Teaching A Lesson Before Dying: Part 1

March 31, 2012

Ernest Gaines

Ernest Gaines in church (Source: African American Literature Book Club)

This posting introduces Ernest Gaines’s 1993 novel A Lesson Before Dying, which I have been reading with my students.  The two postings that follow highlight their responses to the novel.

Set in the share-cropping world of rural Louisiana in the late 1940s, this novel features the teacher-student relationship between Grant Wiggins, a thirty-five year old African American teacher, and Jefferson, a twenty-one year old, semi-literate African American on death row for a murder he did not commit.

Jefferson has, in fact, committed theft, as his attorney acknowledges at the murder trial, explaining to the all-white jury that his impoverished client panicked at the scene of the murder, looting the liquor store cash register as the murderers and their victim, the owner, lay dead at his feet.  But surely, he reasoned, this black “boy” could not be smart enough to plan a robbery and murder: “Why, I would as soon put a hog in the electric chair as this” (8).

Initially, Grant resents and resists his new charge, thrust upon him by his Tante Lou, to go into the local jail and, over the few months before Jefferson’s execution, to persuade him to go to his death feeling like a man, not like a “hog.” How, Grant wonders, can anyone expect him to reverse the legacy of slavery, the three-hundred-year-old cultural conviction that black ‘boys’ need not expect education or justice, need not aspire to the American Dream.

A Lesson Before Dying

Cover of Gaines' A Lesson Before Dying

In addition to tracing these interconnected themes of racism and justice, of literacy and liberty, this masterful novel also explores the relationship between Grant and Reverend Ambrose, the parish preacher, and between Grant and Vivian, a strong woman and committed teacher stuck in a bad marriage she seeks to end.  Naturally, the old black preacher and the young black agnostic come into constant conflict, for Ambrose wants Grant to teach Jefferson to “kneel” before he dies; instead, once committed to the process, Grant insists that he will teach Jefferson to “stand.”  Grant and Vivian also experience tension but of a much different sort, for their truly tender love story gets entangled with her Catholic faith and with a passionate cane-field conception that precedes her divorce.  Yet the conflict with Ambrose and the tensions with Vivian open Grant’s eyes to the futility of his own anger, a transformation that softens his heart and strengthens his resolve to coax Jefferson to his feet.  By the end, Jefferson walks to his death, having learned from Grant how to write his way to manhood; in turn, the student has taught his teacher the value of compassion, courage, and community.