Wrestling Angels into Song: The Fictions of Ernest J. Gaines and James Alan McPherson

By Herman Beavers | Go to book overview

Conclusion

1

Though I would like to argue that A Lesson Before Dying is Gaines's attempt to revise Book 3 of Wright Native Son (indeed, the texts share important features), what seems to me to be more precise is to argue for the allegorical significance of Gaines's novel as it pertains to the present. What makes this a viable reading is that the replacement of Max with Grant suggests, through their very names, that Gaines's novel is most concerned with issues of audience and apportionment than with issues of cultural exhaustion. Thus we need to understand Grant's opening words in the novel: "I was not there, yet I was there. No, I did not go to the trial, I did not hear the verdict, because I knew all the time what it would be. Still, I was there" (Lesson, 3). Grant represents that allegorical figure meant to denote the propensity to distance himself from men like Jefferson. Gaines's decision to set the novel in the 1940s rather than the 1990s is a move that alludes to the prosperity and mobility that flowered during the post-World War II moment. It also refers to the kind of prosperity that, in the 80s, accompanied the dismantling of the social machinery that saw racial solidarity cross class lines. Though Grant is still a victim of discrimination and segregation, his education nonetheless represents the sacrifices of a community. But he sees it as the opportunity to break from that community and claim sole responsibility for his achievement. His desire to leave Bayonne coupled with his resistance to the idea of helping Jefferson, suggests the dangers inherent in the assertion of a fierce individualism that attempts to achieve its ends at the community's expense.

Gaines's novel enacts a difficult moment, one that perhaps leaves us numb. But when Grant cries at the novel's conclusion, we are left with the question, "Who is he crying for?" Himself? The children in his class? Jefferson? Are his tears indicative of loss? Joy? Relief? Adula

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