Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

A Lesson about Manhood: Appropriating "The Word" in Ernest Gaines's A Lesson before Dying

Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

A Lesson about Manhood: Appropriating "The Word" in Ernest Gaines's A Lesson before Dying

Article excerpt

The word in language is half someone else's. It becomes "one's own" only when the speaker populates it with his own intention, his own accent, when he appropriates the word, adapting it to his own semantic and expressive intention. Prior to the moment of appropriation, the word does not exist in a neutral and impersonal language.... but rather it exists in other people's mouths, in other people's contexts, serving other people's intentions: it is from there that one must take the word and make it one's own. (Mikhail Bakhtin, "Discourse in the Novel") (1)

   If we must die, let it not be like hogs Hunted and penned in an inglorious
   spot ... If we must die, O let us nobly die, So that our precious blood may
   not be shed In vain....

(Claude McKay, "If We Must Die")

From Ernest Gaines's earliest published works of the late 1950s and '60s to his most recent novel, A Lesson Before Dying, Gaines consistently writes about black men who face the problems of being denied the dignity and self-worth found in the status of "manhood." In A Lesson Before Dying Gaines again picks up this theme as the narrator of the story, Grant Wiggins, a black college-educated school teacher, takes on the responsibility of convincing Jefferson, a non-educated black laborer who has been sentenced to death for a murder he didn't commit, that Jefferson is indeed a "man," and not a "hog" as his white attorney declared as part of his defense strategy:

   Do you see a modicum of intelligence? Do you see anyone here could plan a
   murder.... a cornered animal to strike quickly out of fear, but to plan?
   ... I would as soon put a hog in the electric chair as this. (7-8)

While much of Gaines's work addresses the issue of establishing manhood, A Lesson Before Dying is distinct in that it focuses on this issue in a most direct way: the problem Grant and Jefferson are faced with is a problem of redefining Jefferson, from his identity given to him by the white dominant culture, hog, to a new identity, man.

Within the scope of this problem, A Lesson Before Dying explores the roles of social institutions such as education, law, and especially religion as they all have a part in producing human dignity and self worth. It is in the mythologies and ideologies these social institutions produce that the foundations for definition and identity are created. Jefferson does feel that he has experienced a change in identity by the novel's end, and that change is made possible through his and the black community's appropriation of social institutions and of myths and ideologies themselves. Gaines recognizes that for a change in Jefferson's identity to have any lasting "substance," language itself, the complete make-up of discursive formations surrounding Jefferson, must change also. More specifically, Jefferson's becoming a man at the novel's end is an act based on the reinscription of (among other things) a most essential foundation for discourse, the Bible. In doing so, Jefferson is understood as a man because his life first takes on Christ-like significance.

In defining discourse and its social power, Michel Foucault writes that the discursive power of a doctor, the power to present and sanction truth, is socially determined through a network of systematic authorization involving medical, judiciary, educational, and even religious representation: "discourse is not the majestically unfolding manifestation of a thinking, knowing, speaking subject, but, on the contrary, a totality" (50). In this respect, the task before Jefferson and Grant takes on enormous significance. Jefferson is a "hog" because the socially dominant system of inscription, white-supremacist patriarchy, deems him so. In effect, for an act of redefinition on Jefferson and Grant's part to have any lasting impact, the totality of systematic networks of authorization must be breached.

It is important to remember that although Jefferson's symbolic importance in the novel is central, this is Grant's story. …

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