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A Lesson Before Dying ()

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
    today.  That's why I try to live as well as I can every day and not hurt people.  Especially people
    who love me, people who have done so much for me, people who have sacrificed for me.  I don't
    want to hurt those people.  I want to help those people as much as I can."

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
    Emma ever had anybody in her past that she could be proud of.  Possibly--maybe not.  But she
    wants that now, and she wants it from him.  Irene and my aunt want it from me  Miss Emma
    knows that the state of Louisiana is about to take his life, but before that happens she wants
    something to remember him by.  Irene and my aunt both know that one day I will leave them, but
    they are not about to let me go without a fight.  It's the same thing, the very same thing.  ...

    We black men have failed to protect our women since the time of slavery.  We stay here in the
    South and are broken, or we run away and leave them alone to look after the children and
    themselves.  So each time a male child is born, they hope he will be the one to change this viscious
    circle--which he never does.  Because even though he wants to change it, it is too heavy a burden
    because of all the others who have run away and left their burdens behind.  So he, too, must run
    away if he is to hold on to his sanity and have a life of his own.  I can see by your face you don't
    agree, so I'll try again.  What she wants is for him, Jefferson, and me to change everything that has
    been going on for three hundred years.  She wants it to happen so in case she ever gets out of bed
    again, she can go to that little church there in the quarter and say proudly, 'You see, I told you--I
    told you he was a man.'  And if she dies an hour after that, all right; but what she wants to hear first
    is that he did not crawl to that white man, that he stood at that last moment and walked.  Because if
    he does not, she knows that she will never get a chance to see a black man stand for her.

    And for my aunt and Irene it is the same.  Who else does my aunt have?  She has never married.
    She raised my mother because my mother's mother, who was her sister, gave my mother to her
    when she was only a baby, to follow a man whom the South had run away.  Just as my own
    mother and my own father left me with her, for greener pastures.  And for Irene and for others
    there in the quarter it's the same.  They look at their fathers, their grandfathers, their brothers--all
    broken.  They see me--and I, who grew up in the same plantation, can teach reading, writing and
    arithmetic.  I can give them something that neither a husband, a father, nor a grandfather ever did,
    so they want to hold on as long as they can. Not realizing that their holding on will break me too.
    That in order for me to be what they think I am, what they want me to be, I must run as the others
    have done in the past.  Now do you see?  Do you see?"

    "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.


Grade: (A)


Book-related and General Links:
    -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'
    -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