Importance of Religion in A Lesson Before You Die

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A Fatalistic Predisposition before Settling In
In an 1973 interview conducted by Forrest Ingraham and Barbara Steinberg, Ernest J. Gaines states that although he is not devoutly religious, it is his belief that “for you to survive, you must have something greater than what you are, whether it’s religion or communism, or capitalism or something else, but it must be something above what you are” (Gaines and Lowe 52). When applied to the narrator of his subsequent work, A Lesson Before Dying, it would seem that this principle is reflected in the one thing Grant Wiggins initially holds above himself. I refer, of course, to Grant’s anticipation of the day that he will leave Bayonne in order to start a new life elsewhere, ideally in the company of Vivian. Since it is generally agreed upon that the myriad of intractable dilemmas facing the descendants of those victimized by the institution of chattel slavery likely constituted a significant push factor in the second wave of the Great Migration, well underway by the time of the events depicted in A Lesson Before Dying (Thornbrough 34-35), it would be problematic to assert that Grant’s assessment of his prospects in Bayonne does not a reflect the social realities he faces as a black man in the Jim Crow South. Yet although it would be difficult to argue that Grant’s fatalistic view of Bayonne is not a reflection of the lack of opportunity it presents him, it is also difficult to argue that his fatalistic attitude is universal among the characters that populate the work. This in turn seems to suggest that the undercurrent of fatalism which characterizes the tone of the work is largely a product of the interaction between the social realities that Grant faces, and the way in which Grant’s per...

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...es towards a renunciation of fatalism. There is, of course, a fundamental irony here as well, namely that although Jefferson essentially becomes a martyr, he is not spared a senseless death, which seems to imply that although Grant renounces fatalism, he may be hasty in doing so. On the other hand, however, it appears that in order to accept his life in Bayonne, Grant must, as Gaines says, find “something above what (he is)” (Gaines and Lowe 53) in Bayonne, rather than holding onto the fantasy that he will one day leave.

Works Cited
Gaines, Ernest J., and John Lowe. Conversations with Ernest Gaines. Jackson: University of Mississippi, 1995. Web. 10 Dec 2013.
Gaines, Ernest J. A Lesson Before Dying. New York: A.A. Knopf, 1993. Print.
Thornbrough, Emma Lou., and Lana Ruegamer. Indiana Blacks in the Twentieth Century. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2000. Web. 11 Dec 2013.

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