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A Lesson Before Dying

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by [lavacaloca ]

2003-12-13  |     | 

“I submit to you that if a man hasn’t discovered something that he will die for, he isn’t fit to live.” These are the wise words of Martin Luther King Jr. This quote mirrors the events that take place in the novel by Ernest J. Gaines, "A Lesson Before Dying." This novel is about the ways in which the imprisoned, mentally, or physically, may find freedom even in the moment of their death. The imprisoned in this novel is Jefferson, who is an innocent “man” sentenced to death by electrocution. Gaines through the character of Jefferson is able to address the basic predicament of what it is to be a human being, a creature striving for dignity in a society that often denies it.
This novel is set in the late 1940’s Louisiana, a poor, uneducated black youth is convicted of murder for his unwitting presence 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…as a result, incapable of planning a robbery “Why, I would just as soon put a hog in the electric chair as this.”
(Gaines 8)
All the characters in "A Lesson Before Dying" directly and indirectly are motivated by a single word, hog. Jefferson insists on comparing himself to a hog, during one of Wiggins visits he says to Wiggins that “I’m a old hog, youmans don’t stay in no stall like this. I’m a old hog they fattening up to kill.” (Gaines, 83) Jefferson has given up on himself. He has allowed himself to feel inferior to those that surround him. As Eleanor Roosevelt once said “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” In Jefferson’s case he was letting himself be defined, thus loosing any hope of establishing his true identity and manhood.
“A male is a biological creature; a boy is a creature in transition; and a man is something that has arrived to a purpose and destiny.” (Dr.Na’im Akbar) Jefferson is a boy who is trying to reach this transition and become a man before he faces his death. Jefferson, being labeled a “hog” and sentenced to prison, affects all those that surround him. He is an ignorant youth who resists becoming a man. He believes that because a white man referred to him as “hog“, he is therefore a “hog“. Jefferson is a black man with many limitations. He was not privileged with any formal education, and his speech is slurred and ignorant. Amazingly, Grant Wiggins manages to make Jefferson into a man in a matter of weeks. Jefferson is able to become a man because Wiggins treats him as an equal, like a man, something that no one has ever done. Wiggins does not allow him to act and express himself like a “hog“. He makes sure that Jefferson does not eat off the floor, and brings him a radio for his entertainment. The radio for Jefferson means a great deal, because it is the only thing that he has ever owned. Jefferson’s entire life has been struggle for survival. He has never had any money for himself. His only personal belongings are those he wears. Wiggins brings Jefferson a notebook and a pencil, which brings life into the last thoughts of a misunderstood and misjudged man. Mr. Wiggins also wants Jefferson to talk to him to tell him his worries and doubts. Through this notebook we see how Jefferson thinks and how he has developed into a man. Jefferson himself says “nobody aint never bee that good to me and make me think im somebody.” (Gaines 232) Wiggins gave Jefferson respect, and treated him as an equal. Wiggins also made him acknowledge that people do care and love him.
At the beginning of the novel, Grant Wiggins, doubts his capacity to be able to make Jefferson a man. He is not sure he knows what a man is. Jefferson, on the other hand, awakens a sense of awareness in Wiggins, and makes him into a better man. Both Grant and Jefferson have rites of passages into manhood. Grant realizes after Jefferson’s death that Jefferson has taught him more than he could have ever taught Jefferson. In "A Lesson Before Dying" there is only one white character in which we could identify a sense of pity and understanding toward black people. In Deputy Paul, a white man, we see a sense of humanity. He has a good heart and he ends up actually caring for Jefferson. It is because of Jefferson that Wiggins and Deputy Paul become friends. Their friendship is inspirational. A black man and a white man, overcoming prejudice and circumstance, brought together by a person who was labeled a “hog.” Jefferson impacted everyone in the community, from Deputy Paul, Grant Wiggins, to the school children who all admired his courage. Jefferson’s last few weeks of life were the lesson of a lifetime. He taught his people that they could overcome not only the white man’s oppression, but the mental handicap that prevented them from becoming a proud race.
This is a straightforward and simple novel. It masterfully evokes a time, place, and community that was forced to bear an application of injustice.. The dignified manner in which a simple man can rise up with courage and grace, and accept the burden of man’s injustice to man makes for an uplifting triumph of the human spirit. Jefferson at the end of his journal writes “good by mr wigin tell them im strong tell them im a man…”(Gaines 234) He writes this with a deep sense of pride and dignity. Jefferson has become a proud and honorable young man that proves to be an inspiration to all those that have been touched by his story. Harvey Fierstein, winning playwright, once said: “Never be bullied into silence. Never allow yourself to be made a victim. Accept no one’s definition of your life; Define yourself.”

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