A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest J. Gaines

A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest J. Gaines

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A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest J. Gaines

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Ernest J. Gaines was born in 1933 on a Louisiana plantation in the midst

of the Great Depression. As a young boy of 9, he began his work in the fields.

He spent his childhood digging potatoes, and for a days labor was rewarded

with 50 cents. He was raised during this time by his aunt, Augusteen Jefferson,

who showed Gaines a determination most of us could only dream of, as she

cared for her family with no legs to support her. At age 15, after moving to

Vallejo, California with his parents, Gaines discovered the joy of the public

library. The library greatly influenced his decision to become an author.

While A Lesson Before Dying was written in an attempt to show how

much racial tension there was at the time, Gaines also managed to show how

one can stay close to his roots. I feel that the book was also written as a

dedication to his aunt, to show how the courage of one person can affect

everyone around them. The book also shows in the protagonist's (Grant)

internal conflicts, that one must remain true to their heritage. It illustrates that

knowledge is important, but knowledge isn't just a GED. How can one move

forward in life without knowing their family's previous mistakes? To quote

George Santayana, "Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it."

What grasped me most about the novel was Gaines' way of showing his

readers that you have the ability to not only face mistakes in your past with

bravery, but to turn and show the same backbone when looking as to what

your future may hold. For instance, Jefferson has to relive the simple mistake

of being at the wrong place at the wrong time. Though wrongly accused he

was, Jefferson was also able to face his execution like a man, showing

unbelievable strength toward his postexistence. Grant, on the other hand, had

always thought about his future. His future with Vivian, his future in a new

place. What Grant didn't see was that he did not know a single thing of his

past or heritage, and before he could move on he had to know what he was

leaving behind. Grant was able to show this to me by saying, "And that's all

we are, Jefferson, all of us on this earth, a piece of drifting wood, until we-

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each one of us, individually-decide to become someone else." While we all will

become something else if we so choose, we didn't start out that was.

Everything was made and created from what they originally were. No one can

forget their past, because it is your past that makes you. People should take

life as it comes, and keep their eye on the future. For example, two of my

dogs were poisoned in one week about a month ago. I could have cowered in

one place, tried to forget the past, and stay where I was instead of moving

forward. I realized I can't forget them, my past, but I have to face life without

them. It will be different, but change isn't something to be feared. Since their death, I have become a person who cherishes every moment shared with

someone. I can't say I started out that way.

What I enjoyed most about A Lesson Before Dying was watching how

Jefferson's outlook changed with Grant's visits. I feel there are certain steps in

the grueling process of grieving, and finally acceptance. I felt I knew how

Jefferson felt, because I have been there, so naturally, I adored reading it. First

he blamed himself for being imprisoned. He refused to speak to anyone

because he couldn't find it in himself to do it. Then, Jefferson began blaming

everyone for what happened to him. He lashed out because he knew he was

innocwnt and there was nothing any of them could do to save him. Jefferson

was angry because nothing that anyone could say would change the fact that

he had to die. Next came understanding. No, no one could stop him from

being executed, but they could change the way he went. It was up to him to

take the help he was being given, and die like a man. Finally, as with

everything, there was acceptance. Jefferson finally understood that he could

change everyone's opinion about him, and leave behind something much

greater than he could ever be. When Jefferson died, he left the realization that

you are not what you were born as, but what you made yourself.

If I could change one thing about the novel, it would be to put Grant at

the scene of the execution. I would prefer to have some closure, and I know it

would mean a lot to Jefferson to have him there. In the same token, I

disagree with myself as well. I know that if Grant was there it would not mean

half as much to say that Jefferson walked. Anyone can be brave if he's

following someone else. That takes no true bravery. To say, simply, "Tell

Nannan I walked," wouldn't have half the meaning it does if Grant was there to

hear it. While everyone thought it was Grant who taught Jefferson, I feel that

view to be backwards. Grant learned most from the man who had te courage

to stand without him, so perhaps I wouldn't want to change anything after all.

In conclusion, I can honestly say that I gained a lot from one of Gaines'

best works. By reading it over twice, I gained more than I ever thought I could

from reading something off of Oprah's sacred book club. I read that the novel

was simply a way to illustrate the South's injustice towards difference, but I

don't believe it. I took away so much more than that. To me, the novel shows

a symbol of determination, and change. It has shown me that you have to

embrace what you are given, and cannot dwell on things people say. You can't

let the mistakes you've made ruin you forever, just be sure not to make the

same one twice.
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