A Lesson Before Dying (1993)
National Book Critics' Circle Award (1993)
In late 1940's Louisiana, a poor, uneducated black youth is convicted of murder for his unwitting role in a liquor store holdup and the ensuing shoot-out. At his trial, his attorney refers to him as little more than an animal, a hog with no idea of right and wrong or capacity to plan a robbery: `I would just as soon put a hog in the electric chair as this.'' Sent to death row with just months to live, he has abandoned all hope and surrendered to the depiction of himself as a beast. His godmother (or "nannan"), Miss Emma, asks Grant Wiggins, the local school teacher to visit him in prison and teach him, so that he can die a man. However, Grant desperately wants out of the South and has no desire to tutor this recalcitrant, difficult student, nor to face the reality of what can happen to blacks in the Jim Crow South, nor to kowtow to the whites who run the prison and whose permission he will need to visit Jefferson. But Wiggins' aunt, who raised him, demands that he help her friend and her friend's godson, and his girlfriend, Vivian, also prevails upon him, so reluctantly he gets drawn in.
At first Jefferson is totally unreachable, grunting and eating like the hog he was compared to. He even refuses the efforts of his nannan to reach out to him. But gradually his facade crumbles and he and Wiggins forge a tentative relationship. Wiggins asks him to bear up if only for his nannan:
"Is it asking too much, Jefferson, to show some concern for her?"
"'Cause I'm go'n die anyhow--that's what you trying to say?"
Now it was I who didn't answer.
"That's what you trying to say, Mr. Teacher?" he asked.
"We're all going to die, Jefferson."
"Tomorrow, Mr. Teacher, that's when you go'n die? Next week?"
"I don't know when I'm going to die, Jefferson.
Maybe tomorrow, maybe next week, maybe
As it turns out, this is what unites the two men, that they are the repositories of the hopes of the women in their families. As Wiggins explains to Vivian:
"Irene and my aunt want from me what Miss Emma wants
from Jefferson. I don't know if Miss
We black men have failed to protect our women since
the time of slavery. We stay here in the
And for my aunt and Irene it is the same. Who
else does my aunt have? She has never married.
"Will the circle ever be broken?"
"It's up to Jefferson, my love."
And so, even Wiggins is shifting the burden to Jefferson. Where we assumed that the lesson before dying would be learned by Jefferson and taught by Wiggins, the great pleasure of the novel is that exactly the opposite occurs. In fact, Jefferson is transformed into a Christ-figure as he shoulders the burdens of an entire community and his dignity in the face of indifferent death demonstrates to Wiggins, to white jailers and to the folk of the Parish just what it means to be a man. He achieves an apotheosis as, dying for the sins of others, he proves himself to be, not a hog, but a human being and in the process he redeems Grant Wiggins.
This is a straightforward novel, that masterfully evokes a time and a place and a community that was forced to bear inhuman injustices. The dignified manner in which a simple man rises up and, with courage and grace, accepts the burden of man's inhumanity to man makes for an uplifting tale of the triumph of the the human spirit.
See also:General Literature
National Book Critics' Circle Award
Oprah's Book Club
Vintage Books List of the Best Reading Group Books
-Teachers Guide: A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest Gaines (Random House)
-EXCERPT: Chapter One
-BookBrowser Review: A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest J. Gaines
-BIO: Ernest J. Gaines (Tanya Bickley Enterprises)
-INTERVIEW: Meeting Ernest Gaines Bill Ferris, NEH Chairman
-Ernest Gaines' haunting voice (Jason Berry, y'all.com)
-Born on the Bayou: USL's literary treasure Ernest Gaines (Brian McCann , The Vermillion)
-'Miss Jane Pittman' Is Removed From a Class at Blacks' Behest Reuters CONROE, Tex., Jan. 21 1995, Sunday NY Times
-REVIEW: of A Gathering of Old Men (Reynolds Price, NY Times Book Review)
-The National Book Critics's Circle Award
Copyright 1998-2015 Orrin Judd