Lesson Before Dying Essay, Research Paper
Effects on Religious Beliefs and Human Dignity
Throughout history, it has been proven that the environment
around us reflects on what we believe and how we act around others. In the novel A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest J. Gaines this aspect is strongly stressed throughout. Jefferson, the character that Gaines creates for us, is not only stripped of his human dignity but is also confused about the existence of God and heaven. His attorney, Reverend Ambrose, and Grant Wiggins all reflect Jefferson’s change in behavior, and how he views his religion.
At Jefferson’s trial his attorney tries to win the case by simply relating him to a hog, and a thing that cannot make intelligent decisions. By saying this he hopes to convince the jury that it would not be within justice to put him to death. Mentioning the attorney, Kenny points out, “To execute someone so simple, he concluded, would be like putting a hog in the electric chair” (683). Directed the jury, Jefferson’s attorney states, “What you see here is a thing that acts on command… Why, I would just as soon put a hog in the electric chair as this” (Gaines 7-8). At one point in the novel, Jefferson smashes his face into his food and begins eating it as if he were a hog. He does this, because of the attorney’s rash, insensitive and cruel remarks. This event marks the beginning of Jefferson’s decline of self-respect and gradually decreases his belief in heaven and God. With the help of Grant, his beliefs are slowly altered and his self-worth is steadily improved.
“For the Reverend Ambrose, what matters is not whether Jefferson affirms his human dignity but whether he finds salvation” (Kenny 683). The fact that the Reverend doesn’t care about Jefferson’s dignity makes Grant’s task even more difficult. The Reverend’s attempts to show Jefferson that all he needs in life and in death is God only adds to his confusion. Grant and the Reverend argue about their own beliefs and this puzzles Jefferson. He doesn’t understand what he should, and what he should not believe. However, as the novel progresses and begins to come to a close, Grant and the Reverend’s strives to help Jefferson in their own ways, results in him finding himself, his true beliefs, and re-establish his self-dignity.
Grant Wiggins, a black school teacher was chosen by Mrs. Emma, Jefferson’s godmother, to make Jefferson understand that he was a man, not a hog. He took the challenge, not by free will but by his aunt, and by his true love, Vivian, both of which did not give him much of a choice. Once persuaded, Grant is still skeptical about what he can do for Jefferson. At first, his hourly visits to Jefferson have no effect. Giles tells us that, “Grant’s problem is that he himself has little desire to be where he is and sees little value in trying to change Jefferson’s perspective” (63). At one point, however Jefferson begins talking to Grant. His talking turns into a question that completely catches Grant off guard. Curious and confused, Jefferson asks him, “Does heaven exist?” (Gaines –). With all honesty, Grant tells Jefferson that he believes in God, but he is uncertain if heaven exists or not. Afterwards, Grant tells Jefferson that he can have anything he wants. Jefferson, says he would like a radio. The next day, Grant eagerly buys the radio that Jefferson requested. This radio, was the start of a drastic increase in Jefferson’s self-respect. From then on, a bond began to form between him and Grant. They understood one another and a trust between the two started to develop. Later, Jefferson even begins keeping a daily journal for Grant to read once he has been put to death. In the end, Jefferson’s trust in Grant, helps him to face his death like a man. He does this, and dies like the human he is, not the hog he was thought as.
Although Jefferson was deprived of his human dignity by his environment, those that cared about him, helped him recover it, and showed him the best road to follow. He followed. Kenny says, “We are what society makes us” (683). This is a major aspect of the novel and is proven in many areas, most of which deal with Jefferson. Human dignity, our religious beliefs, and the way we act are all effected by our surroundings and by those who we trust.
Gaines, Ernest J. A Lesson Before Dying. New York: Vintage
Kenny, W.P. Ed. “A Lesson Before Dying.” in Vol. 2 of
Masterplots II, 682-687. Pasadena, CA: Salem press, N.D.
Giles, James R. Ed. “American Novelists Since WWII” in Vol.
152 of Dictionary of Literary Biography, 63 Detroit,
Washington, DC: Gale Research Inc. 1995