Love4 Essay, Research Paper
Ernest J. Gaines’s award-winning novel is set in a small Louisiana Cajun community in the late 1940s. Jefferson, a young black man, is an unwitting party to a liquor store shoot out in which three men are killed; the only survivor, he is convicted of murder and sentenced to death. Grant Wiggins has returned home from college to the plantation school to teach children whose lives promise to be not much better than Jefferson’s. As he struggles with his decision whether to stay or escape to another state, his aunt and Jefferson’s godmother persuade him to visit Jefferson in his cell and impart his learning and pride to Jefferson before his death. In the end, the two men forge a bond as they come to understand the simple heroism of resisting–and defying–the expected.
In a story whose eloquence, thematic richness, and moral resonance have called forth comparisons to the work of Richard Wright, James Baldwin, and William Faulkner, Gaines summons the reader to confront the entire bitter history of black people in the South–and, by extension, America as a whole. A Lesson Before Dying is about the ways in which people declare the value of their lives in a time and place in which those lives seemingly count for nothing. It is about the ways in which the imprisoned may find freedom even in the moment of their death. Gaines’s novel transcends its minutely evoked circumstances to address the basic predicament of what it is to be a human being, a creature striving for dignity in a universe that often denies it.
The world into which Ernest James Gaines was born–on January 15, 1933–is essentially the world which he has distilled into the dense and complex world of his six novels and his stories. The land around River Lake Plantation–near New Roads, Pointe Coupee Parish, Louisiana–is the land around the Pichot plantation, near Bayonne, St. Raphael Parish, presented in A Lesson Before Dying. The black community in which Gaines grew up became “the quarter” of this 1993 novel, as well as providing the setting and social matrix of his previous works. The author’s vision of Henri Pichot’s cane fields stems directly from the fields in which Gaines himself worked as a child. As Gaines has said: “Though the places in my stories and novels are imaginary ones, they are based pretty much on the place where I grew up and the surrounding areas where I worked, went to school and traveled as a child. My characters speak the way the people speak in that area. They do the work that the people do there. Since most of my writing is about rural Louisiana, my characters are closely attached to the land.” And that land provides the bedrock of a plantation world that is truly microcosmic, existing in and of itself–through the power of Gaines’s creative power–and exemplifying southern Louisiana, the South, and the nation itself.
Gaines’s fictive world and specific technical aspects of his works have been compared with those of William Faulkner, resemblances being remarked between the latter’s Yoknapatawpha County and Gaines’s plantation country. Comparisons have also been made between Gaines and other Southern writers. Gaines has insisted, however, that his presentation of his characters owes much more to Tolstoy, Turgenev, and the other great nineteenth-century Russian writers. To whatever extent Gaines’s complex social hierarchy and his portraits of those who benefit from and fall prey to that hierarchy may be compared with either Faulkner’s or Tolstoy’s, he has created a world and characters that are exclusively and gloriously his.
Gaines also has drawn considerably on the mores of black culture and the storytelling traditions of rural Louisiana. The result is a prose that is at once exact, idiomatic, stately, and true to the spoken language of actual people. The serenity and epic rhythms of Gaines’s prose contain and highlight the often anguished experiences and emotions of his characters. Of particular note in Gaines’s novels and stories is his fidelity to a community’s (black and white) shared ways of speaking and thinking in response to a firmly rooted history, persisting conventions, and the threat or promise of change.
A Lesson Before Dying won the 1993 National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction, the most recent of numerous awards that Gaines has received. A Wallace Stegner fellow in 1957, a recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts grant (1967), a Guggenheim fellow (1971), and a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation fellow (1993), Mr. Gaines has steadily been recognized for his achievement as a master of the novel and short story. In addition, one of his novels, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1971), has become an undisputed classic of twentieth-century American literature and gave rise to the immensely popular, award-winning TV-movie adaptation starring Cicely Tyson.
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To an interviewer’s question about the audience that Gaines hoped to reach, the author responded, “I write for the African-American youth in the country, especially the South, so that they can know who they are and where they came from and take pride in it…. [And for] the white youth of this country, and especially the South, because unless he knows his neighbor of three hundred years, he only knows half his history.” The questions and topics that follow are designed for in-class discussion and written or oral assignments, to guide your students through A Lesson Before Dying and to help them approach the novel as a fully realized work of fiction that presents characters and themes recurrent in American literature and, at the same time, of intense relevance in the world of the 1990s. How can we preserve what is good of the past while destroying or transforming all that is evil, unjust, and demeaning? How do we balance the demands of society, family, and self? Can one person effect change in a society in which traditional ways of behavior are firmly entrenched? How does one balance conflicting loyalties? How does one preserve one’s convictions and personal beliefs in the face of constant attack and struggle?
While racism and the continuing degradation of prejudice are clearly at the novel’s forefront, students should also be encouraged to consider the book’s other issues and concerns: love and redemption; the pursuit of personal happiness; community values; the nature of religious belief; social dynamics and conventions; justice and the death penalty; familial relationships; familial and social responsibility, for example. They should also be encouraged to examine their own lives and society with a critical eye tempered by the carefully balanced amalgam of compassion, acceptance, and commitment to change that informs A Lesson Before Dying. They should keep journals in which they record their responses to the novel, their responses to specific questions in this guide, and their observations on their own lives, those of their families, and their communities.