Free Study Guide: A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest Gaines - Free BookNotes|
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A LESSON BEFORE DYING: FREE STUDY NOTES
The major theme speaks to the destructive nature of fatalism versus
the liberating ideals of individualism. It involves the belief that we
can control our lives instead of being controlled by external forces.
Grant and Jefferson learn there is a simple heroism in resisting the expected.
Jefferson defies those who consider him a beast of burden by walking straight
and tall to the electric chair. Grant recognizes that he does not have
to either stay and be broken down or run away from the South.
The novel suggests that freedom is a state of mind. Jefferson is incarcerated
while Grant is free. Yet once Jefferson realizes that the white man can
no longer punish him for standing tall and proud, he is freer than Grant,
who must still seek the approval of white society in order to maintain
his position as schoolteacher. The story also addresses religion and education.
The entire quarter is united each Sunday to worship God while Grant, the
only educated one, isolates himself by refusing to attend. In addition,
Grant’s university degree does not provide any of the answer’s he’s looking
for - such as how a man should live. He remains in a state of ignorance
because he does not know himself, nor does he understand his people.
As might be expected in a story about a death-row inmate, a somber mood
prevails throughout the book. The two main characters, Jefferson and Grant,
spend most of the novel wallowing in the mire of self-pity and trying
to pull others down with them. In addition, the characters are dealing
with sobering issues, racism, poverty, illiteracy, social injustice, etc.
Most of all, the entire community struggles with a bleak world view -
that none of this will ever change, because our environment dictates our
life’s course. As this perspective gives way to the belief that individuals
can change their station in life, the mood lightens considerably and the
novel ends on a hopeful, yet tragic note.
Ernest Gaines bases many of his stories on his memories of childhood. He was born on a Louisiana plantation during the Great Depression. Like the schoolchildren in Lesson Before Dying, he worked in the fields digging potatoes. He was raised by his Augustine Jefferson, whom he considers one of the most courageous people he ever knew. This may explain why he gives the hero the name ‘Jefferson’.
Earnest J. Gaines was born in 1933 in Louisiana. The Gaines family moved
to Vallejo California when he was fifteen years old. While in Vallejo
he discovered the public library and took and interest in reading. In
the 1940’s novels about African-Americans were hard to find, so Ernest
decided to write some of his own. His first novel, Catherine Cormier,
was published in 1964. In 1971 he published one of his most famous
novels, The Biography of Miss Jane Pittman, which was a critical
and financial success. The work follows the life of a fictional Jane Pittman
and encapsulates the black experience in America. Mr. Gaines has written
many other novels about rural black communities of Louisiana, including
his most successful work to date, A Lesson Before Dying, published
in 1993. He now lives in San Francisco, California.
Readers of A Lesson Before Dying should understand the series
of laws that created the segregated society described in the novel. After
the American Civil War, Southern state legislatures enacted the Jim Crow
laws, a series of codes that legalized separation of blacks and whites.
The Supreme Court ruling in the case of Plessy versus Ferguson (1896)
decided that separate facilities for blacks and whites were constitutional.
This led to the exclusion of blacks from white restaurants, hotels, bathrooms,
theaters, rest stops, drinking fountains, and schools. Blacks had their
own institutions, which were usually of inferior quality. By WWI, even
places of employment were segregated, and it wasn’t until after WWII that
blacks made any progress toward equality. In 1954, the Supreme Court ruled
in Brown versus Board of Education that racially segregated school
facilities was unconstitutional. Following this, Blacks used a variety
of protest methods, including sit-ins, marches, boycotts, and legal suits
to hasten the demise of discrimination, which eventually resulted in the
passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
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Strate, Shane. "TheBestNotes on A Lesson Before Dying".
. 09 May 2017