A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest J. Gaines

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Jefferson in the novel A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest J. Gaines is a reserved individual who all his life believed a lowly life was his destiny (1), accepted the unfair conviction (2), and internalized the insulting remarks likening him to a hog made by his lawyer (3). He did not put up any defense against those who mistreated him.

Jefferson was a young black field worker in the 1940s America where racism and segregation were common. He was twenty-one and uneducated and lived on the plantation with his godmother. Jefferson and men his age live a life of extreme poverty but participate in hobbies men their age do. A deep analysis of Jefferson’s character shows that he is slow and uncommunicative; this leads him into making poor decisions that push him into legal problems (Gaines 26). However, he is a good person who happens to have bad luck and an inability of making prompt decisions.

The novel is set in an imaginative community of Bayonne in Louisiana in the 1940s. As earlier stated, during this time racism was part of the people's lives. Fortunately, slavery had previously been abolished, but equality between the races was still inexistent. It is during these times when black men were treated suspiciously that Jefferson and his friends made a move to visit a liquor store. Initially, Jefferson had made other plans but was convinced by Brother and Bear to go to the store. When they tried to rob the store, Jefferson was the only left standing when there were gunshots; instead of running his poverty pushed him into going for the open cash register (Gaines 37). When he was caught red-handed in the act, there was no way he could defend himself. Additionally, during this era, the white supremacists had the right to shoot any black people that threatened their security at point blank. It is this situation that a white man died in unclear circumstances; since Jefferson was the only survivor, he becomes guilty of the crime. The societal systems at the time could not allow him the right for further investigations, and he was convicted immediately. The extreme poverty and illiteracy made him guilty in the light of the social imbalances of the time. Also, Jefferson had a reserved attitude that made him think he deserved such a life.

Jefferson maintains he is innocent and that he never shot anyone, but nobody believes him. However, the fact that he was caught red-handed in the cash register there was no way he was going to be free (Gaines 51). In the end, Jefferson accepts his fate and is ready to face the electric seat. The fact that he is uncommunicative makes it hard for the defense to defend him. Additionally, all the people involved in the crime died during the incidence and thus no witnesses to offer alternative theories to what happened. It is in such circumstances that Jefferson received a conviction and is sentenced to death.

Jefferson is an honest man found in the wrong circumstances; his basic intention was to live on the plantation and never bothered anyone. However, the conviction created a monster, and he was helpless in the system that was unsupportive. The fact that he was poor made him resign to his fate as he there was no way for him to survive the justice systems of the time (Gaines 63). The fact that a white man died in the process made the situation extremely precarious. When Jefferson got into the liquor store in the company of Brother and Bear he had no intention of robbing. However, when the two decided to commit the crime and the owner decided to shoot at them he should have run away, but he did not which made him accept the outcome of the whole incidence.

Finally, his defense attorney argued that it was a waste of resources to kill such an illiterate individual whose intellectual capacity was similar to that of a hog (Gaines 69). The description made Jefferson think critically about his life, and he concluded that he was a hog. He then proceeded to behave like a hog and refused to behave like human towards his family and his friends. His godmother was upset and decided to ask the assistance of Grant a local lawyer to help Jefferson change his attitude before death.

The instance Jefferson internalized the insults was the turnaround point as once he recovered from the initial shock he worked hard into becoming a better person. Interestingly, during the time he was waiting for his death he becomes a better person than during the time he was free. Jefferson was able to have a personal relationship with Wiggins, his lawyer and was able to write down his feelings and thoughts that indicated he had changed. He had a better understanding of himself and the circumstances a fact that gave him a truly dignified death.

Work Cited

GAINES, J. Ernest. A Lesson Before Dying. Serpent’s Tail. 2015.

July 18, 2022




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