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Importance Of Religion In A Lesson Before You Die

2168 words - 9 pages

A Fatalistic Predisposition before Settling In
In an 1973 interview conducted by Forrest Ingraham and Barbara Steinberg, Ernest J. Gaines states that although he is not devoutly religious, it is his belief that “for you to survive, you must have something greater than what you are, whether it’s religion or communism, or capitalism or something else, but it must be something above what you are” (Gaines and Lowe 52). When applied to the narrator of his subsequent work, A Lesson Before Dying, it would seem that this principle is reflected in the one thing Grant Wiggins initially holds above himself. I refer, of course, to Grant’s anticipation of the day that he will leave Bayonne in order to start a new life elsewhere, ideally in the company of Vivian. Since it is generally agreed upon that the myriad of intractable dilemmas facing the descendants of those victimized by the institution of chattel slavery likely constituted a significant push factor in the second wave of the Great Migration, well underway by the time of the events depicted in A Lesson Before Dying (Thornbrough 34-35), it would be problematic to assert that Grant’s assessment of his prospects in Bayonne does not a reflect the social realities he faces as a black man in the Jim Crow South. Yet although it would be difficult to argue that Grant’s fatalistic view of Bayonne is not a reflection of the lack of opportunity it presents him, it is also difficult to argue that his fatalistic attitude is universal among the characters that populate the work. This in turn seems to suggest that the undercurrent of fatalism which characterizes the tone of the work is largely a product of the interaction between the social realities that Grant faces, and the way in which Grant’s perception of the limits imposed upon him by these realities influence the construction of his ontology.
Of the 31 chapters that comprise A Lesson Before Dying, all but one are narrated from the perspective of our pedagogic protagonist. While Grant’s incessant ruminations on both the motivations underpinning the behavior of other characters, the almost absolute certainty that he ascribes his assessments and predictions, and the condescending inflections that tinge many of his interactions suggest that he may consider himself to be omniscient, from the perspective of the reader, Grant is, in fact, a participatory narrator. This can, at times, be a difficult fact to keep in mind, since his assurance in the plenary veracity of his own perceptions is frequently intermingled with descriptions of setting and dialogue that tend to shroud the fact we are perceiving the world though the unique psychic lense of Grant Wiggins. To be sure, the events which transpire as the narrative runs its course suggest a world that is less than ideal, as reflected in the predominantly fatalistic tone that permeates it, yet it is also worth noting that our perception of this tone is engendered by the pervasiveness of Grant’s fatalism. Owing to this...

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