The challenge of writing a historical fiction novel is crafting an interesting, thought-provoking story that includes relevant pieces of history artfully woven in it, rather than a historical event simply given a protagonist and a plot. Ernest J. Gaines’ A Lesson Before Dying is certainly not the latter. Instead, it perfectly captures the spirit and nature of life in the Southern United States during the Great Depression. More specifically, it tells the story of one person, one victim, by the name of Jefferson, and his journey towards his inevitable death. In reality, Jefferson represents the millions of blacks who faced abhorrent prejudice under the Jim Crow Laws with no way to escape.
Jefferson’s story begins in a local bar in the town of Bayonne, Louisiana. During this time, the town is heavily populated with black people, but even more so with whites. Not only were blacks outnumbered, but it was made crystal clear that anyone with skin darker than the whites of their eyes were members of the inferior race. Blacks were commonly threatened, taken advantage of, accused of murder or rape, and ultimately blamed for society’s contorted beliefs and values. As a violent scene unfolds before Jefferson’s eyes, all involving liquor, theft, and a deadly revolver, it becomes clear that Jefferson has been caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. Three people, one of them white, fall dead at Jefferson’s feet. The bar is silent except for Jefferson’s heartbeat. When the police arrive, there is no way to prove Jefferson’s innocence in the unfortunate tragedy. He is tried in court, and although heavily unfair and biased, it was more than most blacks ever received. During the trial, his own lawyer, who failed to defend Jefferson, says, “Why, I would just as soon put a hog in the electric chair as this” (Gaines 8). From that moment on, those words implant in Jefferson’s mind that he is indeed, no more than a dirty, ignorant animal; a hog not worthy of life. Standing in the courtroom with only his aunt and godmother for support, Jefferson finds his fate in the hands of a panel of twelve white, biased, racist jurors. Not surprisingly, Jefferson is found guilty and sentenced to death by electrocution. He has merely weeks to live and has been completely stripped of all dignity and morality. And that is just the first chapter.
For the remainder of the novel, Jefferson understandably remains a cynical, somber young man. He spends his days in his jail cell awaiting his execution date, with nothing to do but ponder his humanity and self-worth. A highly intelligent and educated schoolteacher who also the narrator, named Grant Wiggins, visits Jefferson daily. He is faced with a daunting task: to teach Jefferson to die with dignity. Wiggins approaches the mission with a great deal of hesitation, and only agrees after the begs and pleads of Jefferson’s aunt and godmother, who would be devastatingly heartbroken to watch Jefferson suffer both physically and emotionally on the day of his untimely death. Unfortunately, the Jim Crow society and the whites who closely follow behind it work consistently to break down not only Jefferson’s sense of dignity but Wiggins’, as well. As Gaines writes on page 253 that Jefferson “was the strongest man in that crowded room”, that is all I will tell you without spoiling the end.
By far, the most emotionally-capturing part of the novel was the second half. Gaines’ unique take on Jefferson’s character allowed all readers to deeply connect and empathize with him, which is a major reason why the novel is so captivating and memorable. The end of the story consists of a series of journal entries written by Jefferson himself, up to the days of his execution. I found myself struggling to read the words on the page because my eyes were brimming with tears and blurring my vision.
The novel not only explores topics such as discrimination, despite the fact that slavery had been abolished years before, but Gaines includes other details that are historically accurate and help depict Jefferson and Wiggins’ story in the most brilliant and honest way. There is definitely a religious undertone throughout the novel in the ways that Jefferson acts as a Christ-figure and martyr. Furthermore, religion influences various characters’ perspectives on life. Gaines also addresses the corrupt criminal justice system and the failing economic state of the nation, which are both factors of the twisted American ideals.
Obviously, the themes of mortality, injustice, racism, and coming of age are heavily emphasized throughout the novel. Although these are woeful concepts, they have become important in literature because so many can relate and resonate with them, regardless of their background, roots, gender, race, etc. However, with deeper analysis, themes can be traced back to education, hope, and religion. What is amazing about the author is that he has created a piece of literature that can be analyzed from various perspectives, and the reader will not fail to find significance in every word he writes.
Author, mentor, and activist Ernest J. Gaines is a Louisiana native, which explains the familiar setting of most of his works. Besides the inspiration from his hometown, many of his characters are based on influential people in his life and most themes are recurring, meant to spread awareness about the social issue and educate those who have been fortunate enough to escape the horrors of reality. His vast collection of work has been published and taught around the globe, earning him an equally large set of prestigious awards and recognitions. Gaines’ meaningful writing is timeless, stylistic, thought-provoking, and extremely unforgettable.
Gaines has masterfully written a moving, compassionate novel that brings to life the time period and setting. Just as I did, you will find yourself laughing, crying, and fighting alongside Gaines and his characters in this wonderfully written historical fiction novel. Its message and story will leave a lasting mark on any reader’s literary career, so be sure to pick up a copy at your local library or bookstore.