacrifice their happiness for other's sake. Women seem more endeavoured to help others than men in this novel.
How Does the Author Portray Women?
Grant states: “A hero is someone who does something for other people. He does something that other men don´t and can´t do. He is different from other men. He is above other men. No matter who those other men are, the hero, no matter who he is, is above them.”
These examples of feminine behaviour named above fit this definition of heroism. Gaines portrays them as strong people with a mind of their own. They do everything to help and support their beloved ones and take care of things. Besides that, they suffer under the conditions in their community and the racial segregation but even in this state, they keep their heads held up high. Gains presents women as an important part of the family and community who hold everything together but at the same time experience e a lot of pain and hard work.
The theme of education is omnipresent throughout the novel especially through the role of the narrator Grant Wiggins – the teacher of the local elementary school. He is assigned by the “white folks around here” to teach the basics of knowledge like reading, writing and math in the heavily underfunded all-black school, the church serves as a classroom. His teaching methods are, as was probably normal at that time, very strict and brutal.
After receiving higher education in university, he returned to his home community. Now seeing no progress in the future chances of his students, he feels frustrated and wonders about the relevance of the education since his students are likely to work like their families on plantations captured in the cycle of poverty and racism. He believes that Jefferson alone can break this circle by showing everyone that change is possible. (Despite attending university Grant himself is captured in the cycle and unsatisfied with his life.
Education is also depicted as a root for frustration for another reason. In contrast to this academic education, Gaines continues the theme in Grant's task to teach Jefferson morality. Jefferson is a young man that was sentenced to death for a crime that he hadn't committed. During the process, the defence argued Jefferson was a hog that couldn't be judged like a man. Grant Wiggins has the task to morally transform his former student from a hog into a man. In that task, he is rivalled by reverend Ambrose, who thinks only the church can save Jefferson's Soul. The student-teacher relationship shifts from frontal teaching to an exchange between Grant and Jefferson. Facing the difficult task of teaching morality, Grant is reliant on Jefferson's own will. During the process, he discovers bit by bit how Jefferson opens himself to him and by that how he can reach him, and how to teach him to be a man.
The inescapable path
The term "inescapable path“ and its meaning is quite illustrative for the novel. The main character Jefferson is trapped in his hopeless situation due to his sentence to the death penalty. Moreover, he can not withdraw from the encounters he has with the other main character Grant Wiggins, which also leaves the circumstances as inescapable.
Grant Wiggins finds himself as well in an ineluctable position, where he would rather leave the town of Bayonne, but is constantly reminded of his commitments, regarding his students, his aunt and his partner Vivian. Furthermore, Grant sees society’s issues with racism as fairly graved when he realizes that corporately nothing progressed over the time being when he went to university:
"I had not come through that back door once since leaving for the university, ten years ago.“
Grant feels like that apartheid is still the trigger for the social scissors in their society. An example therefore is the vicious circle in which the male African-American men are said not to be able to protect their wives because of slavery. By moving from the south and with that escaping this accusation, they are said to act driven by weakness. As a result, we have a so-called vicious circle.
That puts Grant in a rift. Either he resists the expectations of the white population and defends his "race“ by staying or he fulfills his dream by moving but simultaneously satisfying them in their image of the Afro-American stereotype.
Summarizing now the term „The inescapable path“ is very much relatable with the novel. Not only the already obvious indication such as Jefferson's situation but also other subliminal characteristics of the book describe that topic very well.
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 not 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 value 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) and a Peabody Award. Don Cheadle portrays Grant, Mekhi Phifer portrays Jefferson, and Cicely Tyson is featured as Tante Lou.
A play by Romulus Linney 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. Rooted Theater Company (East New York, Brooklyn) staged a production of A Lesson Before Dying in June 2017.
- Article/essay on "Women and Community in A Lesson Before Dying
- Ernest J. Gaines: A Lesson Before Dying, Stuttgart 2008; ISBN 978-3-12-579870-0
- A Lesson Before Dying at SparkNotes
- A Lesson Before Dying on IMDb
- Ernest J. Gaines : The biography of a famous black author, Thinkquest.org
- Ernest Gaines, African American Literature Book Club