Heroism in “A Lesson Before Dying” by E. Gaines


When it comes to writing a novel, authors must first make sure that the would-be produced literary work will have what it takes to prove discursively relevant. This, in turn, can only be accomplished if the novel’s themes and motifs are consistent with the prevailing socio-cultural climate, on the one hand, and the psychological specifics of how people perceive the surrounding social reality, on the other.

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The author of the 1993 novel A Lesson Before Dying, Ernest J. Gaines, deserves to be given credit on account of having done a good job, in this regard. After all, there is a good reason to believe that while exposed to his novel, people will be able to come in closer touch with their own unconscious anxieties, regarding the nature of heroism. Specifically, they will come to realize that one does not get to be born as a hero and that even the most ordinary and seemingly unheroic people have what it takes to end up being referred to in heroic terms.

They will also gain a better understanding as to what the notion of hero stands for: “He (hero) does something that other men don’t and can’t do. He is different from other men. He is above other men” (Gaines 156). In my paper, I will explore the validity of this suggestion at length while expounding on what should be deemed the novel’s overall significance and exemplifying the would-be made arguments with respect to the characters of Jefferson and Grant Wiggins.


Ernest Gaines is known for his attempts to represent peculiarities of black males’ identity in his books. Delving into the topical problem of racism and discrimination in the USA after the WWII, the Civil Rights movement and hardships experienced by the Afro-American population, the author strives to expose the forces that have played an important part in endowing African-American males with a distinctive sense of cultural/gender self-identity. As Auger noted: “Much of Gaines’s work addresses the issue of establishing (Black) manhood” (75). In such a way, A Lesson Before Dying can be considered an example of how such institutions as the courthouse, jail, the home, and the church become central for the gender and racial identification of African-American boys.


The novel’s plot is concerned with exploring the theme of racial oppression in America’s South, prior to the rise of the Civil Rights movement. It revolves around the wrongful sentencing of Jefferson (a young Black man) to death and the way, in which other members of the African-American community in Bayonne (represented by the characters of Grant, Vivian, Miss Emma, and Aunt Lou) have dealt with the situation.

After having realized that nothing could be done to revoke Jefferson’s death-verdict, these individuals were nevertheless trying their best to ensure that the convict maintains its human dignity through the execution: “The public defender called him (Jefferson) a hog, and she (Miss Emma) wants me to make him a man” (Gaines 33). After all, the sheer ease with which Jefferson ends up being sentenced to death is suggestive of the fact that the whole injustice has been predetermined by the institutionalized dehumanization of African-Americans in a Jim Crow South. This simply could not be otherwise, as the very line of Jefferson’s defense rested upon the assumption of his lessened humanity: “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” (Gaines 10).

The novel ends on a tragic and yet simultaneously optimistic note: Jefferson dies but he does it in such a manner that appears to have contributed heavily towards the eventual victory of the Civil Rights movement in America. This endows A Lesson Before Dying with the strongly defined spirit of humanism.

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As it was implied earlier, A Lesson Before Dying contains a number of in-depth insights into the nature of heroism. Contrary to the conventional understanding of the notion’s significance, the novel suggests that heroism is not so much a tangible virtue but rather a process with the strongly defined communal quality to it. That is, people gradually develop the heroic qualities of their sense of self-identity as they go through life. As Magill argued: “Individuals must socially construct their individual identities through the locus of communal connections” (62). The validity of this statement is best explored regarding the novel’s characters of Jefferson and Grant.


Jefferson symbolizes the long-term effects of racial oppression of African-Americans in the US. After having been sentenced to death for the crime he did not commit, Jefferson is shown losing his will to resist being dehumanized by the racist society. Upon being visited by Grant and Miss Emma for the first time, he acts as being already dead while refusing to take even a slight interest in what they wanted to talk to him about: “’It don’t matter,’ I heard him say… ‘Nothing don’t matter,’ he said, looking up at the ceiling but not seeing the ceiling” (Gaines 58).

Being hostile, cruel, and apathetic during the first meeting with Grant Wiggins, he later alters his opinion because of the ability to think, sympathize, and sacrifice. Jefferson experiences a surprising transformation at the end of the story and shows dignity accepting his death without “a mumbling word” (Gaines 114).


Another important character is Gant Wiggins, a local teacher. Being an educated man, he correctly understands the current situation in the community. He is shocked by the lack of progress and the prevailing negative mood. Trying to achieve positive changes, Grant at the same time is afraid that all he does is far from real help: “I teach what the white folks around here tell me to teach— reading, writing, and ’arithmetic.

They never told me how to keep a black boy out of a liquor store” (Gaines 157). Nevertheless, as time goes on, it becomes increasingly clear to Grant that, despite his inability to help Jefferson in any concrete way, he is still in the position to make a difference in this world. The feeling of compassion for Jefferson eventually overwhelms the teacher, hence prompting him to consider adopting an active stance as an outspoken critic of White racism.


As it has already been stated, the question of heroism is one of the central motifs of the book. Talking to Jefferson Grant provides his view of a hero: “A hero does for others. He would do anything for people he loves, because he knows it would make their lives better” (Gaines 157). This extract becomes fundamental for the whole work as it triggers a radical shift of priorities in Jefferson’s worldview. The given speech is met with silence as a young man starts to think about his life and his ability to alter it. The same can be said about the conversation’s effect on Grant: “Though Grant rightly discerns Jefferson’s tearful silence…we may further interpret both men’s

actions as confirmation of their mutual change” (Martin 253). Gradually, it begins to dawn on Grant that valor is one of the most respected issues that inspire people and even death of an individual can become heroic; however, a person should be ready for this death.

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As one can infer from the novel, the virtues of heroism and sacrifice naturally derive from each other. In fact, as the plot develops such an idea begins to affect Grant’s existential positioning to an ever greater extent: “People who love me, people who have done so much for me, people who have sacrificed for me. I don’t want to hurt those people. I want to help those people as much as I can” (Gaines 105).

Jefferson has to give his life for the good of the community to demonstrate the real nature of masculinity and make other young people think about it and reconsider their behaviors. As Magill aptly observed: “Jefferson accepts that responsibility, sacrificing his life to make the point that a redefined masculine ideology must take hold or the community will surely perish” (70). This suggests that even though he was not quite aware of it, Jefferson’s willingness to sacrifice never ceased representing an integral part of his personality.

Limited Heroism

Finally, Grant touches upon an important question of limited heroism. He states “I could never be a hero. I teach, but I don’t like teaching. I teach because it is the only thing that an educated black man can do in the South today” (Gaines 158). In other words, he helps other people because he has to and because of his own interests. At the same time, he observes how other people like Jefferson become true heroes by sacrificing their lives to others.

Predictably enough, this causes Grant to reassess his cynical outlook on life and to grow ever more comfortable with the idea that it is namely by serving the community that one can attain self-actualization: “The jailhouse visits not only help Jefferson, but Grant also discovers his own needs and desires… Over time, Grant begins to see himself in new ways” (Magill 71). However, compared to that of Jefferson’s, Grant’s heroism appears to lack depth. In its turn, this can be seen deriving from this particular character’s tendency to assess the surrounding reality from the materialist perspective.

Jefferson’s Transfiguration

These cogitations promote a significant shift in the young man’s mentality. Being a cruel, rude, and even an arrogant man at the beginning of the story, Jefferson experiences a radical transformation triggered by Grant’s ideas of heroism and sacrifice. He realizes the fact that his dignified death will not only satisfy Miss Emma’s desire. It can impact the whole community and thus empower African-Americans: “The last thing they (White racists ever want is to see a Black man stand, and think, and show that common humanity that is in us all” (Gaines 157). By sacrificing his life to the community, Jefferson can become a real hero.


Altogether, the book A Lesson Before Dying can be considered a deep insight into the peculiarities of black men’s identity regarding the individual and institutional racism. Jefferson and Grant’s debates about heroism and sacrifice demonstrate root causes for the emergence of multiple issues with the mentality, choice, anger, and attitude.

However, having passed a long way, the main character comes to the conclusion that his death can be heroic as it will show his beloved people the right way to behave and make other think about the important questions topical for the community. Thus, it will be thoroughly appropriate to refer to A Lesson Before Dying in terms of a truly progressive novel, which teaches readers to embrace humanism and tolerance as the integral elements of one’s lifestyle. I believe that this conclusion correlates well with the paper’s initial thesis.

Works Cited

Auger, Philip. “A Lesson about Manhood: Appropriating ‘the Word’ in Ernest Gaines’s A Lesson before Dying.” Southern Literary Journal, vol. 27, no. 2, 1995, pp. 7485.

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Gaines, Ernest. A Lesson Before Dying. Vintage Books, 1993.

Magill, David. “’Make Him a Man’: Black Masculinity and Communal Identity in Ernest J. Gaines’s A Lesson Before Dying.” Studies in the Literary Imagination, vol. 49, no. 1, 2016, pp. 61-76.

Martin, Chante. “’How a (Black) Man Should Live’: Southern “Places” of Memory, Instruction, and Transformation in Ernest J. Gaines’s A Lesson Before Dying.” The Journal of Men’s Studies, vol. 20, no. 3, 2012, pp. 243-258.

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StudyCorgi. (2021, May 22). Heroism in "A Lesson Before Dying" by E. Gaines. Retrieved from https://studycorgi.com/heroism-in-a-lesson-before-dying-by-e-gaines/

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"Heroism in "A Lesson Before Dying" by E. Gaines." StudyCorgi, 22 May 2021, studycorgi.com/heroism-in-a-lesson-before-dying-by-e-gaines/.

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