A Lesson Before Dying, a classic written by Earnest J. Gaines, takes place in the small town of Bayonne, Louisiana in the 1940’s and centres around an innocent black man sentenced to death. Before Jefferson set foot in the courtroom, everyone knew he didn’t stand a chance once convicted of murdering a white man. Once sentenced, Jefferson’s godmother Miss Emma convinces Grant, the teacher on the plantation, to teach Jefferson to be a man and die with dignity. Throughout the course of the novel, set in a predominantly racist society, each character learns a lesson through their own personal experiences and those of people around them. Earnest J. Gaines uses the changes in Grant, Emma and Jefferson throughout his classic novel, A Lesson Before Dying, to illustrate the importance of dignity regardless of one’s circumstance.
Grant Higgins, one of the only educated black citizens of Bayonne, begins the novel believing that dignity comes from education and accomplishments but by working with Jefferson he soon finds a new meaning to the word. To begin with, Grant begins the novel unfulfilled with the life he leads and since he is newly educated he believes that he should no longer be teaching at the plantation and instead leading a better life elsewhere. Grant attempts to convince Vivian to move and insists, “I don’t want to spend the rest of my life teaching in a plantation church… I know we can do better someplace else” (Gaines 29). In other words, in the beginning of the novel, Grant falsely believes that he deserves more dignity than others because of his education. Later in the novel, once Grant begins teaching Jefferson dignity and to be a man, he uncovers a new meaning to the word that does not involve past accomplishments or an education. Grant describes how proud he is of the progress Jefferson has made, he explains, “I wanted, too, to talk about how Jefferson’s nanan had looked at him when he ate the gumbo she had cooked especially for him, and about how he said goodbye when he had to go…”(Gaines 196). Until this remark, Grant always equates dignity to education though as he spends time working closely with Jefferson, he acknowledges an increase in his pride through the most basic actions.
Secondly, Ms. Emma is the only character that displays her understanding of the importance of dignity from the beginning of the novel and carries it through until the end. The moment that she is informed of Jefferson’s death sentence, Miss Emma becomes determined in ensuring that he dies with pride and dignity, not as the “hog” they referred to in the courtroom. She explains to Grant after the trial, “I don’t want them to kill no hog… I want a man to go to that chair, on his own two feet” (Gaines 13). From the beginning of the novel, Miss Emma emphasizes the importance of Jefferson holding his head high in a such a heartbreaking situation and how much it means to her for him to die with dignity. In addition, Miss Emma becomes relentless to do all that she can to give Jefferson a sense of dignity including cooking him fresh meals for every visit and petitioning the sheriff to allow the teacher to frequently visit. She visits the sheriffs lobbying for her wishes: “I’m begging for his life no more; that’s over… I just want to see him die like a man… This family owe me that much, Mr. Henri… I want somebody to do something for me one time fore I close my eyes” (Gaines 22). For the most part, Miss Emma never asked for anything from the white folks of Bayonne though Jefferson’s dignity is is something beyond important to her and she will not rest before she sees him die like a man.
Finally, throughout his time in jail and several visits with Grant, Jefferson develops a newfound care for dignity and pride. He begins by saying that he is nothing but a “hog” and refuses to cooperate but puts in effort to die as the man that Miss Emma wants him to be. Throughout the first half of the novel, Jefferson is depressed and unable to come to terms with his forlorn situation, far from possessing a single ounce of pride. During Grant’s first visit alone to the jail Jefferson declares, ” I’m an old hog… I’m an old hog they fattening up to kill” (Gaines 82). In other words, once wrongfully accused and sentenced to death in the beginning of the novel, Jefferson lost every sense of dignity in his body, portraying him to be a miserable lost cause. Nearing the conclusion of the novel, the drastic change within Jefferson becomes apparent as he is no longer forlorn and dispirited but has newly gained a sense of pride. Before execution, Jefferson adresses his progress his final diary entry by writing, “good by mr. wigin tell them im strong tell them im a man good by mr wigin im gon ax paul if he can bring you this” (Gaines 234). Despite his circumstances, by the end, Jefferson learns that dignity can be gained through love and support and adresses that he will indeed die holding his head high.
In conclusion, the most important lesson Gaines teaches Jefferson, Grant and Emma before dying is that regardless of whether you are rich or poor, black or white, educated or uneducated or facing death or not, you can achieve dignity. Near the end of A Lesson Before Dying, once the characters were taught this valuable lesson, it noticeably improved their quality of life, happiness and satisfaction. It is important to reflect on this lesson taught by Gaines as it could have great effect on your personal life, making you proud, content and fulfilled. Imagine living a life as sorrowful and oppressed as the three characters at the beginning of the novel without learning the importance of dignity.