Realism and Ironic Twist in Ernest Gaines’s A Lesson Before Dying

Ernest Gaines  Ernest Gaines

 

By Samuel O. Doku

Of Ernest J. Gaines’s six novels, his last, A Lesson Before Dying seems to be his most compelling, for the story of Jefferson is a black American tragedy that has raised concerns about the justice and legal systems in America. Although Gaines first started writing in 1956 with the publication of his debut short story, “The Turtles,” in Transfer Magazine, it was not until eight years later that he published his first novel, Catherine Carnier. After Catherine, Gaines followed it with Of Love and Dust in 1967, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman in 1971, In My Father’s House in 1978, A Gathering of Old Men in 1983, and A Lesson Before Dying in 1994.

Southern Landscape as Setting in Gaines’s Novels

Gaines created a unique southern landscape and milieu to foreground all his novels and short stories. However, although Gaines idolizes William Faulkner, he does not like the stereotypical depiction of black Americans as nigger wenches, minstrels, mammies, rabble- rousers, carousers, faithful and vicious servants, and Uncle Toms in the novels of southern white writers. As an escape from the all too familiar tableaux he perennially encountered anytime he picked a book to read in Vallejo, California, Gaines started reading Russian authors and developed a great affinity for the works of Turgenev and Tolstoy. For, Gaines believed that the experience of the peasantry in Russia was akin to the black American experience, but whereas the Russians gave an everyday, realistic account of Russian peasantry in their novels, southern white writers only focused on the depiction of stereotypes of blacks as a way of keeping them perpetually emasculated. As Valerie Babb points out, “The dearth of believable portraits of black Americans and the desire to rediscover the lost voice and tales left in Louisiana became vital shaping influences on the form and subject matter of Gaines’s fiction” (3). Gaines’s rediscovery of the lost voice and tales left in Louisiana is extant in all of his novels, including A Lesson Before Dying, a novel in which the first person narrator is very much part of the action as the protagonist and even shares the central role with the protagonist.

The Characters Are Real

Gaines’s characters are also common, and so his readers are able to identify with some of the real life experiences his characters go through. To Gaines, it is seminal, even crucial for him to refrain from romanticizing or idealizing his characters because like Turgenev and many other black American authors before him, he used the novel to protest against some of society’s injustices and inequalities like the one encountered by Jefferson in A Lesson. Babb asseverates the commonality Gaines shares with Turgenev and points out, “Like Turgenev, he does not idealize his rural characters, and they encompass the range of human heroism and frailty. In the same way Turgenev uses the experience of Russian peasants to argue the injustices of the feudal system, so does Gaines use the dignity of his characters to expose the unfairness of his plantation world” (13). Dignity is a universal theme, so although his stories are set in an idyllic and rustic Louisiana landscape, the universality of his themes gives his novels a global appeal of which A Lesson Before Dying is a dominant example. “His fiction explores many considerations, among them the devaluation of black life (often illustrated through black men who must seek their manhood or black women who have been victimized by whites), the peculiar race and caste systems of Louisiana, and the ambivalence of slaveholders’ descendants who are now burdened by their legacy” (Babb 12).

Between his penultimate novel and his last was a time span of eleven years, the longest period of abeyance in-between his novels. That was because as a tenure professor at University of Southern Louisiana in Lafayette, Gaines had probably resolved to focus on teaching, but a call to visit a death-row inmate in Louisiana in 1993 saw him publishing A Lesson a year later. Like two of his previous novels, The Autobiography and A Gathering, A Lesson Before Dying has been made as a television movie, which received critically acclaimed reviews. To this end, I examine Gaines’s A Lesson BeforeDying is a revisionist tale in realism in which language is used to emasculate, imprison, and convict Jefferson of a murder he did not commit, and it is through language that his manhood is restored as music and communal effort help in empowering him before he is executed.

Diabolic Machinations

Realism is the portrayal of everyday life, the common, the average, or the practical in literature. Many literary works by African Americans resonate with an intense pragmatism of everyday experience. To many blacks in America, this lived experience dates all the way back to the Middle Passage when black people were forcefully removed from their continent and shipped to other continents. As part of their diabolic strategy to rob the enslaved of their indigenous identity, language, culture, and history, slave masters strongly forebode them to be educated. Compelled to develop new modes of communication, the enslaved created their own vernacular from which sprang new forms of expression in music to enable black America provide a unique cultural repository for America. However, the creation of the vernacular also created a unique situation for the African American because, in addition, to the oral form of expression, the African American also must know how to express him or herself in mainstream discourse. Coupling orality with American standard discourse is good, even great but should one’s inability to engage in mainstream discourse be the basis of one’s guilt? Is mainstream or written disquisition the only medium through which reasoning can be articulated? Should a member of a race that for over two centuries was deprived of formal education be blamed for his or her inability to read and write? These are some of the issues Gaines seems to be raising, addressing, and critiquing in his novel.

Furthermore, to Gaines, that peculiar Louisiana dialect should be an effective and equal means of expression in just the same way as Standard English. In an address at Southern University in Baton Rouge, Gaines hankered for that seminal uniqueness of expression in his fiction: “…I wanted to hear that Louisiana dialect—that combination of English, Creole, Cajun, Black. For me, there’s no more beautiful sound anywhere” (qtd. in Babb 3). As Keats said, “A thing of beauty is a joy of life forever,” so by yearning to hear that beautiful sound in his novels, Gaines seems to be pointing out in A Lesson that Jefferson’s Louisiana accent is beautiful to hear, so he should have been heard in court and not have been excoriated by the prosecutor and the defense attorney for his inability to speak Standard English.

The setting of A Lesson, like in all of Gaines’s fiction, provides a pragmatic, everyday life experience in Bayonne, Louisiana. At Bayonne, black men seem to have no chance at all to progress in a community that refuses to see them as equals. In effect, they are put in what Marilyn Frye labels the double-bind in which they have been reified in time and space. In such situations, do they keep running all the time as the Grandfather tells the narrator in Invisible Man and Antoine Mathew reiterates it to Grant Wiggins in A Lesson, or they must take their destinies into their own hands and break the yoke of oppression that has made them stagnant and unprogressive by staying at one place? Gaines patterns the lived experience of the black community in Bayonne after the stories, mores, and beliefs of Pointe Coupee parish community in Louisiana where the author grew up. Gaines then meshed his childhood experience with other facts regarding death-row inmates, lawyers, and sheriffs in Louisiana in writing the novel. As Karen Carmean points out, “…Gaines blended factual details, such as Louisiana’s portable electric chair and the day and time of all state executions, with a created but representative experience regarding responsibility, justice, and human dignity” (118). The representation of justice, dignity, and responsibility adds to the novel’s realistic appeal.

A Realistic Yarn about an Innocent “Murderer”

Thematically, the novel is a realistic yarn about a man accused of a crime he did not commit. Although he is convicted of the crime, his godmother refuses to let him die with the internalization of white society’s perception of him as a “hog.” Wiggins, the narrator, must help establish the manhood of Jefferson. In the end, Grant is able to eradicate the scourge that tormented and tortured Jefferson to enable him to face his executioners with courage and bravery. To that end, having been crucified for a crime he did not commit, Jefferson becomes a Christ-like figure in the novel even as Wiggins, although sarcastic initially when he is told to visit Jefferson in jail to help return his identity to him, also learns a lot from the experience and forms a symbolic association with Paul Bonin, one of the white prison guards who witnesses Jefferson’s electrocution.

The bond between Wiggins and Bonin is symbolic of the hope for a social change in Bayonne. Women also play key roles in the novel as they become the fulcrum on which the axis of both Wiggins’s and Jefferson’s lives spin. In a state of hopelessness, women become the fountain of hope in the black community, and they ensure that even in agony, oppression, and death, the dignity of the black man is not forsaken. Through his use Christian allusions and symbols, the blues, representation of modern sporting heroes, and sustained sarcasm, Gaines deftly critiques white patriarchy, and he like Turgenev, uses the novel as a medium to cry for justice and equality to the marginalized.

The Plot

The plot chronicles events in the book within a six-month span—from October to April. The novel details the lived experiences of twenty-one year-old Jefferson and his teacher, Grant. Jefferson is accused of killing a Cajun storekeeper, Grope. While awaiting trial, Jefferson’s godmother, Miss Emma and his aunt, Tante Lou task Wiggins with the responsibility of helping restore his dignity before he is executed. During the trial, the defense attorney referred to Jefferson as “a hog” because of his intellectual deficiency.

The prosecutor substantiates the importance of education in a man’s life and chastises Jefferson on his inability to read. The prosecutor further excoriates Jefferson for his dyslexic shortcoming and observes that he could neither read the poetry of Keats, Byron, Scott nor the Constitution. The prosecutor surmises that because of Jefferson’s inability to read and write, he is not a rational human, but he is a “thing to hold the handle of a plow, a thing to load your bales of cotton, a thing to dig your ditches, to chop your wood, to pull your corn” (Gaines 8). He ends his argument by pointing out sarcastically, “Gentlemen of the jury, this man planned a robbery? Oh, pardon me, pardon me, I surely did not mean to insult your intelligence by saying ‘man’—would you please forgive me for committing such an error?” (Gaines 8). Ironically, after white patriarchal society in antebellum America effectively shut the doors of progress against black Americans and created appalling conditions that emasculated black people educationally, civically, socially, and economically, the very lack of these necessities of life is used as the premise on which Jefferson is sentenced to death. In effect, as Gaines critiques the system for not appreciating the inherent power in Louisiana dialect, he simultaneously seems to be appealing to blacks to take education seriously, for it could save their lives.

However, it is the defense attorney who first calls Jefferson a fool and “a hog,” a fool because he lacked the pungent intuition of a smart man to flee the scene after the shootings and a hog because he was greedy. As Anissa Janine Wardi observes,  “The attorney’s discourse of racial denigration reaches a climax as he dehumanizes his client, proclaiming that putting him to death would be equivalent to tying a hog down to the electric chair” (192). If Wardi accentuates that Jefferson’s defense attorney thinks he is uncivilized, so he must not be put to death, Philip Auger points out the importance of education in the novel: “…A Lesson Before Dying explores the roles of social institutions  such as education, law, and especially religion as they all have a part in producing human dignity and self worth” (75). Jefferson had no education, but it does not mean he, essentially, lacked dignity and self-worth, which are key components of black pride. Consequently, it becomes critical that Jefferson’s dignity as a black man is restored before he dies.

Mark Twain, Henry James, Frances Harper, and Paul Lawrence Dunbar

Great American realists like Dean Howells, Henry James, Mark Twain, Frances Harper, Paul Lawrence Dunbar, and Charles Chesnutt littered their novels with the representation of common occurrences. So, we see Howells representing cosmopolitan life in New York city in Hazards of Fortune; Twain and Harper represent life during Reconstruction in Huckleberry Finn and Iola Leroywhile Dunbar presents the dilemma of a faithful servant falsely accused of stealing his master’s money in The Sport of theGods, and Chesnutt paints a vivid picture of the 1898 rioting and confusion in Wilmington, Delaware, a couple of years after Plessy versus Fergusson sanctioned segregation as the law of the land. In A Lesson, Gaines chronicles the delineation of the justice system and how the black community in Bayonne deals with it, so they ensure Jefferson die with some measure if dignity.

Interestingly, the trial also epitomizes the perennial tension that has existed between oral tradition and written discourse. Underlining the lawyers’ arguments is the spurious assumption of the primitiveness of the black man who seemingly cannot be transformed by the mores of Western civilization and culture. But Miss Emma and Tante Lou refuse to accept the two lawyers’ characterization of Jefferson as uncivilized and hoggish just because he cannot write, so Wiggins must prove them wrong with the utilization of one of the unique African American forms of expression—Bayonne dialect.

The Blues and Country Music as Transformative Medium

If written discourse is the medium used in emasculating Jefferson, music in the form of the blues and country plays a keen and realistic role in helping Wiggins transform Jefferson from a hog to a man of dignity. Wiggins’s weekly visits to the courthouse where Jefferson is incarcerated pay off when he decides to buy a small radio for him. On hearing that, Jefferson becomes inundated with excitement and laments that he has not owned anything before. Wiggins, then, asks Jefferson to be nice to his godmother, Miss Emma; Tante Lou, Reverend Ambrose, and the rest of the visitors. To this end, music becomes the medium that Grant uses to reach out to Jefferson. Randy’s blues songs remind Jefferson of his identity. One listens to the blues in moments of melancholy and solitude. The blues also is a cesspool of memories and resignation, so as Jefferson plays his music, his humanity, his sensibility returns to him, and he does what Wiggins tells him. Samuel Floyd explains that the blues and country music have a common historical bond because of the fact that “prevailing musical interactions and influences in nineteenth century America produced a black populace conversant with the music of both traditions” (58).

This syncretization of black and white musical genres seemingly compelled Gaines to have his condemned protagonist listen to both the blues and country music as a reminder to white patriarchy in modern-day America that even during the halcyon days of slavery, the enslaved felt free to dance to the rhythm and beat of European social dances like the cotillion and quadrille at slave balls. By listening to the blues and country music, Jefferson is spatially dislocated to those days when his ancestors were in chains psychologically and symbolically, but they still enjoyed life when they could. That is the essence of black dignity, so Jefferson discovers his dignity after listening to the blues and country music. Floyd explains that the blues illustrates an individual manifestation of values that help in propitiating, mollifying, and restoring one’s power; it helps in taking a man from sexual and social emasculation to a domain of deliverance, manhood, and dignity.

Modernity Clashes with Tradition

Ironically, what Wiggins uses as the mediating power of exorcism to revive the waning and wagging spirit of Jefferson, is seen as a demonic box by Rev. Ambrose whose intention is to help placate the soul of Jefferson before he is executed. The clash between Wiggins and Rev. Ambrose symbolizes a clash of values between modernity and tradition, the old and the young. As Wiggins defends his decision to buy the radio for Jefferson to enable him reach out to family and the community after every other means of persuasion had failed, Rev. Ambrose counters that encouraging him to pray would have worked better than the radio. But for prayer to work, one needs to have faith in God, faith in an omnipotent being. Jefferson lacks that inherent faith in God, so Wiggins resorts to secular means, the mundane to get his attention. In this sense,

Wiggins’s insistence that he needed to be able to reach out to Jefferson first through secular music is key to understanding how music and religion in a variety of ways complement each other, for the blues is an improvisation of the Negro spirituals and work songs of the enslaved. In the argument with Rev. Ambrose, an argument Tante Lou joins later on, Wiggins affirms the importance of the radio to Jefferson: “That radio is there to help him not think about death. He’s locked up in a cage like an animal—and what else can he think about but that last day and that last hour. That radio makes it less painful” (Gaines 182). The radio’s propitiation of Jefferson’s pain facilitates the removal of the hog spirit he internalized after the trial, a demonic spirit that tormented him soon after his trial.

Affirmation of Jefferson’s Humanity

After music has calmed him, Jefferson then expresses himself in the vernacular in his diary to prove that he is also capable of exuding human emotions like love and affection. To prove that Jefferson can use the vernacular to express his affection, sensibility, and inner thought, Gaines devotes a whole chapter to him and his diary. The vernacular as written discourse, provides Jefferson a forum to reclaim his dignity. Through the diary, Jefferson is empowered as he gains the voice he was denied during his trial to narrate his own experiences.  The diary also gives Jefferson a newly found expression that gives him the voice to express his love for Miss Emma and the rest of the community.

In the diary, Jefferson also records his transformation. He blames himself for following Brother and Bear, knowing that they were not good human beings and confesses, “I been shakin an shakin but gon stay strong” (Gaines 233). During the trial, Jefferson is not given a voice for the jury to hear his account of what transpired on that fateful day in Grope’s store. The diary, however, effaces that void as Jefferson finds a voice to lament that he has been shaking, but he would stay strong. Philip Auger points out that white men are powerful not simply because they are positioned in architectural structures of hegemony, but it is because their power is supported by the discursive structures of ideology, law, and ultimately language itself which are designed to preserve white forms of power (77). Whites use language to impose their power and express their superiority; Jefferson, through his use of the vernacular in written discourse also feels empowered, and as Carmean avers, it “reveals a character whose humanity grows through the process of writing” (121).  Jefferson’s growth in humanity helps in connecting him to Miss Emma, Tante Lou, Rev. Ambrose, and the rest of the Bayonne community.

De-Emasculating Jefferson

Through communal effort, Jefferson’s manhood is restored before his execution. The women in the novel play a crucial role in ensuring that Grant reverses an earlier decision that Jefferson is a hopeless case, and nothing anybody could do would result in his transformation from a coward to a man of dignity. When Miss Emma asked Wiggins to help ensure that Jefferson died like a man, he, like the prosecutors, initially felt that Jefferson was a hopeless case. It is a feeling of hopelessness Antoine Mathew imbibed in him when he was a young man, and he internalized it. In Jefferson’s moment of resistance, Tante Lou insists Wiggins must visit him in jail to begin the transformation process. “Years ago, Professor Antoine told me that if I stayed here, they were going to break me down to the nigger I was born to be. But he didn’t tell me that my aunt would help them do it” (Gaines 79) is Grant’s sarcastic response to Tante Lou. But Grant eventually agrees to give it a try. Further, those on death-row are seemingly not allowed regular visits, so Miss Emma and Tante Lou capitalize on their positions as cook and laundress for the Pichot’s in getting a special reprieve from Sheriff Guidry for Grant to enable him pay Jefferson regular weekly visits.

The reprieve to visit is granted in Henry Pichot’s house, a house built in antebellum America to symbolize the fact that the rigorous patriarchal system practiced then is still in vogue in contemporary Bayonne. Further, the meeting with the sheriff takes place in Pichot’s library to indicate the interpellation of antebellum ideology in the minds of white descendents of former slave holders. Interestingly, Miss Emma and Tante Lou dismantle, even if briefly the walls of patriarchy as the two women insist, with some help from Pichot’s wife, that the sheriff must allow Grant to visit Jefferson in jail.

Afflatus of a Fiancee

Vivian, Grant’s light-skinned fiancée, is always there to motivate him so that he does not renege in his efforts to help transform Jefferson. Anytime he felt he was not making any progress, Vivian provides the inspiration that spurs Grant on. Vivian as part of the community of women in the novel, also helps in propitiating, even mediating the tension between dark-skinned black Americans and their light-skinned counterparts. Gaines reminds readers of the caste system in Louisiana as light-skinned Americans would rather do blue-collar jobs than sit in the same classroom with dark-skinned Americans. So, in a restaurant, two light-skinned males revel in the horrendous fate awaiting Jefferson, merely because he is black, and they did not care whether or not he was guilty of the crime.

When Grant overhears them taunting and mocking Jefferson, he accosts them, which results in a fight. The fight only ends after Vivian arrives on the scene. Further, Vivian helps in empowering Grant as she makes love to him in the open corn fields. The love-making scene is a feminist trope used to return the manhood of black men, the manhood emasculated and deprived during slavery.

A Hog Becomes a Man

Moreover, Miss Emma’s pronouncement, “I don’t want him to die like a hog. I want a man to go to that chair, on his two feet” (Gaines 13) is a resounding tone, a declaratory statement that unabashedly represents the visceral feelings of women in the novel and the rallying call that galvanizes them to topple patriarchy. Behind that declaration, lies a solid determination of the women to keep the community together in the face of white debauchery. As David E. Vancil points out, “Set against the ineffectiveness of black men and the stupid blindness of white men is the sustaining resilience of women, black and white. They provide the bedrock of family life and keep the community unified even if imperfectly because of inequality” (490). William Andrews in a succinct way asseverates Miss Emma’s resolve to help defend the dignity of her race: “The folk has assumed over the years an identity based on progressive struggle…the struggle to recognize and conserve its spiritual and heroic folk traditions” (qtd. in Folks 266).

In antebellum America, communal bond kept the enslaved fortified as some of them quietly and fiercely resisted the institution of slavery by rebelling against it, even if subliminally. Indeed, Harriet Tubman’s Underground Railway network that rescued over 300 men and women in bondage to freedom would not have succeeded without the enslaved’s acceptance of the willingness to struggle collectively and the desire to overcome that struggle collectively.

Thus, the women in A Lesson revive that strong ancestral spirit. Grant refers to Tante Lou and Miss Emma as “boulder” to imply the strength, vitality, and the indomitable spirit of the two women. Grant’s school children are also very much a part of the community as the women, so they too play their role by connecting with Jefferson. They send him nuts and pecans while he awaits his execution and make a fiduciary contribution toward the purchase of the radio for Jefferson. In addition to the use of language, music, and community in transforming Jefferson, Grant must overcome his double consciousness for the transformation in the novel to be complete.

Double Consciousness

When Dr. W.E.B Du Bois wrote in The Souls of Black Folk that “after the Egyptian and Indian, the Greek and Roman, the Teuton and Mongolian, the Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil and gifted with second sight in this American world—a world which yields him no true self-consciousness but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world,” he was referring to the idea of the double that constantly plagues individuals, making them listless and restless because of the ambivalent feelings they experience at the same time. To his credit, Du Bois did not simply expose the tension of double consciousness, but he also attempted to provide a solution to that inevitable and ineluctable feeling of duality. Du Bois suggests in The Souls of Black Folk that to overcome, even transcend double consciousness and succeed, one needs to have courage, will power, and education. A powerful sense of the will results in people believing in themselves. Belief in one’s self leads to self-esteem that brings about a desire to live confidently without any frenetic zest to see one’s self only through “the revelation of the other world.”

To many African Americans, the idea of double consciousness is a common, everyday feeling that depicts their lived experiences as antipodes apart from the American Dream.  Antoine Mathew expresses this ambivalent feeling clearly to Grant who imbibes it, making him feel entwined and helpless in the static domain men of Bayonne feel incarcerated in. Grant is an educated teacher with a college degree, but he feels reified as a teacher with no other options available to him just because he is a black man in Bayonne. The young men of Bayonne believe that as black men, there is no hope for them. Grant affirms this wretched feeling to Vivian: “We black men have failed to protect our women since the time of slavery. We stay here in the South and are broken, or we run away and leave them alone to look after the children and themselves” (Gaines 166-7).

Jefferson as Sacrificial Hero

However, Miss Emma believes by dying as a sacrificial hero, Jefferson could teach an invaluable lesson to black men to help bring about change. She also believes in Grant helping to change the stereotypical image black people in the South have about themselves. Evidently, Grant has the education Du Bois proposes, but he lacks the will power to complete Du Bois’s solution to the anathema of double consciousness. By helping Jefferson regain his dignity, Grant helps him also to develop a powerful sense of identity to enable him die bravely. Grant must also internalize his own will power to enable him refrain from seeing himself through the eyes of the other world—white patriarchal society. As Grant points out to Vivian, “What she [Miss Emma] wants is for him Jefferson and me to change what has been happening for three hundred years” (Gaines 167).

For three hundred years, blacks in Bayonne felt good about themselves only when they are told they are good by others, and they felt estranged and alienated when white patriarchy refuses to treat them like men and equal partners in society’s prevailing opportunities. As Carmean notes, “Every time Grant meets with Jefferson, he submits to a process in which he is conscious of his injured pride. Only when he abandons his sense of personal sacrifice and injury does he make progress” (126). Miss Emma wants Grant and Jefferson to help stunt that negated feeling of the double inherent in many black men.

The Optics of Existentialism

Grant and other black men in Bayonne are in symbolic shackles because of their perceived hopeless condition, which also reminds some scholars of the various aspects of existentialism as preached by Soren Kierkegaarde, Karl Jasper, Jean Paul Sartre, and Martin Heidegger. According to Kierkegaarde, existentialism is the philosophy of the lonely man relying solely on God while Jasper’s existentialism is premised on the philosophy of the lonely man relying on Christian principles; Sartre sees existentialism as the philosophy of the lonely man in a godless world relying solely on himself. Yet still, to Heidegger, existentialism is the philosophy of the lonely man haunted by Angst. Through her faith in God, even as Grant is haunted by fear that he cannot change Jefferson, Aunt Lou is of the firm belief that he could, and she persists until Grant starts believing in himself that he really could. Here begins the transformation of Grant too. Wardi notes: “Grant’s eventual growth, in fact, is not precipitated by any kind of societal development; rather, a personal transformation is realized through his encounters with Jefferson. Only as a changed man, the text implies, can Grant himself become a catalyst for social equality through education” (193). Grant’s initial reluctance before accepting to play the role of transformer is explained by Auger: “Grant feels that his role as an educator bears no promise of producing change either; he finds that he must work to promote the dominant white-supremacist ideology—or not work at all. Grant is doing the same work…. And Grant has come to share the same pessimistic conclusions as well” (77). Further, Vancil also substantiates Wiggins’s initial reluctance: “Yet, despite his cultural sophistication, Grant is much like everyone else in wanting something better. Only reluctantly does he assume the role of secular priest when his God-fearing Aunt Lou asks him to help prepare …Jefferson…to meet his execution like a man, not the unthinking hog he has been labeled by his white lawyer” (489).

Ironic Motif as Satire

Gaines also uses an overriding motif, voice, and ironic satire in portraying realistic life in Bayonne in the immediate aftermath of World War II.  A Lesson echoes the imagery and tone of Claude McKay’s inspirational sonnet, “If We Must Die,” a poem written after World War I in which McKay called on blacks, in the face of massive, overt racism and rioting to shelve any traces of cowardice and defend themselves bravely and courageously if attacked so that they would not end up dying like hogs. As McKay points out in the poem, “If we must die, let it not be like hogs/ Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot,…/ If we must die, O let us nobly die,/ So that our precious blood may not be shed/ In vain.”

Thus, Gaines uses the hog motif as the thread in weaving the fabric of the story. From the day Miss Emma declared that Jefferson must not be allowed to die like a hog, the gamut community works to ensure that Jefferson dies with dignity. The voice in the novel, I suggest, mimics Gaines’s own. Being the oldest of six children, Gaines’s mother Adrienne had him when she was sixteen, and she had to return to work just one week after giving birth. As a result, Gaines was cared for by his paraplegic maternal aunt, Augusteen Jefferson. Like many young black men today, Gaines grew up in what was then known as the “quarters” but now widely known as the “projects.” While growing up, he attended school five months in a year in a small church that also played the role of classrooms on weekdays for black children in Countee Coupe parish. While white children attended school in the parish nine months in a year, black children had the option of attending only five months in a year because they had to stop during the planting and harvesting. Gaines is married to Dianne Saulney who has children from a previous marriage. Although Gaines was baptized at twelve, like Grant, he could not initially tolerate religion. He, however, believes in God. “I believe in God, but with Christianity, the church—well, we have an understanding,” Gaines once told an interviewer (qtd. in Berry 285). These traits are reflected in Grant to make A Lesson truly a realistic novel.

Stifling Nature of Judicial System

The pronouncements of the attorneys in the novel are a classic example of the repressive nature of the judicial system. It is important to see the dramatic morph of Jefferson from a man to a hog based on the mere fact that the very person elected to save him from the gallows, brands him as “hog”. In this sense, the legal system has become a repressive machinery used to emasculate men before depriving them of their liberties. It is also a system that perpetuates the myth of white supremacy. This is what Louis Althusser labels RSAs (Repressive State Apparatuses). In “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses,” Althusser’s maps RSAs, as comprising prisons, some legal institutions, the police, and the military are repressive machineries that coerce and dominate individuals to interpellate certain codes or modes of behavior. These repressive forces operate at the behest of the ruling class. However, if RSAs are used to break the will and resolve of individuals to deprive them of their humanity, there are ISAs (Ideological State Apparatuses) that utilize ideology and consensus to imbibe values and virtue in individuals.

Indeed, Althusser maps the structure of ISAs to include religious organizations, schools and educational institutions, families, trade unions, some legal institutions, arts and sports. Auger affirms the operation of RSAs and ISAs in the novel: “[Henry} Pichot and the town’s patriarchal elite often take refuge in Pichot’s library, a structure designed to surround one with the white-supremacist ideology presented in his books; the sheriff is often behind his desk at the prison, and the group of white men who declare Jefferson a murderer are found within the confines of the courtroom” (77).

Furthermore, the entire legal system and political structure in Bayonne can be described as hegemonic because the power structure rules by consent. Antonio Gramsci, an Italian Marxist theorist, defines hegemony as an “arrangement of domination accepted by those who are dominated. Ruling groups dominate not by pure force but through a structure of consent, and culture is part of this structure that legitimizes current social arrangements” (qtd. in Culler 50).

After preparing Jefferson to listen, Grant demystifies white notions of superiority to him. Grant tells Jefferson about heroic deeds and the fact that he is in a position to go into the annals of Bayonne history as a martyr if he helps shatter the great white myth. Grant focuses on the mystery and ambiguity of myth and tells Jefferson that some white men have created a false sense of security for themselves by “believing that they’re better than anyone else on earth—and that’s a myth. The last thing they ever want is to see a black man stand, and think, and show that common humanity that is in us all” (Gaines 192).

Grant challenges Jefferson to become a hero by doing things for those he loves, especially for his godmother, Miss Emma. In effect, Grant wants Jefferson to view himself within a communal context. “A hero is someone who does something for other people. He does something that other men can’t or don’t do. He is different from other men. He is above other men. No matter who those other men are, the hero, no matter who he is, is above them” (Gaines 191). After his pontification on the greatness of heroes, Wiggins then explains to Jefferson how he Grant Wiggins cannot be a hero, because he like many other black men, has been placed in a double-bind, a dilemma in which he cannot extricate himself because he is controlled by patriarchal norms of society, and he is a teacher because as an educated black man, that is the only option available to him. As he points out, “I have always done what they wanted me to do, teach reading, writing, and arithmetic. Nothing else—nothing about dignity, nothing about identity, nothing about loving and caring. They never thought we were capable of learning these things” (Gaines 192). These philosophical lessons are geared toward the enlightenment and edification of Jefferson even as they also contribute to the transformation of Grant Wiggins.

The Liberation of Grant Wiggin through Jefferson’s Demise

Grant Wiggins wants Jefferson to know that white patriarchy has falsely accused him of a crime he did not commit because they want a scapegoat to placate and mollify the enraged nerves of other white folk. In this sense, he has become a sacrificial hero whose name would be on the lips of everybody long after he is dead and gone. He would die bravely and courageously and be buried with the knowledge that he died so that Grant and the community would be liberated from the shackles of oppression someday. He did not die like a hog “penned in an inglorious spot.” As Jeffery Folks points out, “By focusing his narrative on the execution of an innocent man, and on the relationship of that man to his own marginalized community that unjustly convicted him,

Gaines is able to explore the structure of communal association and to imply the possibility of social change” (261). Sometimes, for social changes to take place, sacrifices have to be made, and Jefferson is the individual Gaines puts on the sacrificial altar for changes to occur. Before he is executed, however, Bonin who witnessed the execution affirms that Jefferson was the bravest man in that room as he walked up straight and sat in the chair to be executed. Again Folks notes, “Jefferson’s individual heroism not only restores Grant’s faith and gives the dying Miss Emma someone ‘to be proud of’; it lifts the community as a whole beyond its habitual posture of ‘broken men’” (265).

Christian Allusion and Symbolism

Christianity is a realistic trope Gaines capitalizes on in the novel. Through his use of Christian symbolism and allusions, Gaines makes Jefferson look like a Christ-like figure. First, Gaines enacts the Nativity scene in a play performed by Grant Wiggins’ students. The drama depicts the birth of Christ in which Mary is symbolized as a poor but humble mother of Jesus wearing a crumpled blue denim dress while Joseph is depicted as a man with a hammer to indicate his profession as a carpenter and also his industry and diligence. I surmise that Gaines makes use of these allusions and symbolism to tie the suffering of black people with Christ’s. The beatitudes speak of the poor inheriting the kingdom of God, grace, mercy and salvation. Jefferson like Christ was an innocent man falsely accused in order to be executed.

Furthermore, the day of his execution was also Christ-like. Like Christ, he was executed on a Friday between noon and three o’clock. As Auger substantiates, “Besides the obvious connection of this innocent man being put to death, Jefferson’s death is timed by the town’s officials so as not to conflict with a religious holiday as Christ’s death is timed so as not to coincide with the Jewish Passover” (80). But more importantly, after Jefferson’s execution, Grant, by attributing the transformation of Jefferson from a hog to a man to God, becomes a believer.

This is symbolized by the fact that at the end of the novel, he breaks down and cries and shed tears. Grant’s meltdown could be suggestive of a new being who has left the dated, tormenting thought of running all the time because he is a black man, behind. He has come to accept the fact that as a teacher, he has the power to bring about change through his students. The change can occur only if Grant stays at one place to be an integral part of the community and not by running all the time because the patriarchal norms of society categorizes destiny of the black man as transient. Further, Grant‘s bond with Paul Bonin is symbolic of a possible change in the attitude of the white man toward the black man to bring about a universal change as justice deeply embedded in the spirit of egalitarianism are enjoyed by all, regardless of one’s position on the social stratification ladder.

Sports as Propitiating Tool

Another realistic trope is Gaines’s use of sports in the novel to portray everyday occurrence in America. The symbolic alliance between Grant and Jefferson as well as Paul Bonin is prefigured early on in the novel with modern sporting icons, Jackie Robinson and Joe Louis. Robinson is well remembered as the first black American to break the race barrier in baseball when he was signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers to play in the professional ranks. His association with the Dodgers opened the floodgates for other black ball players to play in Major League Baseball. Indeed, such was the popularity of Robinson in the League that he became a national icon—at least—to black people. He was a beacon of hope to them, for he symbolized the potential of what America could become someday and for that matter what Bayonne would become in the future. As a result, anytime Robinson stepped out of the dugout to play, he became the cynosure of all eyes, especially the eyes of blacks.

If Robinson symbolized integration, Louis, the former heavyweight champion of the world, signified hope for the downtrodden. So, when Louis was dethroned by Europe’s Max Schmelling as heavyweight champion of the world, the black community in Bayonne was thrown into a state of mourning. But to the glory of black America, Louis regained the title from Schmelling and with it the hope that he symbolized returned. Indeed, the iconic greatness of Louis is starkly depicted in a scene in which a man on death row being taken to be executed somehow believed Louis could help save his life, so he kept crying, “Please, Joe Louis, help me. Please, help me… “(Gaines 91). Sports in the novel, thus, becomes a realistic medium of integration and hope for both races. As sports icons, Robinson and Louis were in their day what Michael Jordan, Muhammad Ali, and Tiger Woods are to young people in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

Gaines as master Storyteller

The intricate interweaving of realistic tropes such as dialect, the role of women in the community, the hog motif, sports, and Christian symbolism reveal Gaines as a unique storyteller. Gaines mastery of storytelling compels Babb to comment eloquently that Gaines’s does not have to resort to farewell speeches and melodramatic actions, conventional methods she regards as didactic and artificial, and that’s what makes him the greatest. Even his shifting of point of view from first person narrative to Jefferson’s diary in chapter twenty-nine to third person omniscient point of view in chapter thirty helps the reader follow the story’s development to the liberation of Jefferson, then to its climax with his execution. Again, Carmean affirms: “Chapter 30 recounts execution day through the varying impressions and actions of the Bayonne community. From Sidney deRogers’s inattentiveness  when the truck transporting the electric chair rumbles into town to the callous comments of a white sales clerk, readers are asked to witness a cross section of responses” (121).

Clearly, Gaines’ A Lesson Before Dying tackles many contemporary themes such as patriarchy, identity, manhood, community, misrepresentation, importance of education, and dignity through the author’s use of language, community, the hog motif, Christian symbolism and allusions, music, and sports to depict the way in which the justice system, sometimes in its zeppelin ego to convict, victimizes some innocent individuals.

However, this could also be a critique of the death penalty. Gaines is more concerned with the restoration of Jefferson’s dignity as a black man in order to make him a role model for young black men out there even as it serves as an admonition to them to beware of their friends and to take their education seriously. In that sense, Jefferson’s destiny galvanizes an entire community of race to fight for social justice. By having Russian authors such as Turgenev and Tolstoy to influence him, Gaines borrowed from their experience of using the novel to expose prevailing inequities, past iniquities, and misdeeds in hopes of helping bring about change, not only the dismantling of patriarchal structures but also to ridicule obnoxious practices like the caste system among black Americans. Thus, Jefferson’s dies an innocent man, but it is an ironic salvation that possibly might lead to a better Bayonne in the future and for that matter, a better America.

Works Cited

Althusser, Louis. “Ideology and Ideology State Apparatuses.” Columbia University. New York.                    Autumn 1997.

Auger, Philip. “A Lesson about Manhood: Appropriating ‘The Word’ in Ernest Gaines’s A Lesson Before Dying.” Southern Literary Journal 27 (1995): 74-85

Babb, Valery Melissa. Ernest Gaines. Ed. Frank Day. Boston: Twayne, 1991.

Berry, Jason. “The Haunting Voice of Ernest Gaines.” Conversations with Ernest Gaines. Ed.                  John Lowe. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1995. 282-286.

Carmean, Karean. “A Lesson Before Dying.” Ernest J. Gaines: A Critical Companion. Ed. Kathleen Gregory Klein. Westport: Greenport P, 1998. 117-136.

Floyd, Samuel A. The Power of Music: Interpreting Its History from Africa to the United States.             New York: Oxford UP, 1195.

Folks, Jeffery J. “Communal Responsibility in Ernest J. Gaines’s A Lesson Before Dying.” The                    Mississippi Quarterly 52.2 (1999): 259-67.

Gaines, Ernest. A Lesson Before Dying. New York: Vintage P, 1993.

Gramsci, Antonio. A Short Literary Theory: An Introduction. Jonathan Culler. Oxford: Oxford              UP, 1995.

McKay, Claude. “If We Must Die.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature.1979. 5th ed.               Ed. Nina Baym. New York: W.W. Norton, 1999. 2072.

Vancil, David E. “Redemption According to Ernest Gaines.” African American Review  28                      (1994): 489-91

Wardi, Anissa Janine. “Review of A Lesson Before Dying.MELUS 21 (1996): 192-94.

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About Dr. Sam Doku
Dr. Samuel O. Doku is a professor and a writer. He earned his Ph.D. in English with concentration in African American Literature from Howard University. He is a W.E.B. Du Bois scholar whose book is titled Cosmopolitanism in the Fictive Imagination of W.E.B. Du Bois: Toward the Realization of a Revolutionary Art. His articles have been published on Google Scholar, in the International Journal of English Language, Literature and Humanities, and College English Association Magazine (CEAMAG).