From ancient history to modern days, people have worshipped heroes. Whether they were living or dead, fictional or real, those extraordinary individuals inspired others to be better. In A Lesson Before Dying, Ernest J. Gaines explores the theme of heroes in a seemingly brief, but significant way. The novel’s plot revolves around the fate of a young black man named Jefferson, who is wrongly sentenced to death for a murder he witnessed. Most of the novel is presented from the perspective of Grant Wiggins, a black school teacher who is asked to speak with Jefferson to help him die with dignity. Neither of these protagonists bears a close resemblance to the traditional image of a hero at first glance. They seem more like powerless victims of circumstances, which include their specific problems and the systemic racism of 1940s Louisiana. Nevertheless, as the plot unfolds, both characters reveal qualities that allow them to play the role of heroes.
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An educated man with wide experience, Grant often reflects on different aspects of the world, including heroes. Back in university, a lecture read by a visiting Irish professor revealed to him the emotional attachment that many Irishmen still have towards Parnell, their national hero (Gaines, p. 89). Years later, he observed how many people liked to talk about their heroes and their deeds (Gaines, p. 90). He also remembered how, during his childhood, his entire community was engrossed in the boxing match between Joe Louis and Schmeling (Gaines, p. 88). A subtler example of hero worship appears in his parents’ home, where a collage of Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and Booker T. Washington hung above the mantelpiece (Gaines, p. 104). Grant knows that heroes are important because they can give people unity and strength.
Grant does not believe that he can be a hero. When talking to Jefferson, he defines a hero as “someone who does something for other people. He does something that other men don’t and can’t do.” (Gaines, p. 191). As a teacher trying to raise poor children into “responsible young men and young ladies” (Gaines, p. 39) and a man who tries to comfort a condemned prisoner, Grant may seem to fit this definition. However, he does those things reluctantly, not because he wants to but out of a sense of obligation towards the community, which he resents. As a result, he regards himself as fundamentally selfish and unheroic.
Being a prisoner, Jefferson is not obviously in any position to help others, but his attitude is arguably selfish as well. Jefferson spends much of the novel calling himself a “hog” (Gaines 82) and resisting attempts to reach out to him. Despite this, Grant comes to believe that Jefferson can be a hero by facing death with dignity, overturning white society’s perception of blacks as dumb animals. Grant tells him to become a hero because “we need you to be and want you to be” (Gaines, [p. 193). Ultimately, this persuasion succeeds, as according to a witness, Jefferson was “the strongest man in that crowded room” (Gaines, p. 253) during his execution. While Grant denies having had anything to do with Jefferson’s change, it is clear that their conversations inspired Jefferson to conduct himself with dignity. This experience also makes Grant put aside his complaints and recommit to teaching children.
Heroes loom large in any community because they can inspire and influence people by example. Grant believes that a true hero needs to be selfless to be a suitable inspiration and rise above others. He does not think that he meets this standard as his good deeds are done out of a sense of obligation. However, in going out of his way to convince Jefferson to die with dignity, Grant also shows an ability to inspire people to be better. While Jefferson becomes a hero in death, Grant also demonstrates a capacity for everyday heroism by doing more than he has to do and continuing to work as a teacher.
Gaines, Ernest J. A Lesson Before Dying. Knopf Publishing Group, 1993.