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“A Lesson Before Dying” by Ernest Gaines

‘A Lesson Before Dying,’ written by Earnest J Gaines, tells the story of two men who have to fight hard to survive in a world that metes out suffering to them through racism and discrimination. Jefferson, one of the men, falls victim to the white people’s indifference when he gets accused of a crime he doesn’t commit and receives death sentence. The other man, Grant Wiggins, a teacher also suffers the torment of discrimination, but he is incapable of doing anything to improve his lot. However, when these men meet and come to know about each other, both their perspectives change which finally leads to the transformation of their lives. Through this novel, Gaines depicts the social problems that existed during his time. The author’s vivid presentation and description of events illustrate the reality that interacting and intermingling with others can change people’s lives, despite the brutalities they suffer throughout their existence.

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Jefferson gets falsely implicated in a crime he doesn’t commit and since he is a black person the society even ignores the fact that he is a human being and metes out injustice to him. Finally, Jefferson is given the death penalty as “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, 1997 ). Though he is innocent of the offense he is convicted for, unfortunately, Jefferson happens to be at the scene of the crime and, therefore, was wrongly implicated, “Death by electrocution. The governor would set the date”. (Gaines, 1997). By pronouncing such a verdict, Sheriff Guidry, Henri Pichot and Joseph Morgan represent the audacities and racism towards African Americans.

Grant, on the other hand, reluctantly concedes to the constant appeals of Jefferson’s grandmother to teach him, and their subsequent interactions ultimately change Grant’s attitude as well as life. In order to analyze the impact Jefferson makes on Grant, one needs to place himself or herself in Jefferson’s shoes by thinking and viewing the world from the perspective of a person who is sentenced to death for a crime he didn’t commit. The many conversations they have put Grant exactly in this place and compel him to think deeply about the plight of the black and the serious implications of racism due to which Jefferson’s predicament happens.

Jefferson has always remained an ordinary man who spent his life toiling on the plantations by mutely acquiescing to the sufferings, believing that it is his lot in this lowly life. Suddenly, he finds himself immersed in the murk of a crime scene where an open cash drawer tempts him to steal. He takes the money, stuffs it into his pocket, and attempts to run away but gets caught. Soon Jefferson finds himself among white lawyers and a white jury, who treat him like a “hog.” He sees white people everywhere and feels the full impact of discrimination from his experience.

Having lost all hope and serenity, Jefferson becomes a terrified, obsessed and mad individual whose inner self is crying out for mercy and help. Jefferson’s lawyer fights for justice stating that he is a ‘fool’, and pleads, “Gentlemen of the jury, look at this–this–this boy. I almost said man, but I can’t say man. Oh, sure, he has reached the age of twenty-one, when we, civilized men, consider the male species has reached manhood, but would you call this–this–this a man? No, not I. I would call it a boy and a fool. A fool is not aware of right and wrong. A fool does what others tell him to do….. Gentlemen of the jury, be merciful. For God’s sake, be merciful. He is innocent of all charges brought against him,” (Gaines, 1997) thus labeling and categorizing Jefferson as a waste.

Against this mad and broken background his only hope lies in the hands of Miss Emma, Jefferson’s Godmother who has realized that the attorney’s strong condemnation has impacted Jefferson and is determined to ensure that Jefferson dies with dignity and pride and not like an animal. This brings Grant into contact with Jefferson and their interaction enlightens Jefferson, while it finally changes Grant’s outlook. Jefferson’s wait for execution and the mental torture he undergoes during this period make a parallel to Jesus’ suffering and his journey towards Calvary for crucifixion. In the same manner as Jesus met Mother Mary and His disciples, who attempted to provide comfort and inner strength, meeting with Grant proved to be a source of solace for inspiring Jefferson. The motif of death acts as a common thread in the crucifixion of Jesus as well as the verdict for execution of Jefferson. The concept of dying for others is a poignant idea, and Jesus embraced death for the people who suffered. In the same vein, Jefferson accepts his death with honor at the prospect that its impact will inspire the black people to raise their voices against the injustice. This exactly causes the transformation in Grant, and thus it becomes apparent that he finally changes because of his interaction with Jefferson.

During their first encounter, Grant finds Jefferson withdrawn and glowering. Just as Grant is hesitant, Jefferson is apprehensive about the meeting because he thinks of Grant as a mad man. The basic idea the author creates is the predicament of two men fighting for dignity in a world that denies them honor. Later on, this sense of lack of dignity and feeling of victimization which is common to both, draw them close. Since Jefferson remains cold and withdrawn, Grant thinks that their interaction may not bear any fruitful results. His sense of dejection epitomizes the feeling of total loss and scorn towards life.

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On the fourth visit, Grant wants to break the ice by asking Jefferson about what were his thoughts but he stifles the impulse. Grant subsequently warms to Jefferson, stating that Jefferson is causing Miss Emma a lot of pain by his cold behavior. Jefferson replies that if Grant was in his shoes, on death row, definitely he would not be talking about love and compassion. For the first time, Grant becomes capable of seeing through Jefferson and understands that deep within he is still crying out for love and attention. This forges a bond between them, and Grant starts feeling Jefferson’s pain, which ultimately allows their interaction to be meaningful, by bringing out the change in Grant. The next encounter with Grant portrays the struggle Jefferson has between a human being and a hog. Grant becomes fully aware of Jefferson’s internal anguish and the meetings with Jefferson enable Grant to transform his image and accept responsibility for his own life and actions.

Moreover, the interaction between Jefferson and Grant enables Grant to ponder over the abandonment of life by the black people and the injustices towards the black community; He realizes that Miss Emma and Tante Lou depend on him as he is different from the others. This realization provides inner strength for Grant who now years to facilitate change. Miss Emma and Tante Lou through this clinging enable the sustaining of morals and dignity. Grant now receives consolation in the fact that someone really needs him, and this boosts the elements of honor and confidence in him. He feels that he is capable of doing positive things and it dignifies his self-esteem. Vivian questions as to how can they break free of the shackle of discrimination and grand replies, “It’s up to Jefferson, my love.” (Gaines, 1997) Grant learns the lessons of how to be a real man when he faces Jefferson and informs, “I need you much more than you could ever need me. I need to know what to do with my life” (Gaines, 1997). Obviously, the transformation in Grant is a result of the interaction with Jefferson and his insight derives from the understanding of Jefferson’s pain, which again is an outcome of their intermingling.

Thus, one can easily construe that Jefferson’s meetings with Grant have proved to be a powerful tool in rejuvenating him, and helping him to learn to believe in himself. This does influence his self-esteem and encourages him to understand his responsibility towards his fellow beings. As a result of this, Grant feels that he should help his community by imbibing a sense of dignity and respect for the African Americans. On the other hand, Grant was also able to transform Jefferson from a bitter individual, and elevate him to the role of a savior.

Therefore, one can argue that the interaction between Grant and Jefferson worked two ways. Just as Jefferson has been able to change Grant, Grant can claim to be Jefferson’s savior as he brought him out from his bitterness and suffering. Grant believes the future will be better than the present. No doubt, superficial changes are possible but real transformation depends on whether the present can dissolve the past by accessing the power of ‘Now’. The quality of an individual’s consciousness is what shapes the future and it depends on the ‘Now’. This, when perceived on a higher level, will transpire as the reason for Grant’s change. It means that Grant has understood the need to act immediately, shedding the burden of the past.

Thus, it is evident that what Grant did for Jefferson makes him a ‘hero’ and a ‘savior’ as well as a role model for the black community. The state of Jefferson’s mind when Grant met him was a state wherein Jefferson wondered as to what freedom meant. This state of extreme unhappiness along with total delusion of the self which attempted to convince the self that the present situation was not only dreadful but not liberating at all. Grant in a way provided Jefferson hope which perhaps facilitated focus on the future and this focus perpetuates the denial of the ‘Now’. Grant helps Jefferson to forget about his life situation but pay attention to life itself, as it exists now. Perhaps that is the reason why Grant asks Jefferson to write down all his thoughts and feelings.

In the beginning, Grant resents visiting Jefferson and argues that it was a waste of time and “He’s already dead” and “gone from us” (Gaines, 1997). This statement points to his lack of sympathy towards Jefferson: “He’s not going to make me feel guilty” (Gaines, 1997). But Grant’s genuine predicament is that he himself is not a man and does not know what the term meant: “Do I know what a man is? I’m still trying to find out how a man should live” (Gaines, 1997). Grant realizes the fact that he has to become a man in order to teach Jefferson to become one. Having established the foundation, Grant’s visits to see Jefferson proved to transform his attitude and behavior. Grant’s attitude and behavior soon soften towards Jefferson and he begins to care for him as shown through the purchasing of a radio. At one stage Grant does alternate between neutrality and depression, but this provides the answer in changing and helping Jefferson.

Jefferson progresses and begins to believe that his life is worth living and just as Christ died and brought about salvation similarly his death will have symbolic importance. He also feels that people and the community will utilize him as a figure of redemption and sustaining change. Jefferson proves to be transformed into a brave and thoughtful individual who is not afraid of dying. Through his journals Jefferson portrays his belief that uneducated men (like him) can possess unimaginable aptitude and lyricism.

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Thus he grows brave and thoughtful, and his journal reveals the truth that even the most woefully uneducated man can possess depths of intelligence and imagination. Further Jefferson writes about his prison mates and confirms Grant’s declaration that he (Jefferson) was the most priceless individual in the whole of humanity. This surrendering to the present and the acceptance of the situation, by making an effort in improving and progressing in his personal life, is something he achieved through his interaction. Grant enables Jefferson to give vent his feelings and thoughts and opened up a whole new world for Jefferson wherein death becomes a metaphor for heroism. “I want me a whole gallona ice cream” (Gaines, 1997)

At a point when only few days were left for his death, Jefferson requests vanilla ice cream. In the first half, Jefferson spends his time in a state of dizziness and madness where life meant nothing for him as he was treated like an animal. But now, a simple desire for ice cream demonstrates the fact that Grant’s interaction with Jefferson has molded him, and he starts acting like a human being, emphasizing his personality. Thus transforming into a decent human being, Jefferson ends his life with the words, “Good by mr wigin tell them im strong tell them im a man” (Gaines, 1997) These powerful words express Jefferson’s confidence and will that the injustices will be wiped out against the black community. Jefferson also proves the fact that a true ‘man’ is what he believes in and stands up for and most of all remembering the one who helped him change his life and die as a man with dignity-Grant. This is a tribute to Grant, who changes him through the interaction, besides undergoing a transformation himself.

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