A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest Gaines tells the story of two men who both learn a lesson before one of them is sent to the electric chair. Set in Louisiana in the late 1940s, a black man named Jefferson happens to be at the wrong place at the wrong time…a liquor store where a robbery occurs and two black men and one white man are killed. The only one left standing, the all white jury is quick to sentence him to death by the electric chair. To make matters worse, the defense attorney keeps calling him a “hog” to try and persuade the jury that he should not be killed because he is not human, a repetitive name that infiltrates and corrupts poor Jefferson’s psyche.
After the sentence is passed, Jefferson’s godmother asks the local schoolteacher, Grant Wiggins, if he can visit Jefferson in jail and persuade him that he is truly a man before he dies. An interesting character, Wiggins does not feel that his visits will have any effect on the condemned man. But, at the persuasion of both the godmother, his aunt Lou, and his girlfriend Vivian, Wiggins continues to go to the jail cell.
His initial visits are ill met. Jefferson keeps repeating that he has no thoughts or feelings because he is a hog. At his lowest point, he eats food off the floor the way a hog would eat slop out of a trough. Right before he feels like he should give up all hope, Grant and Jefferson end up making a connection which slowly changes how Jefferson feels about himself. Grant brings him a radio and a journal, and instructs Jefferson to write down any thoughts that come to mind.
After Jefferson is killed, the deputy visits Grant to deliver the journal which Jefferson kept. He told him that above all else, Grant should know that Jefferson’s last words were to tell his godmother that he walked like a man, which he did. He held his head high and walked with grace and honor, a presence so noticeable that even the witnesses remarked how he stood well above the crowd. Thus, he fulfilled his lesson before dying: he could walk to his end as a man.
For those who have ever taught someone, you know that you will probably learn much more than you can teach. Any child I have tutored has taught me more about compassion and life than I could ever teach them about math or writing. Likewise, this book portrays Grant’s own lessons learned before Jefferson’s death. He recognizes the injustices of the entire race-based legal system, but learns it is something that must be accepted. Furthermore, he realizes that love above all else is the most important thing, as confirmed through his growing public affection for a black woman who had been ostracized from her community. Gaines also seems to suggest that love and humanity trump religion as he continuously portrays Grant’s efforts to help Jefferson as far more successful than the local priest.
This novel is a well-written time piece which shows not only the racial tensions of the time, but also discusses the roles of friendship, love, family, death, religion, race, and education in society at this time. A fairly quick read and easy writing style, I would recommend this book to anyone who desired to watch the development of two great men in a society which tried to constrain them.
Similar books: Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck