The Strength to Change the World in A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest J. Gaines

The Strength to Change the World in A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest J. Gaines

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What if you were sentenced to death for a crime you did not commit? What if you were then proclaimed to be a hog by a jury of your peers? What if you had 5 months to learn to grow from the hog you are said to be, to a man so that you are able to stand tall and walk to your death on your own two legs with your head held high? What would you learn? These questions are the central conflict of the novel A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest J. Gaines. This book takes place on a plantation in the deeply racist state of Louisiana in the 1940s, where a black man named Jefferson is sentenced to death by means of the electric chair by an all-white jury for a murder that he did not commit. Jefferson’s white lawyer’s only defense is that Jefferson, being a black man, is a hog and was therefore not capable of planning the murder. Jefferson, with the help of a local quarter teacher named Grant Wiggins, must learn to be a man in the little time he has left. Throughout the book, Jefferson learns to take responsibility for his actions, sacrifice himself for others, and have dignity in the face of injustice in order to find strength to face the electric chair and thereby change his community forever.
First, Jefferson learns to accept responsibility for his actions. Although he was wrongly accused, Jefferson admits he made a mistake by getting in the car with Brother and Bear and he takes responsibility for his mistake. In his diary, Jefferson writes “i aint had no bisnes goin ther wit brother an bear cause they aint no good an im gon be meetin them soon [in heaven or hell],”(Gaines 233). In this quote, Jefferson admits to himself that he should not have been with brother and bear and accepts responsibility for his decision to be with them. Jefferson’s ...


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...ver, Jefferson having dignity allowed him to influence the world in a small way and forever affect the lives of Paul and Grant. When Jefferson learned to keep his dignity, even in the instant before he died, Jefferson was finally transformed into a man.
Jefferson learned to take responsibility for his actions, sacrifice himself for others, and have dignity in the face of injustice. With these lessons, as well as with support from Grant, Jefferson was able to walk to the electric chair not on four legs as a hog, but on two legs as a proud black man, and by doing so, provide a symbol of hope, inspiration and strength that was enough to change his community forever. It is only when we find the dignity, sacrifice and responsibility within ourselves that we will recognize our true personal value and self-worth, and like Jefferson, be strong enough to change the world.

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