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This book shows us that, even in the face of hopelessness, there is indeed hope, and there is a need to move forward. There is nothing that can change what the outcome will be in the end. However, in light of this, a person is left with two options. Either they could deny and fight it the entire way, or accept it, learn from it, and move forward. This paper will show you,, when given this situation, what the outcome will be when one choices to accept it and move on.
It is the 1940's, in a small Cajun community, there is a trial for the murder of a white liquor store attendant. The defense is Jefferson, a poorly educated black man. His appointed attorney is closing his argument in an attempt to spare his client the death penalty. His attorney states, "Gentlemen of the jury, be merciful. For God's sake, be merciful. He is innocent of all charges brought against him. But let us say he was not. Let us for a moment say he was not. What justice would there be to take this life? Justice, gentlemen? Why, I would just as soon put a hog in the electric chair as this." (p. 8)
This statement suggests that Jefferson is no more aware of the situation than an animal that is about to be slaughtered. Jefferson viewed this statement from his defense attorney as a literal one. Thus, he began to believe he was nothing more then a hog and that he would, in turn, show them just what a hog is. Jefferson later emulates this point in his jail cell, with Grant, awaiting his execution by stating, I'm an old hog Just an old hog they fattening up to kill for Christmas. I'm go'n show you how a old hog eat" (p.83). At this point, Jefferson then kneels down on the floor, places his head in the bag. While eating, he makes noises similar to that of a hog.
Jefferson's early interpretation of the title is a very graphic one. It is that he is a hog. He must learn this before his execution and ultimately become the hog they have made him out to be. He intends to prove to everyone that he can become just what they claim he is.
Throughout the novel, Jefferson, with Grant's help, begins to change his view.
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Grant Wiggins is a black school teacher. He is one of the only black men in the area with a college education. He is a withdrawn, sullen man. He's angry, bitter, and disgusted by the prejudice brought about by the white men. His aunt, Tante Lou, is good friends with Jefferson's godmother, Miss Emma. Miss Emma is outraged by the statement from the defense attorney. She knows, in her heart, that her boy is not a hog, so she pleads with Mr. Henri, the sheriff's cousin. Emma says, "I need you speak for me, Mr. Henri I want the teacher visit my boy. I want the teacher make him know he' not a hog, he's a man. I want him know that fore he go to that chair, Mr. Henri. ' " (p.21) Miss Emma is asking that Mr. Henri talk to the sheriff in her favor, hoping that the sheriff will allow Grant to see Jefferson, in order to teach him that he is a man.
Grant's understanding of the title is that it is his responsibility to teach Jefferson how to be a man. Early on he states, "They want me to make him a man before he dies." (p.31). Grant is at a conflict because he is unsure of how a man should live, let alone die. He knows that whatever he does do will not affect the fact that Jefferson will be executed. He is worried about the way the community views him. They see him as a teacher with the ability to do just that, but what if he is not able to do that. What if he fails to teach Jefferson how to die? Then where does that leave him?
He has no idea how, or what, to do in order to achieve that, however, throughout the course of the book, Grant does teach Jefferson and, in doing so, he teaches himself. His changes are, in whole, not large. He is still withdrawn and filled with prejudice, and he is afraid, to the very end, to show even the slightest emotion. He refuses to go to the execution. Even while thinking about it, he denies himself tears for his dear friend Jefferson. As he says, "I felt like crying, but I refused to cry. No, I would not cry. There were too many more that would end up as he did. I could not cry for all of them, could I?" (p.249)
The somewhat heart retching recall of Paul's events of the execution seemed more to aggravate Grant then to lift him up. As Paul said, "You're one great teacher, Grant Wiggins." Grant responded "I'm not great. I'm not even a teacher." (p.254) The statement of a job well done from Paul, a white man, who considered himself a friend of Grant's, wasn't enough for him. It's hard to believe that anything would truly be good enough for Grant. When everything is said and done, Grant, through his acceptance, has grown. Even though he is still withdrawn and angry, Grant has learned to love something other then himself and Vivian, he has let go of much of the cynicism that has held him back, and he has started on a path that would have never been possible without Jefferson.
Vivian is a teacher at the black catholic school. Grants loving girlfriend, she is currently married with two children as she is working through a divorce. She is caring, and believes in Grant. Vivian trusts that if anyone can reach Jefferson, Grant can. She says, "I want you to go up there." (p.32) This shows how much Vivian believes in Grant's ability as a teacher .Vivian has one of the most solid of views on what the title means to her. If anyone can help teach Jefferson to accept his death, and move forward, it is Grant. She wants Grant to go up and visit Jefferson, to talk with him, and to teach him. However her motives are not all based on Jefferson. She hopes that Grant will get something out of it. In doing so, their relationship will grow as well. Her view stays the same throughout the duration of the novel. As you watch closely, the progression of her relationship with Grant is affected through Grant's interactions with Jefferson.
Vivian relates with Jefferson. She highlights this in a discussion at the Rainbow Club, drinking with Grant. Vivian states, "I'm talking about the people. I'm talking about Irene with those big brown cow eyes." (p.166)This is the most powerful statement that Vivian makes throughout the book. After this statement Grant explains further that all Irene and her aunt want is a memory. They look to him and don't see what is all around them, broken people. They see someone who has risen above all of that and is now a teacher. Seeing that they don't want to let go, they know in order for Grant to be as they want him to be, he must run. Vivian, at that point, asks, "Will the circle ever be broken?" (p. 167) She lets out all of her feelings and, for that moment, we can see Vivian for who she is as a whole person, with fears, doubts, resentment and, yet still, love. We see Vivian slightly progress throughout the book. She becomes attached, more so, to Grant and gains a new sense of trust and respect for him as his relationship with Jefferson moves forward.
Trying to decipher what the title means to Gaines, as the writer, is difficult, as only certain themes appear to show even a slight amount of what it may mean to him. To put things, more so, into perspective, we must look at the writer who is an older black man who, through out his life, has dealt with racism and bigotry. Overlooking the patterns that recur brings me to believe that the title, to Gaines, is a very complex one. One that is difficult to even pin down. He sees A Lesson Before Dying as a metaphor for the trials and tribulations brought about through prejudice. He views it as an illustration that something as tragic as a wrongful execution is the only way that people can see what it takes to realize that, no matter what, race or level of intelligence a man is not any less then a man. A man is not an animal. That power and influence ultimately don't matter. What matters is life and living.
My interpretation of the title, A Lesson Before Dying, is not a long or in depth one. To learn before you die. What you are to learn, however, is quite different. What I feel is that the lesson is to prepare to die, to be ready for it all to end.
What lesson could you learn to be ready to die? What would prepare anyone for such a thing? In this instance I see it as realizing that my death, if I were Jefferson, is a wrongful one. How then would I be prepared for it, if I knew my death was unjustified?
What more would it be if I choose to learn nothing before I die. I will die regardless of what I learn or how I deal with it. What if I am to simply die? Then I would simply die. I would have learned nothing from my death. I am a man of pride and that would not be acceptable for me. I require much more of my self then that. I would have to come to a conclusion. I would bite my tongue and move forward knowing what fate awaited me.
I would come to know myself and die with dignity. To know that I am a man who responded as I did, given the situation, and that nothing could change that now. Neither I, nor Jefferson, would be comfortable with this. I, as well as he, would learn to live with that. Then, ultimately, die with it. We would either learn or we would simply die.
All quotes were taken from " A Lesson Before Dying: Ernest J. Gaines"
(First Vintage Contemporaries, Vintage Books, 1994) p.8, 83, 21, 31