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Free Study Guide: A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest Gaines - Free BookNotes

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A LESSON BEFORE DYING: FREE STUDY GUIDE / BOOK SUMMARY

SYMBOLISM / MOTIFS / IMAGERY / METAPHORS / SYMBOLS

The Diary

Jeffersons diary is the readers only glimpse into the inner workings of his mind. In it, Jefferson reflects on his connection to the rest of society and the injustice of his situation in a way that contributes to his transformation. He expresses his bewilderment that no one cared for him while he was alive, but now that hes on death row the whole town seems to be interested in him. More importantly, the diary represents Jefferson legacy, a hope for a brighter future and a stronger black community. Paul follows through on his promise to deliver the diary to Grant, which gives him a chance to talk with Grant about the execution. Their conversation suggests hope for greater collaboration between black and white in the future.

The Radio

The radio represents Jeffersons gradual reconnection with the outside world. After his sentencing, Jefferson is understandably filled with bitterness and hate. He tries to shut out everyone, even Miss Emma and Grant who only want to help improve whats left of his life. When Grant buys him the radio it is the most expensive gift he has ever received. For a brief period, the radio is his only form of communication with the rest of society and it helps break Jeffersons self-imposed isolation. Jefferson exiles himself from the world as a way of maintaining his hatred for everyone outside his cell. Once he begins listening to the radio his bitterness begins to fade and he becomes more accessible to human contact. This makes it easier for Grant to gain his trust and eventually teach him about heroism and sacrifice.

The Christmas Program

Grant is unsatisfied with the school Christmas program because reminds him of the tedium of unchanging life in the South. Everything is always the same. Each year the program is the same, the costumes and scenery are the same, the students make the same mistakes, and the same parents come bringing the same refreshments. He wonders if he makes any differences as a teacher, if things will always be the same. Will blacks in Louisiana always be uneducated, poverty-stricken, second-class citizens? If so, why does he fight against the current trying to improve their lives? This fatalistic attitude weighs heavily on him and isolates him from the rest of the congregation. At the end of the program the audience mingles to eat and talk, but Grant stands alone with his plate of food.

The Kitchen Door

The Kitchen door represents the subservient role of black people in Southern society. When Grant goes to Henri Pichots house to meet with the Sheriff, he cannot simply knock at the front door. He must enter through the kitchen at the rear like a servant because he is black. Then, he waits in the kitchen until the Sheriff is willing to go back there and meet with him. Tante Lou tells Grant to get an education so that he will never have to go through the Pichots back door again. After Jeffersons conviction, however, Grant is reduced to groveling at the Sheriffs feet in order to help Miss Emma and Jefferson. This humiliation infuriates him and he accuses Tante Lou of helping the white man to humiliate him and stealing away everything she sent him to university to achieve. Amazingly, when Jeffersons execution date is handed down, Sheriff Guidry talks to both Reverend Ambrose and Grant in his front room, the first time either of them had been anywhere in the Pichots house other than the kitchen. Whereas he had had to debase himself to begin visiting Jefferson, his status in white society has briefly been elevated as a result of those visits.



IMPORTANT / KEY FACTS SUMMARY

Full title
A Lesson Before Dying

Author
Ernest J. Gaines

Type of work
Novel

Genre
Fiction, Historical fiction, Social commentary

Language
American English

Date of first publication -
1993

Publisher
Vintage Books

Narrator
Grant Wiggins

Point of view
First Person

Tone
Grant's narrative voice shifts from brooding to cynicism to awareness and confidence.

Tense
Past Tense

Setting (time)
1940s

Setting (place)
Bayonne, Louisiana

Protagonist
Grant Wiggins

Major conflict
Miss Emma and others believe that Jefferson is capable of being more than a hog and want Grant to teach him to be a man. Others think it is pointless to try because Jefferson is black and is not capable of courage or refinement. Grant is caught in the middle.

Rising action
Grant agrees to help Jefferson and visits him regularly. Grant progresses slowly at first, as Jefferson refuses to emerge from his shell of anger and resentment.

Climax
Grant reaches a point of where he is (briefly) converted to Jefferson as a Savior-type figure and understands the importance of Jeffersons contribution.

Falling action
Grant cannot bear to attend Jefferson's execution. He remains at his schoolhouse, but hears from Paul, the white deputy, that Jefferson did, in fact, die with pride and courage.

Themes
Fatalism vs. Individualism; Heroism; Education; Religion

Symbols
The diary; The radio; The Christmas program; kitchen door.


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