In A LESSON BEFORE DYING, Ernest J. Gaines returns to the southern Louisiana setting he has established in his earlier fiction as his own. The year is 1948. Jefferson, a barely literate young black man, sentenced to death for a shooting in which he was innocently involved, has heard his defense attorney say that executing Jefferson would be like putting a hog in the electric chair. Jefferson has suffered so many outrages to his manhood during his short lifetime that he is altogether too ready to accept his attorney’s assessment.
But Jefferson’s aged godmother resolves that, if Jefferson must die, he will first come to know that he is a man. She enlists as her reluctant instrument Grant Wiggins, a university graduate who teaches the children in the black quarter during the months when they are not working in the fields. At first, Grant and Jefferson seem a study in contrast, but as they slowly move toward mutual trust and respect, it is clear that Grant, as much as Jefferson, has a great deal to learn about what it is to be a man. Grant and Jefferson will finally share equally in the lesson all of us must learn before dying: what it means to be human.
What could degenerate into melodrama or didacticism becomes in Gaines’s hands a probing and honestly felt study of human possibilities. Gaines creates a cast of sharply drawn minor characters, all of whom, including those of whose conduct he must disapprove, he treats with sympathy and insight. He is at his best in his nuanced observation of the ironies and intricacies of negotiation between races and between generations. Readers who have waited ten years for a new novel by Gaines will find in A LESSON BEFORE DYING further confirmation of his assured, self-effacing, spiritually generous art.
Auger, Philip. “A Lesson About Manhood: Appropriating The Word in Ernest Gaines’s A Lesson Before Dying.” The Southern Literary Journal 27 (Spring, 1995): 74-78. Auger explores the issues of dignity and self-worth in Gaines’s novel, focusing on the problems black men face when attempting to define their manhood. His discussion also includes an examination of Gaines’s other works that deal with the same theme.
Babb, Valerie M. Ernest Gaines. Boston: Twayne, 1991. A major critical introduction to Gaines, with a chronology and bibliography. The best general introduction to Gaines published before A Lesson Before Dying. Strongly recommended as starting point for further study.
Gaudet, Marcia, and Carl Wooton. “Looking Ahead.” In Porch Talk with Ernest Gaines: Conversations on the Writer’s Craft. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1990. In an interview, Gaines discusses A Lesson Before Dying as a work in progress. Comparisons of his comments and the finished work provide valuable insights into the processes of creation and revision.
Larson, Charles R. “End as a Man.” Chicago Tribune Books, May 9, 1993, 5. More than any other novel of African American life, A Lesson Before Dying is about being a man in the face of adversity and about the morality of connectedness, of each individual’s responsibility to his community.
Rubin, Merle. “Convincing Moral Tale of Southern Injustice.” The Christian Science Monitor, April 13, 1993, 13. A review for the general reader. Gives a synopsis of the novel and an upbeat appraisal typifying the book’s reception in most reviews. For Rubin, A Lesson Before Dying is an important “moral drama.”
Senna, Carl. “Dying Like a Man.” The New York Times, August 8, 1993, p. G21. An enthusiastic review that helps illuminate the racial lines and tensions among the book’s black, white, and Creole characters. Senna does claim that the novel has an occasional “stylistic lapse” but gives no specific examples.
Sheppard, R. Z. “An A-Plus in Humanity.” Time 141 (March 29, 1993): 65-66. Reviews A Lesson Before Dying, giving a short plot synopsis. Praises the author’s level-headed ability to convey the “malevolence of racism and injustice without the usual accompanying self-righteousness.”
Wardi, Anissa J. Review of A Lesson Before Dying, by Ernest Gaines. MELUS 21 (Summer, 1996): 192-194. A highly favorable review that explores the “role of language in symbolic enslavement.” Wardi also offers a brief plot synopsis and character analysis. She praises the novel as “an extraordinary literary accomplishment.”
Yardley, Jonathan. “Nothing but a Man.” The Washington Post Book World 23 (March 28, 1993): 3. A brief but excellent explication of the novel. Focuses on Grant as protagonist and notes that the lesson referred to in the work’s title is one learned by him as well as by Jefferson. Also remarks on Gaines’s admirable restraint in treating racial themes.
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The Centrality of Community
The novel’s title suggests that someone has to learn something before the day of the execution. As readers start the novel, they’re led to believe that that someone is Jefferson, who must learn that he is a man before he dies. But as the story develops, it becomes clear that Grant also has a lesson to learn. The lessons both men learn concern the importance of community in their lives and the role each must play in that community. In fact, the idea that people need to exist within a supportive community is a theme that runs through much of Gaines’s fiction.
Grant and Jefferson both suffer because they are outside of their community. Grant has chosen this outsider status, but it keeps him from committing himself—to the schoolchildren, to his family and neighbors, even to Vivian. His reasons for holding himself apart are valid: He fears that his community will use him up and destroy him as he has seen it do to other men. And in some ways the communal demands on Grant are invasive (as in his conflict with his aunt and the reverend over church and God) and humiliating (as in the indignities he has to endure so that Emma’s plans will work). Community is not perfect, but it is part of human experience. Grant withers without it and begins to thrive only when he starts to work with others, notably, when he needs cash to buy the radio.
Jefferson has been torn away from his community and imprisoned; the isolation from everyone except jail personnel has a terrible impact on him. Gradually, however, through the efforts of Emma, Grant, and Paul, Jefferson is reconnected to community—through the radio, through the gifts and then the visit of the children, which leaves him in tears, and through the news from the quarter and the visits of people from the quarter. Again, community has not been a perfect influence in Jefferson’s life. His association with Bear and Brother, in fact, resulted in the circumstances that led to his trial. Yet community gives Jefferson something to live and, in the end, die for.
The racist divide in the parish is a further interruption of community, yet there are hints that this centuries-old divide may eventually be healed as well. White characters in the novel sometimes surprise Grant by stepping across that divide, as Edna Guidry does on behalf of Emma and Lou and as Paul Bonin does by coming to know and admire Jefferson and desiring to be Grant’s friend. There is the possibility, at least, that a larger, fairer community encompassing blacks and whites may come to be in the future.
The Impact of the Individual
Grant, the novel’s narrator and protagonist, struggles with the external conflicts imposed on him by life in a poor neighborhood in the racially divided, pre-civil rights South. However, an internal conflict also presses on him. He does not know whether one person—whether he—can make a difference, especially in a society that discriminates against half its citizens. Why teach, if teaching won’t change the children’s life for the better? Why bother with difficult visits to Jefferson’s cell, if Jefferson is determined to stare at the wall and say nothing? Grant doubts his ability to make a difference, and the man who mentored him, Matthew Antoine, reinforces these doubts by confessing that he himself made no difference when he taught. “Just do the best you can,” he advises Grant. “But it won’t matter.” Because of his doubts, Grant becomes self-centered and self-preserving.
However, Grant himself is evidence that Antoine’s teaching did matter. It changed Grant, caused him to want to go to university, and drew him back to the quarter to teach. And though Grant may not realize it, the children are changing as he teaches them. Not only do they learn academic matters, but they are able to plan and carry out the Christmas program and act compassionately toward Jefferson. Jefferson, too, painfully and slowly responds to Grant. The radio does, as Grant hopes, bring the world to Jefferson, and the notebook does help him express and work through his thoughts and feelings. The hard work is Jefferson’s, but the teacher—Grant—set the assignment.
The novel closes with Grant going into the church to be with his students after the execution. How his experiences with Jefferson, the children, the reverend, Paul, and other characters will affect his future in the quarter is left to readers’ imaginations, but he has had an impact on his community. The novel seems to suggest that an individual cannot hope to change the world but can—and must—do what he or she can to better it.