Last Updated 09 Jan 2023

A Literary Analysis of a Lesson Before Dying by Ernest Gaines

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Did you ever wonder if Jefferson’s death had more to than a wrongful death? As Ernest Gaines’s most famous work, it contains many symbols and motifs to add an interesting insight into the story. Jefferson’s wrongful conviction death, Grant’s desire to run away, and the school house are examples of three different types of symbols in the book, A Lesson Before Dying. For one, the Christ figure is present in this book. Jefferson, one of the main characters, tags along with two men to go to a liquor store. Refusing to pay, the owner and the two men have a shootout, leaving Jefferson the only survivor. The evidence against Jefferson is too much for him to fight, resulting in Jefferson being put on death row, but not before his own lawyer calls him a hog in order to prove him insane and innocent. Jefferson takes those words to heart, and is devastated during his time in jail. The white folks laugh and make fun of the black community and Jefferson. Miss Emma asks Grant to go and teach Jefferson how to die like a man. Miss Emma could have had the same realization as Grant later on in the book, that having Jefferson die like a man would not just help him, but would also help change the way white people look at African Americans. Instead of being a hog, they could be respected and treated like equal people, in contrast to the Jim Crow laws and such they had in Louisiana at the time.

Just like Jesus Christ, Jefferson was wrongly convicted, and sentenced to death, and later, died for a cause that was unselfish and for the benefit of his loved ones and people. Had Jefferson died like a hog, he would never have had the impact that he had on the white community. That is why Miss Emma and Grant went and taught Jefferson how to die like a man. Secondly, if you notice, Grant asks Vivian if she wants to spend the night in New Orleans or Baton Rouge. Sometimes, Grant feels like he just wants to go somewhere, and escape the troubles of tomorrow, to escape a society he feels will always be the same. It represents the portion of the African American society who, at that time, felt it was hopeless and pointless to oppose the whites. Grant is and Vivian would always meet up at the Rainbow Inn, to drink. Drinking, so to escape their problems. He wants to go somewhere, to escape the racist and prejudiced Louisiana, just like his teacher Antoine had instructed him to years ago, “‘I can’t tell you anything about life,’ he said. ‘What do I know about life? I stayed here. There’s nothing but ignorance here. You want to know about life? Well, it’s too late. Forget it. Just go on and be the nigger you were born to be, but forget about life.” However, as the book progresses, Grant’s view on the subject changes, and he begins to accept more responsibility, which is shown especially when he argues with Vivian about Jefferson.

In the end, Grant pulls forward and puts in his biggest effort to helping Jefferson, buying him a radio and giving him a notebook to record his thoughts down. Lastly, the schoolhouse is also of great importance. The schoolhouse is the same building as the church. It’s one of the only places in the plantation area that all of the colored people can get together and worship and assemble (watching plays, for example), basically one of the meeting places in town. It’s interesting, because it is where Grant works, even though Grant’s an agnostic. Although the schoolhouse may seem like only a good thing, it also symbolizes the separation and segregation of blacks and whites. Schoolhouses are one of the only places that white people have segregated to keep blacks in their place. The superintendent, Dr. Joseph Morgan, is a white man, and appears to be friendly to Mr. Higgins. As he inspects the schoolhouse and the children, he picked the least bright student to drill; Louis Washington.

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When Louis messes up his pledge of allegiance, the superintendent “seemed quite satisfied”. Also, he unreasonably turns down Grant’s request for more books and materials. This starts to show that the seemingly harmless white superintendent is looking to get unfavorable things to say about the all-black school, and also favoring the white schools as well, because the white schools get all of the new and fresh books and materials. The Superintendent checks the students’ teeth like slave masters used to, and tells Grant to put them to work at the pecan trees to make money. The similarities between the superintendent’s actions and that of a slave master are great. Nobody else would do something like this and humiliate the unknowing children, without looking down on them and some sort of prejudice. Ernest Gaines did not leave a novel which is shallow and without meaning. His symbols portray his feelings and emotions against discrimination in the south, with vivid meanings behind all of the symbols which have a deep interaction with the post-slavery era storyline. Jefferson’s death did not only change the way his society looked at black people, but changed the way readers all over the world looked at discrimination itself.

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