In A LESSON BEFORE DYING, Ernest J. Gaines returns to the southern Louisiana setting he has established in his earlier fiction as his own. The year is 1948. Jefferson, a barely literate young black man, sentenced to death for a shooting in which he was innocently involved, has heard his defense attorney say that executing Jefferson would be like putting a hog in the electric chair. Jefferson has suffered so many outrages to his manhood during his short lifetime that he is altogether too ready to accept his attorney’s assessment.
But Jefferson’s aged godmother resolves that, if Jefferson must die, he will first come to know that he is a man. She enlists as her reluctant instrument Grant Wiggins, a university graduate who teaches the children in the black quarter during the months when they are not working in the fields. At first, Grant and Jefferson seem a study in contrast, but as they slowly move toward mutual trust and respect, it is clear that Grant, as much as Jefferson, has a great deal to learn about what it is to be a man. Grant and Jefferson will finally share equally in the lesson all of us must learn before dying: what it means to be human.
What could degenerate into melodrama or didacticism becomes in Gaines’s hands a probing and honestly felt study of human possibilities. Gaines creates a cast of sharply drawn minor characters, all of whom, including those of whose conduct he must disapprove, he treats with sympathy and insight. He is at his best in his nuanced observation of the ironies and intricacies of negotiation between races and between generations. Readers who have waited ten years for a new novel by Gaines will find in A LESSON BEFORE DYING further confirmation of his assured, self-effacing, spiritually generous art.
Auger, Philip. “A Lesson About Manhood: Appropriating The Word in Ernest Gaines’s A Lesson Before Dying.” The Southern Literary Journal 27 (Spring, 1995): 74-78. Auger explores the issues of dignity and self-worth in Gaines’s novel, focusing on the problems black men face when attempting to define their manhood. His discussion also includes an examination of Gaines’s other works that deal with the same theme.
Babb, Valerie M. Ernest Gaines. Boston: Twayne, 1991. A major critical introduction to Gaines, with a chronology and bibliography. The best general introduction to Gaines published before A Lesson Before Dying. Strongly recommended as starting point for further study.
Gaudet, Marcia, and Carl Wooton. “Looking Ahead.” In Porch Talk with Ernest Gaines: Conversations on the Writer’s Craft. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1990. In an interview, Gaines discusses A Lesson Before Dying as a work in progress. Comparisons of his comments and the finished work provide valuable insights into the processes of creation and revision.
Larson, Charles R. “End as a Man.” Chicago Tribune Books, May 9, 1993, 5. More than any other novel of African American life, A Lesson Before Dying is about being a man in the face of adversity and about the morality of connectedness, of each individual’s responsibility to his community.
Rubin, Merle. “Convincing Moral Tale of Southern Injustice.” The Christian Science Monitor, April 13, 1993, 13. A review for the general reader. Gives a synopsis of the novel and an upbeat appraisal typifying the book’s reception in most reviews. For Rubin, A Lesson Before Dying is an important “moral drama.”
Senna, Carl. “Dying Like a Man.” The New York Times, August 8, 1993, p. G21. An enthusiastic review that helps illuminate the racial lines and tensions among the book’s black, white, and Creole characters. Senna does claim that the novel has an occasional “stylistic lapse” but gives no specific examples.
Sheppard, R. Z. “An A-Plus in Humanity.” Time 141 (March 29, 1993): 65-66. Reviews A Lesson Before Dying, giving a short plot synopsis. Praises the author’s level-headed ability to convey the “malevolence of racism and injustice without the usual accompanying self-righteousness.”
Wardi, Anissa J. Review of A Lesson Before Dying, by Ernest Gaines. MELUS 21 (Summer, 1996): 192-194. A highly favorable review that explores the “role of language in symbolic enslavement.” Wardi also offers a brief plot synopsis and character analysis. She praises the novel as “an extraordinary literary accomplishment.”
Yardley, Jonathan. “Nothing but a Man.” The Washington Post Book World 23 (March 28, 1993): 3. A brief but excellent explication of the novel. Focuses on Grant as protagonist and notes that the lesson referred to in the work’s title is one learned by him as well as by Jefferson. Also remarks on Gaines’s admirable restraint in treating racial themes.
The Lesson Before Dying- Setting and Theme
How important is setting to the central theme of the story?
Explain using at least three different examples from the novel to support your thesis.
Setting is very important in creating a central theme to a story. If a writer were to write a story about Egypt and set it in New York, it would not go along with what the writer is trying to communicate with the reader. It is also a critical element in nonfiction as the setting provides the framework for what is being discussed. In A Lesson Before Dying the setting was well built upon by Earnest J Gaines. There are three different settings that justified the story Gaines was getting across to the reader that are easily recognizable.
The first and most prominent setting is the segregation of the villages. Since this story takes place in a time where segregation was a very big issue, the villages that Gaines paints in the readers mind is where the whites lived and where the blacks lived. The white people lived in big houses with nice lawns and a well looked after landscape. They had workers serving and cleaning up for them; where the black community worked for the whites or themselves and lived in small, dusty and shabby houses. The area in which the blacks lived was very dirty and rough compared to the white neighbourhoods. Along with the segregation of the towns, there were also separate schools and churches for whites and blacks. The schools in the black community are wooden and dusty, not well looked after and do not have many kids in them. The writing of how these characters spoke were also a big part of the segregation. Blacks talk differently, sounding less educated than the whites and the whites talked with full words and limited to no slang words that are prominent throughout the blacks vocabulary. This shows the difference on how the two different races are brought up and educated, all dependant on their skin colour. Another part of this setting that doesn't deal with the villages or anything of the main community is the jail that Jefferson was locked in. He was separated from the cell where the white men were held, even causing segregation in a place where everyone locked up did something bad, but the black man was separated because he was seen as more of a possible threat to the white men, even though the men committed worse crimes. Many times throughout this book you see examples of ways that the community was separated to, what seemed to be, protect or sensitize the whites from the blacks.
The second setting that Gaines portrays is the era in which this novel is based on. The novel is set in Bayonne, Louisiana, in the south, Pre-Civil Rights. During this time there was little to no justice for black people because they were known as lower class, dirty and poor. They were not treated well by the whites and were looked at as nothing more than slaves. Gaines brought this setting upon the reader by writing about how, for example, Edna Guidry, Sam's wife and Henri Pichot's sister asked Grant many questions when he came asking to visit Jefferson, but answered them herself, as though she did not want to hear what Grant had to say, or as though he was not seen as deserving enough to speak. Many times throughout this book Gaines illustrates a community that is split because of the effect of the pre-civil rights entitlement of the whites. This is overhears the two men saying that Jefferson should have been executed long ago, Grant tells them to be quite. Upon having Grant telling the white men to be quite, this is portrayed as bad thing that should not have happened because the white men believe they should not be told what to do by a coloured man This causes a fight and Grant being knocked unconscious. In this part of the pre-civil rights setting, it shows that black men didn't have the right to stand up for themselves or others to white men, or anyone that was white for that matter. They had no
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