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A Lesson Before Dying

Ernest J. Gaines

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A Lesson Before Dying | Themes


Personal Growth

Above all A Lesson Before Dying is a novel about personal growth—why it is important, how it happens, what it looks like, and what effect it can have on a community when one individual grows. Although Grant Wiggins is ostensibly the teacher and Jefferson the student, both men experience growth and change. In the five-and-a-half-month period—the same amount of time as a school year on the plantation—Jefferson grows more in prison awaiting his death than Grant does, despite Grant's physical freedom and education. This underscores the idea that growth can happen with the right response to situations, no matter how adverse, dire, or hopeless they may seem, or how many disadvantages a person has.

Miss Emma, horrified by the defense attorney's characterization of Jefferson as a hog, tasks Grant with using the time Jefferson has left to help him grow. As she says to Henri Pichot in Chapter 3, "I didn't raise no hog, and I don't want no hog to go set in that chair." Her solution is for Grant to have regular visits with Jefferson at the prison: "I want the teacher make him know he's not a hog, he's a man." Jefferson has in fact internalized this characterization and his display of this inner attitude is striking and painful, especially when he gets down on the floor and eats from the food Emma has sent, as a hog would.

While Tante Lou and Miss Emma believe Grant can help Jefferson grow because he's the teacher, Grant and others, like the sheriff, have plenty of doubts Jefferson is capable of growth. It is not explicitly stated at first, but the subtext is: Grant's people think this experience would be good for him, too, and at the very least would mean he must grow by facing a responsibility. His inner conflict about his vocation and his community and his persistent desire to run away but inability to do so, are marks of a man who has plenty to learn himself.

After some time working with Jefferson, Grant confides he needs help. "I need you to tell me, to show me," he tells Jefferson. "I need to know what to do with my life. I want to run away," he explains. In contrast, Jefferson can be a hero by adopting the right attitude.

Jefferson's presence draws out Grant's capacity to speak eloquently. The reader often senses Grant is having realizations at the exact moment he speaks them to Jefferson. His metaphor for personal growth in Chapter 24 is one of the book's most eloquent: he describes how Mr. Farrell whittles a slingshot handle beginning with "just a little piece of rough wood—any little piece of scrap wood ... then he starts cutting." Personal growth is painful; there are losses, like the wood cut away. When he's done, "it's not what it was before, but something new and pretty." He says everyone is just "a piece of drifting wood, until we—each one of us, individually—decide to become something else." Grant says he's "still that piece of drifting wood," but Jefferson can "be better."

Jefferson does grow. He goes from displaying hostility, aloofness, and twisted pain, to adopting a calm assurance in the face of his unjust fate. His acceptance of Emma's food, his expression of gratitude for the kindness of the community, and his self-expression in the notebook are all signs of his growth. He even begins to stand tall, rather than stooped and shackled as before. It is Grant's friendship and care that gives Jefferson a sense of self-worth, which in turn gives him the strength to grow. As he writes in his notebook in Chapter 29, "you been so good to me mr wigin an nobody aint never been that good to me an make me think im sombody." He feels the magnitude of the task ahead of him, but he grounds it in his understanding of Jesus, who Jefferson finds remarkable mostly for his quiet submission to his fate. He hopes to emulate this aspect of Christ, by going to his death without "a mumbling word" (Chapter 28), bearing everyone's cross; and he does. As Paul Bonin tells Grant after the execution, Jefferson's final words were, "Tell Nannan I walked." He compliments Grant on being a "great teacher," saying, "I saw the transformation," but Grant does not take credit: "I didn't do it," he says. "Maybe he did it himself ... maybe it was God" (Chapter 31).

Grant lacks the strength to be at the execution, unlike Paul and Reverend Ambrose. He does not know his own mind, as he spent the execution alone, tormented with the question of why he chose not to be there with Jefferson. Although Grant shirks his final duty to Jefferson, a mark not of a man but of a child, he has grown some. His growth has come through his interactions with Jefferson, the unlikely pupil who became his hero. Jefferson's example changes everything for Grant, but he still lacks the faith to wait and see: "What about tomorrow? What happens after today? Nothing will ever be the same after today," he frets.

The execution also makes Grant realize his lack of faith is a handicap. He wonders if he's kept Jefferson from believing, since, "at this moment, what else is there?" He feels faith in Jefferson, and realizes he has been wrong in considering a belief in the afterlife foolish. The act of belief is what is powerful, regardless of the true value of what is believed. He now sees how the idea of an afterlife frees the mind, and "only when the mind is free has the body a chance to be free." He realizes because he does not believe, he is "a slave" (Chapter 31). When he returns to his classroom and faces his students, he cries, and this new vulnerability signals something deep within him shifting. Heretofore Grant has been a hostile presence in the classroom, always hitting himself or his students with his ruler as if to hurt them into knowing the despair he himself feels. To stand before them without his ruler-weapon and let his tears fall signals he is making space in his classroom for vulnerability, compassion, and love.

Responsibility to the Community

One of the novel's most persistent messages is that we all have responsibilities in life, no matter who we are, both to ourselves and to others. Both Grant Wiggins and Jefferson have "moral ... obligation[s]" to the community, to use Grant's words in Chapter 18, and particularly to Miss Emma. These duties aren't easy, but it is through relationships with others that individuals like Grant and Jefferson are constantly reminded of their moral obligations, steered back toward them when they want to discard them, and supported in fulfilling them. It is a responsibility to grow as a person, another of Gaines's themes, because when individuals grow toward their potential, they are able to inspire and help others to do the same, resulting in improvements in life for the community.

Miss Emma flouts the "natural order" of assumed white supremacy by declaring to Henri Pichot, as well as to Sheriff Guidry's wife, they have an obligation to Emma after her years of service to them as the family cook. Although they treat Miss Emma with a manner clearly conveying they believe Emma is inferior to them, and not worthy of their respect, they uncomfortably acknowledge they do have such a responsibility to her. When petitioning Pichot to speak to the sheriff for permission to visit Jefferson in jail, Emma argues, "This family owe me that much." She refers to a life of thankless caring for others when she adds, "Somebody got to do something for me one time fore I close my eyes" (Chapter 3). Pichot is impatient and dismissive, but he does as she asks.

In Chapter 18 when Jefferson refuses to eat Emma's food during a visit, Grant uses this defiance to lead into a discussion about personal responsibility. "No matter how bad off we are ... we still owe something," he says. He explains that Jefferson owes Emma alone the love and kindness of eating her food and speaking when she comes to see him, because not to do so hurts her deeply.

Yet for all Grant's eloquent speaking on the matter, he struggles with his own responsibilities and constantly longs to cast them off as too heavy a burden. Reverend Mose Ambrose senses this and chastises Grant when Grant refuses to work with Reverend Ambrose toward the salvation of Jefferson's soul, something Emma deeply desires: "You going back," Reverend Ambrose insists. "You owe her as much as I owe her." Grant replies, "I don't owe anybody anything." Reverend Ambrose says duty sometimes consists of lying. Leaders of the community have a duty "to relieve pain, to relieve hurt—and if you have to lie to do it, then you lie" (Chapter 27).

Reverend Ambrose is not the only one who reminds Grant of his responsibilities. Tante Lou does it constantly in her laconic way: "Why me?" Grant asks, and her reply is a refrain: "You the teacher" (Chapter 16). Vivian Baptiste also acts as a force to remind Grant of his responsibilities, a topic that comes up often because Grant is constantly trying to convince her to run away with him. "People do it all the time. Just pack up and leave," he says in Chapter 4. "Some people can, but we can't," she replies. "We're teachers, and we have a commitment." She convinces Grant to stick with the visits by framing them as a responsibility to her and to their relationship: "I want you to go for me ... For us, Grant." Because Grant loves Vivian and his aunt, and his whole community—although his love is often covered up and expressed as defiance, hostility, or passive aggressiveness—he has no choice but to perform his responsibilities as best he can. Because he does them, Jefferson becomes a hero, the community is drawn together, and Miss Emma gets what she wants. Because he does not neglect this duty, Grant himself begins to change, to grow.

Power of Faith

Because religion and faith are so intertwined with the life of the plantation community, the school and church are both held in the church building—a symbolic expression of how developing faith is part of becoming educated. Grant Wiggins is someone who once believed and has lost his faith due to his education. Jefferson was baptized into the church, but is uncertain about the truth of its claims, having grown up around people who were always questioning how God could love them while making them suffer so. Other characters, like Tante Lou, Miss Emma, Vivian Baptiste, and Reverend Mose Ambrose, exemplify what it means to live a life of faith. The power of faith, as Grant finally realizes the day of the execution, is that it liberates a person's mind and therefore gives them a fighting chance at other types of freedom. Because of this beneficial function, whether or not the particular teachings are literally true is somewhat irrelevant. It gives one the courage of their convictions and allows them to face difficulty with grace.

While Grant spends Sundays, which he considers the "saddest day of the week," trying to escape the pervasive religious singing that begins with his aunt singing her "'Termination song" at home and then continues with the music from the church, Vivian points out that he should go to church, because he does in fact believe. "You don't want to, but I know you do," she says. Grant denies this: "The only thing I believe in is loving you" (Chapter 14). He lacks faith in his students to accept their educations and he lacks faith in himself as a teacher. He lacks faith in an unjust society and in a God who condones it: "Don't tell me to believe that God can bless this country and that men are judged by his peers." To Grant, who is an intellectual, the wrongness of the world is evidence against religious faith. He may not be able to believe because of his education and relative worldliness, but he realizes faith's necessity for his community: "They must believe, if only to free the mind, if not the body." He acknowledges having spiritual faith is the first step in effecting the social, economic, and political change he longs for but has grown weary awaiting. Not only this, it is ultimately an elegant subversion on the part of Reverend Ambrose, who is a black Catholic lay preacher spreading a European religion among a black community oppressed by other whites, many of whom are Catholic as well: Grant recognizes Reverend Ambrose "is going to use their God to give him strength" (Chapter 31).

Grant's lack of faith leads to his behaving in cowardly ways. He is expected to help break the news that Jefferson will be executed on April 8, to Miss Emma, but refuses. "You'd have the strength if you had God," Reverend Ambrose tells him (Chapter 20). Reverend Ambrose, who does have faith but does not have Grant's college education, has strength greater than Grant's. He is able to be by Miss Emma's side during all her difficult moments, and he is able to be by Jefferson's side during the execution, while Grant is unable to do either.

But religious faith is not the only kind of faith that is important or useful. Having faith in another person can cause extraordinary things to happen. While Grant lacks faith in himself, his Tante Lou does not. Because he is educated, he has powers the other people on the plantation do not, in her eyes. Three times throughout the text, she responds to Grant's wheedling about being unequipped and unable to do ultimately futile work with Jefferson with a simple, "You the teacher." Her conviction leaves no room for doubt and it leaves him no choice, and forces Grant to rise to the occasion more than he ever has. Similarly, Grant develops a faith in Jefferson, if not in himself: "My faith is in you, Jefferson," he thinks on the morning of the execution (Chapter 31). Jefferson doesn't let him down; he goes like a man, and this so touches Grant that he faces his students in tears. He did not have faith he could do anything for Jefferson, or that it was even worthwhile to try, but a faith slowly developed, and Jefferson fulfills Grant's hopes beyond his expectations. This leaves Grant with the problem of reconciling his former cynicism with the miraculous transformation, sacrifice, and heroism he has just witnessed. The novel ends here, but the reader may wonder if this discrepancy is the crack in logic that will allow Grant's faith to take hold and grow.

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