A Lesson Before Dying: Ernest Gaines
A Lesson Before Dying (1993) by acclaimed author, Ernest Gaines, is set in the rural South (Bayonne, Louisiana) in the late 1940’s amidst the still raw racial tensions of this era. This classic novel is narrated from the first person point of view by Grant Wiggins, a young teacher who has returned home from receiving his education to teach grades primer through high school in the local church. Gaines introduces the conflict in the first chapters which occur in the courtroom where a young man named Jefferson has been unjustly convicted to death for the robbery and murder of a white store owner, Mr. Alsace Grope. Jefferson was in the wrong company and is actually innocent of the crime. He is called a “hog” by his lawyer and is represented as someone who cannot distinguish right from wrong. The teacher, Mr. Wiggins, is instructed by his aunt, Tante Lou, and Jefferson’s godmother, Miss Emma, to visit Jefferson in jail and help him to die with honor. As the novel progresses, Grant is extremely conflicted with leading the life of an educated, nonreligious black man in a town which is still dictated by the codes of racially immoral white men. His education has brought him a different perspective and he experiences complex feelings in his role as a teacher to Jefferson and mentor to the people of the town. Themes running through the story include the role of religion in society, family dynamics, martyrdom, and prejudice. The story also includes the love story between Grant and Vivian Baptiste, “a lady of character,” who is still married but provides an avenue of deep love and escape for Grant. The title refers to the metamorphoses experienced by both of the main characters. Each reading of the novel has been unique for me and Gaines brilliant description and dialogue fuel the events of the plot. The prose is intricate and thought provoking, perhaps a reason this novel is read in many schools. Finally, there are interesting references to the French culture in the characters, food, and places that pervade the novel alluding to Louisiana being an original French territory in the United States.
In analysis of the book and the author’s background, readers may observe an autobiographical element to the novel. Mr. Gaines was raised in a pastoral town in Louisiana and left his home to become educated in San Francisco, CA where he was permitted as an African American to attend college. He was raised by strong women such as the ones depicted in the story. Also, during his studies Gaines became enamored with Russian novelists but noticed a void of such stories describing his own people. From my personal readings and discussion of Gaines work, it seems that he is an important writer for noticing a niche that was not recognized in the literary world: the post slavery plight of African Americans in the South. There is an old saying, “everyone has a book in them or a story to tell.” With this novel, Ernest Gaines has illustrated this vital point and simultaneously recorded the stories of his people that will be remembered beyond his own life. Isn’t that the legacy that all serious writers strive for in their art? Read and share this important book, you will be gain new insight into this time in American history.