Analysis of ‘A Lesson Before Dying’, by Ernest J. Gaines:
Ernest J. Gaines was born into the fifth generation of a sharecropper family. Though born several generations after the abolition of slavery, he grew up in highly deprived conditions. His initial education came in a church when a visiting teacher came for the months when there was no cotton to pick. When he was thirteen, he moved to California with the rest of his family. He began writing when he was seventeen. His writing career was interrupted by the Second World War.
Relevance of the Title
Right through the story, there is much talk about teaching Jefferson to be a man and not a hog as his lawyer referred to him. But it is not just Jefferson who needs to learn. Grant, who is the school teacher, is the only educated man in the community but segregates himself from his heritage as he does not consider himself to be part of it. He is an atheist therefore he does not bond over church activities either. He resists having to interact with Jefferson for a while but after a point, the two grow close. In the process of teaching Jefferson something about what his death will mean to the black community, Grant learns to let go and be part of them.
Facing Responsibility and Correcting Injustice
Grant is frustrated by the inequalities of life in the racist South. There is no justice for the blacks and law is blind to their sufferings. While he recognizes these inequalities, he does not do anything to correct it. He simply wants to get away from there and live in a place where there are no constant reminders of his race which is considered inferior. Jefferson’s arrest and the trial only help to reinforce these beliefs. The judge refuses to see the truth, the lawyer for the accused compares him to a hog and the jury does not consider the evidence dispassionately, uncolored by the conditions that exist in that segregated town. It is when time goes past and Grant gets to know Jefferson better that he gets involved. Even then, there is no difference to the final result. But Grant grows as a human.
Jefferson is condemned for a crime that he did not commit. He was merely a bystander who happened to be at the wrong place. It was convenient to hoist the crime on him. What rankles him more is the comparison made of him with a hog. Initially he behaves like an animal as that is what people consider him to be. But under Grant’s tutelage, he transforms into a man denying the whites the satisfaction of seeing an uncivilized man die. He grows in stature, understands Christ’s sacrifice and goes to the gallows in peace.
Grant who is in his mid-twenties is the only educated man of his community; he teaches in the local school for colored children. He has been so affected by the segregation and inequalities that he feels pessimistic about the chances of change. He hates the way his people are treated by the system; he is frustrated and angry but does not channelize that anger into something positive. He has no hope for the future; this makes him bitter and aloof. He does not bond with anyone in the community or the family. His aunt Tante Lou has worked herself to the bone to educate him but he does not acknowledge it or reciprocate her love. He resents it when she gets him involved with civilizing Jefferson. It under the influence of Vivian and Jefferson that he begins to change, acknowledging to himself that there is a larger role which he could play. There is no dramatic change however, he is still sarcastic and bitter but to a lesser extent.
Jefferson is a victim of the racist south. He is condemned to die for a crime he did not commit. The society does not give him a chance. The judge stays blind to the extenuating circumstances, the jury is prejudiced and his attorney does not even consider him a human. He has no hopes that system will help him in anyway. He does not consider Grant’s efforts to reach him to be sincere. It takes some time for him to understand that there is grace in life and death.
For Tante Lou, grant’s aunt, her religion was a source of strength when life was a crown of thorns. Undertaking the responsibility of caring for Grant when his parents moved away, she does everything which she feels is right for him. She wants him to be educated and work for uplifting the community. But in him she is disappointed because he grows distant, pessimistic and cynical. It is only when she puts pressure on him that he agrees to work with Jefferson to refine and polish him.
Jefferson is a mild mannered colored man who is present at a bar when some killings take place. Though he was an innocent bystander, he is implicated in the killing. A trial follows with the jury and the judge refusing to believe him as was expected. In his defense his lawyer says that he does not deserve to be hung as he is hardly human. He is compared to a hog.
This insult hurts his godmother who wants Grant, as the only educated black, to refine Jefferson so that he does not die a “hog”. She knows that Grant will resist being involved as he is cynical about the conditions in the town. His aunt Tante Lou exerts pressure on him following which he agrees to help Jefferson. But Jefferson is in no mood to be molded into a human from a “hog”. He is stubborn and rude and rebuffs Grant’s attempts to get him talking. After a while, the two communicate better and Grant gets Jefferson a notebook in which he can pen his thoughts. He also gets him a radio using money which the community contributes.
Along with Jefferson, Grant also changes; his girlfriend and Reverend Ambrose are the agents of the change. Grant begins to think beyond himself. But he still wants to escape from the South where hope seems far away. Often Grant and Jefferson talk about death and God. Grant is an atheist but he listens to Jefferson’s views on God and heaven. As the date for Jefferson’s execution draws near, people from far and near come to visit Jefferson. Jefferson now comes to realize that his life has value and how he dies will make an impact on his people. His writings are now lucid and philosophical.
On the day fixed for the execution, Grant finds that he cannot face going to the jail. He prefers to spend it in school with his students. He tells them to kneel to honor Jefferson while he steps outside. He distressed and regrets not being present at the jail. Just then a deputy from the jail comes in to tell him Jefferson showed grace and rare courage when they led him to the gallows. Hearing that, Grant sheds quiet tears of grief.
It is through the notebook that Jefferson reconnects with his inner humanity. He pens down his thoughts about the lack of justice for people like him and his position in the order of things. It is through the notebook that Grant reaches out to Jefferson and provides an outlet for his feelings. Jefferson’s writings are in the form of letters to Grant. In this way, he acknowledges that Grant is his mentor. Even when he is alone in his cell, Jefferson feels he can communicate with Grant through the medium of the notebook.
Other than Grant all the characters are devout churchgoers. Grant’s rejection of God and His house stems from his disillusionment with the society. The whites who persecute the blacks endlessly are also believers of the same God. Grant finds it difficult to reconcile to this. He is cynical; he believes life is not going to improve in a long time.
- 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.
These words by Jefferson’s attorney are the catalyst for the story itself. The attorney means well, perhaps. What he implies is that Jefferson has only animal like instincts with no idea of what it means to be an intelligent human. But the images are stereotypes held by whites who considered the blacks to be no more than animals. The words have a profound effect on Jefferson. He starts behaving like a hog, refusing to speak, making animals noises and rooting for food. This impels Miss Emma to decide that when Jefferson dies, it will be like a man, with grace and courage. She has the prescience to realize that Jefferson’s nobility will reflect on the whole black community.
- It doesn’t matter anymore. Just do the best you can. But it won’t matter.
These are words by Matthew Antoine spoken when Grant goes to meet his old school teacher. He was an embittered man who felt that the blacks would never rise from the morass in which they were sunk. This is an opinion which later grant makes his own. He too feels bitter and without hope. He works as a teacher – a profoundly powerful role – but he feels powerless to force changes on the society which is deeply divided on the basis of race. The whites are determined to keep the blacks where they are and the blacks lack determination to rise.
- I want me a whole gallona ice cream.
This is the first time Jefferson focuses on his own desires. When the lawyer depicts him as an animal with only base instincts, he had stubbornly lived up to that image. He had expressed no desires though he knew he had only a few more weeks to live. He has always lived a life deprived of simple pleasures, but now by focusing on them, he resurrects himself as a human. He also tells Grant that he has never had more than “a thimbleful” of ice cream. But now he wants to eat till he is satisfied. It is significant that he does not ask for staple food but something that is considered special, a sign of a refined human.
- Good by mr wigin tell them im strong tell them im a man
These last words written in the notebook that Grant gives Jefferson is the ultimate testimony to Jefferson’s resurrection as a human. He had been living out the words uttered by his attorney that he was but a hog. Grant manages to reach out to Jefferson and opens his mind to his own humanness. Jefferson realizes that his death will impact the whole black community so he is not going to die a whimpering animal. There is also the bonding which takes place between Grant and Jefferson. Grant becomes a friend by the time Jefferson dies. All his writings are in the form of letters to Grant. For Grant, these words are a gift for he too needs to become more human.