A Lesson Before Dying

Ernest J. Gaines

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A Lesson Before Dying | Symbols


Henri Pichot's House

Henri Pichot's large antebellum house sits on a hill over the plantation, raised high off the ground on its solid foundation. Meanwhile, the plantation church/school continues to sink into the ground, just as Grant Wiggins recalls it doing during his childhood. The house is a symbol of how the social order of the slave era persists into the present day, 80 years after slavery's end. White power, like Pichot's house, sits high and undisturbed on its foundation of history, while black communities sink deeper and deeper as the years of oppression accumulate.

Another dimension of symbolism is attached to Pichot's back entrance and kitchen. The back is for blacks while the whites go in the front. When Grant left for college, Tante Lou alluded to the symbolism of the back door by telling him she didn't want him to ever use that entrance again. His education would elevate him above the humiliation of using the slaves' entrance. Gaines's depiction of access to the house allotted according to skin color is an example of how racism structures not only public but private spaces.

Grant is invited out of Pichot's kitchen and into the living room for the first time in his life on the day Jefferson's execution date is announced. He realizes the living room is not luxurious, but shabby and worn out. It has been off limits for him and the other black people on the farm as though it is something special, but it's not. It has been restricted merely to demonstrate how white power is able to restrict black experience.

Window in Jefferson's Cell

Upon seeing Jefferson's cell for the first time, Grant Wiggins immediately notices the small window. It gives a view of a sunlit sycamore tree, but does not show "any other buildings or the ground" (Chapter 9). Even with its bars, the window holds a perfect little slice of nature. Nature exists alongside the cruelty, suffering, and injustice of human relations but is immune to its taint. The window symbolizes how it is possible to rise above the despair of feeling incarcerated and condemned and find a liberating peace and inner freedom, even while remaining literally incarcerated. It is possible to heal, blossom, and to change, like the sycamore tree in the window, even when locked alone in a cell.

This is what Grant has been called to help Jefferson do. Their first visits seem to confirm his suspicion such transcendence is impossible for him to demonstrate and impossible for Jefferson to embody. Jefferson is unresponsive and apathetic, with his gaze fixed on the ceiling or wall of the cell.

Jefferson surprises them both with his success at rising above his psychic experience of imprisonment. As Jefferson becomes more empowered by his relationship with Grant, he looks out the window more and more, and stops staring at the walls men have caged him with. Eventually, he begins to remark upon what he sees through the window—first as a way to reference his own impending death, and later with a simple pleasure in nature's beauty. In his journal Jefferson wrote about what he saw through the window on his final morning: "day breakin / sun comin up / the bird in the tre soun like a blu bird / sky blu blu." That Jefferson observed and recorded this on the long-dreaded day of execution is a sign of the spiritual power he has developed.


In the first scene of his novel Gaines uses the arguments presented by Jefferson's attorney to establish a link between literacy and personhood. "Mention the names of Keats, Byron, Scott, and see whether the eyes will show one moment of recognition," the attorney remarks pompously, as though it is Jefferson's lack of gumption, rather than the racist educational system denying him the same quality of education white children are given, which keeps him from reading classic English literature. The attorney deepens his characterization, saying Jefferson does not know "the months of the year" or the timing of Christmas in relation to the Fourth of July. What this means, according to the attorney, is that Jefferson is not a person like white people are, capable of self-awareness and rational judgment. Jefferson is "a thing that acts on command," out of fear, without "a modicum of intelligence."

Jefferson's notebook is a powerful symbol showing he has not only reclaimed his sense of being a person, he has achieved the power resulting from telling one's own story. It is true Jefferson initially finds himself at a loss when faced with the blank pages, since he "never rote nothin." However, he is determined to figure out how to write his story. At first, he describes the mundane details of his day. As he becomes more comfortable with the experience of writing, he begins to use it to engage in philosophical and spiritual commentary and speculation, such as on the nature of love: if it's "cuttin wood and haulin water and things like that" or if those things are "jus work to do."

His words are presented to the reader exactly as he wrote them—without any teacherly editing on Grant Wiggins's part, and without being filtered and relayed through Grant's consciousness, like the rest of the text. His idiosyncratic spelling, vernacular diction, and free-form sentence structure are integral to his own unique style of expression, which is rather like poetry in its use of metaphor and rhythm: "when I was a litle boy I was a waterboy an rode the cart but now I got to be a man an set in a cher."

The implications of Jefferson's writing in a notebook are quite clear to the sheriff, who has continually alluded to his opinion Jefferson is like an animal in a cage, potentially quite dangerous if "aggravated." He realizes Jefferson's notebook is a symbol of Jefferson's power, and he finds this threatening. As someone who has been a crucial participant in Jefferson's oppression, he naturally fears Jefferson may be writing down the truth for others to read. He demands to know what Jefferson is writing about, and Jefferson demonstrates his power by not telling him. The sheriff repeatedly insists he has treated Jefferson well and instructs him to write about that. He says Jefferson can keep the light on that night to write—presumably, about how wonderful the sheriff is. The sheriff, who is the boss of the jail as well as someone whose skin color has given him all the advantages Jefferson never had, now wants to take control of even this—the authorial freedom of a man who will die in the morning. Jefferson doesn't let him.


The radio Grant gives Jefferson symbolizes Jefferson's continuing claim to life and personhood. Grant has the idea to give Jefferson a radio after he observes Jefferson's pleasure in contemplating his last supper of ice cream. "I never got nothing I wanted in my whole life," Jefferson says. "But now I'm gon'n get me a whole gallon. That's what I want—a whole gallon. Eat it with a pot spoon." This visit is the first during which Jefferson doesn't call himself a hog, and Grant realizes it's because he has "something pleasant to look forward to, though it would be on that last day." Realizing how important it is that Jefferson have some sense of enjoyment in his last days, Grant brings him a radio.

Grant's intuitions were spot-on: Jefferson listens constantly. Miss Emma, the Reverend, and Tante Lou are forced to visit Jefferson in his cell with the radio playing because he refuses to leave, having been told he can't take the radio to the dayroom.

The Reverend and Tante Lou view the radio and its implications of "life as usual" as denial of Jefferson's urgent and unique situation. With five weeks before his execution, they are frantic to get him to accept salvation. Seeing the radio as a barrier to this, they turn their anger on Grant. "That's all he do, listen to that radio, that's what's wrong with it," the Reverend complains to Grant. "He needs God in that cell, and not that sin box."

Disagreement over the radio expresses and contributes to the personal and ideological conflict between Reverend Ambrose and Grant. Tante Lou voices the idea, shared with the Reverend, that the radio is proof of Grant's disdain for religion when she says it is "turning [Jefferson] against God." In defending the radio against the Reverend's claim that it is "sin company," Grant challenges Reverend Ambrose's moral authority in the community: "I don't care what you call it!" he declares. Grant sees Jefferson's need for the radio: it's "something of his own before he dies."

Ultimately, the radio symbolizes Jefferson's humanity, something Grant so believes in he issues an ultimatum: if they take the radio away, he'll stop working with Jefferson. With the radio, Grant "found a way to reach [Jefferson] for the first time." The radio humanizes Jefferson by giving him a meaningful connection with another person and a sense of his own value—two things he must have before he can even begin to consider the matter of religious salvation. Grant drives this point home when he tells the Reverend, "Take that radio away, and let's see what you can do for the soul of a hog."


After Jefferson's defense attorney compares him to a hog, an animal—a creature to whom justice doesn't apply, because it's too dumb to plan and carry off a crime—the hog becomes a potent symbol of the dehumanization inflicted upon blacks by white individuals and power structures. Jefferson internalizes this dehumanization. The fight against this symbol and its implications is so important, it is the root of the entire plot.

Miss Emma understands that asserting one's dignity and humanity in the face of this hatred is the only means of resistance remaining for Jefferson, and she seizes upon it: "hog" is the one word she hears at Jefferson's trial, Grant tells us in Chapter 1. "I don't want them to kill no hog," Miss Emma declares in Chapter 2. "I want a man to go to that chair, on his own two feet." In Chapter 4, we learn the primary industry in Bayonne is a hog slaughterhouse. This underscores, metaphorically, how the exploitation of black bodies is central to the economy and therefore the social order.

Gaines shows how internalizing this symbolic identity affects not only Jefferson, but all those around him. In the book's most painful scene, Jefferson pointedly demonstrates his self-hate for Grant when he eats off the floor like a hog would. Grant knows that he must hide this from Miss Emma, because he cannot bear to witness the pain it would cause her. When Miss Emma visits Jefferson in jail, he rejects the sumptuous food she has brought and tells her, "Corn for a hog ... Th'ow something ... That's all I'm is. I didn't ask to be born." This pains Emma so much that she slaps him, then falls over him crying. She feels she must have offended God in some way to "deserve this" (Chapter 16).

Jefferson reclaims his sense of dignity and self-worth over the course of the five months in prison through his relationship with Grant. Just the act of having a friend—the first in his life—makes him feel like he's somebody. The radio and the notebook Grant give him are further humanizing influences. In Chapter 29 the reader is presented with the text of Jefferson's journal. "Man walk on two foots; hogs on four hoofs," the journal reads. Jefferson has rejected the self-hate, and his amazing transformation—and the dignity with which he approaches his death—undercuts the old myth of white supremacy, not just for him alone, but for the entire black community. In this way, Gaines communicates the idea that no matter a person's circumstance, he has a power nobody can take from him: the power to face his fate, no matter how unjust, with dignity and grace. This attitude is not merely a symbolic gesture, but is the first step in undoing the entrenchment of white power structures.

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