The Literary Merit of A Lesson Before Dying
Ernest Gaines was born during the middle of the Great Depression on January 15, 1933. He was the oldest of twelve children. At the age of nine Gaines worked as an errand boy on the River Lake Plantation, the same plantation his book A Lesson Before Dying was set in. Gaines was raised by his Aunt Augusteen Jefferson, much like Grant, the protagonist in the novel, was raised by his Aunt Tante Lou. At the age of fifteen Gaines rejoined his immediate family in Vallejo, California because there were no high schools for him to attend in Louisiana. Gaines also wanted to enter a public library which was illegal for people of color to use. At this time in U.S. History, books about colored people were scarce and so Gaines decided to try and write his own novel. The desire to write led him to San Francisco State and Stanford University where he took creative writing courses. His first book, Catherine Carmier, was published in 1964. He finished his most famous novel, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, in 1971. The success of The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman prompted Gaines to write more about the black communities of southern Louisiana. The most successful book dealing with the colored people of southern Louisiana, A Lesson Before Dying, was penned in 1993 (“About Ernest Gaines” 1).
A Lesson Before Dying explains the tale of the wrongful conviction of Jefferson, an ignorant colored man who was an accessory to a liquor store shooting where a white man was killed. At Jefferson’s trial a lawyer calls him a hog. At the end of the trial, Jefferson is sentenced to death by electrocution.
Miss Emma, Jefferson’s Aunt, wants Jefferson to know that he is a human before he dies. She will convince him by visiting him in his cell; however, she becomes very sick and cannot visit him alone. She enlists the help of Grant Wiggins, a schoolteacher and nephew of her best friend, Tante Lou. Miss. Emma plans to have Wiggins visit Jefferson every week to try to convince him that he is a man. At the start of these visits, Jefferson is unresponsive and angry to both Miss Emma and Wiggins; however, as time passes by Jefferson slowly starts talking with Wiggins while remaining unresponsive to Miss Emma. This cruel treatment causes Miss Emma to be bedridden. Wiggins is forced to continue these visits alone.
Over the next few visits, the connection between Jefferson and Wiggins begins to intensify, and encouraged by this, Wiggins decides to leave a notebook and a pencil with Jefferson so that when he is not there he can write things down he wants to say to Wiggins during his next visit. When Wiggins returns the next week, he finds that a whole page of the notebook has been filled discussing the differences between “youmans” and hogs. At the end of the page, Jefferson concludes that he really is a human being and not a hog that the lawyer called him in the trial. It is at this time that the governor sets the...