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A Lesson before Dying By: Ernest J. Gaines
Transcript of A Lesson before Dying By: Ernest J. Gaines
A Lesson before Dying
By: Ernest J. Gaines
•Jefferson is accused of a crime he didn’t commit and is sentenced to death
•The lawyer who defended him in the trial called him a hog, and that made Jefferson believe that a hog was all he was
•After the trial, Jefferson’s godmother, Miss Emma, decides to help him die a man, instead of a hog
•She asks Grant Wiggins, an African American teacher, to assist her
•Grant, Tante Lou (Grant's aunt), Miss Emma, and Reverend Ambrose all visit Jefferson in jail once a week trying to help him
•Grant eventually gets through to Jefferson and changes both his own life and Jefferson’s
•In the end, Jefferson dies a noble man
Ernest J. Gaines
born in 1933, in Oscar, Louisiana
lived in a house that served as a slave quarter
parents separated when he was eight
was an educator and an author
moved when he was fifteen to California
graduated from California State College in 1957
taught at Dension and Standford Universities
received the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1994 for A Lesson Before Dying
Other works include:
A Gathering of Old Men
In My Father's House
Of Love and Dust
The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (Most
Racism and Segregation
Because the book is set in the late 1940's in the southern state of Louisianna, segregation reigned.
In this book, all the citizens in Bayonne, Louisianna experience racism by the two separate schools and churches for the white and black citizens.
"There was a Catholic church uptown for whites; a Catholic church back of town for colored. There was a white movie theater uptown; a colored movie theater back of town. There were two elementary schools uptown, one Catholic, one public, for whites; and the same back of town for colored" (Gaines 34).
Racism is also seen when the defense attorney was trying to defend Jefferson to prove that he didn't commit the crime. The attorney emphasized that Jefferson couldn't be considered a man and wasn't smart enough to commit the crime.
His lawyer asks, "Do you see a man sitting here? Look at the shape of this skull, this face as flat as the palm of my hand-look deeply into those eyes. Do you see a modicum of intelligence? Do you see anyone that could plan a murder, a robbery, can plan-can plan anything?" (Gaines 13).
Historical Events during 1940's:
Racism and Segregation
Throughout the book, Grant struggles with feeling locked in the same position and feels narrowed by the people in his society. He and Jefferson both experience alienation and isolation.
David J. Kelly, a literature and creative writing instructor, agrees that Gaines develops a theme of segregation and racism. He also believes Jefferson and Grant are both lonely.
Kelly states, "being a black man in the South limits his options drastically, narrowing his life to such a degree that any encounter with white people is bound to end in an insult to his intelligence, his compassion, and his humanity" (169).
Kelly also says, "Grant and people like him, he feels his life narrowed further by the people within his own society" (169).
Efforts to integrate continued through the 1930s and 1940s.
Black leaders found support in black unions such as the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. This helped apply economic pressure to pass acts like the Fair Employment Practices Act in 1947.
In 1948, Harry Truman ordered the integration of the armed forces.
These early efforts to end segregation culminated in the Supreme Court ruling in the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education case. The ruling eventually did declare separate schools for blacks and whites unconstitutional.
Gaines truly does depict authentic African American characters and viewpoints.
This is because he shaped them based off of the people he knew growing up on a Louisianna plantation.
"Ernest J. Gaines Biography." Famous Biographies & TV Shows. Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc. Web. 1 Feb. 2012. <http://www.biography.com/people/ernest-j-gaines-9304930>.
"Existentialism." Philosophy. AllAboutPhilosophy.org. Web. 12 Feb. 2012. <http://www.allaboutphilosophy.org/existentialism.htm>.
Gaines, Ernest J. "A Lesson before Dying." New York: A. A. Knopf, 1993. Print.
Gaines, Ernest J. “A Lesson before Dying.” Novels for Students. Vol. 7. Detroit: Gale Group, 1999. 163-171. Print.
Kelly, David J. “Criticism.” Novels for Students: Vol. 7. Detroit: Penguin Books, 1999. 167-170. Print.
A cultural movement that flourished in Europe in the 1940s and 1950s.
Concerned with finding self and the meaning of life through free will, choice, and personal responsibility.
A search and journey for true self and true personal meaning in life.
The major philosophers identified as existentialists were Karl Jaspers, Martin Heidegger, and Martin Buber in Germany (just to name a few).
Existentialism is seen in the book because it focuses on Grant teaching Jefferson to find himself, and to just be himself. Jefferson also learns how to feel, and he eventually gains dignity.
At the end of the book, right before Jefferson is executed, he finally realizes that he is a man and not a hog. He says, "Good by mr wigin tell them im strong tell them im a man good by mr wigin" (Gaines 234).