A Lesson Before Dying
Author: Gaines, Ernest
A Lesson Before Dying - Ernest Gaines
Gaines' sixth novel, A Lesson Before Dying, provides more support for his reputation as a talented writer. It tells the story of Jefferson, a young black man wrongfully accused of robbing and murdering a white man and sentenced to death. During the trial, Jefferson internalizes his attorney's argument that he is too dim to have planned such a robbery. His godmother, Miss Emma, enlists Grant Wiggins to teach Jefferson how to be a man and to die with dignity, and over the next few months, both men find the self-respect each had lost.
Grant often criticizes his society. He bitterly resents the racism of whites, and he cannot stand to think of Jefferson’s unjust conviction and imprisonment. Jefferson’s trial reinforces Grant’s pessimistic attitude. Grant sees the wickedness of a system designed to uphold the superiority of one race over another. During the course of the novel, however, Grant comes to realize that cynicism like his is akin to lying down and dying, and that even small victories can accumulate and produce change. Rather than looking at Jefferson as a hopeless stranger, or ridiculing him as someone who tries to make Grant feel guilty, Grant accepts Jefferson’s plight as his own and begins to fight for Jefferson’s salvation. He accepts his duty to the society he inhabits, thereby taking the first step toward improving that society.
With its consistent references to Jesus Christ and his crucifixion, this novel insists that a man’s death can be a meaningful event that bolsters a community. Gaines shows how racism pervades every nook and cranny of society, grinding down black people in everyday interactions. Jefferson becomes a Christ figure as the novel progresses. Unjustly tried and convicted, the simple-minded Jefferson dies a martyr.
Reading a novel by Ernest Gaines nearly equals having the experiences. Critics agree that Gaines has a true sense of characterization. He asserts that his characters appear realistic because he has shaped them from people he knew while growing up on a Louisiana plantation.
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