Academic journal article Making Connections

Washington, Jefferson, and Grant: Redundancy and Irony in Gaines's A Lesson before Dying

Academic journal article Making Connections

Washington, Jefferson, and Grant: Redundancy and Irony in Gaines's A Lesson before Dying

Article excerpt

If Ernest Gaines's A Lesson Before Dying is taught in a college course, a consideration of the purpose and the effectiveness of teaching might arise from three different directions: from the point where the reader encounters and learns from the text of the novel-as-a-whole from all of the passages in the novel where characters discuss lessons to be learned; and from outside of the narrow context of teaching this particular book. First, what is taught by the novel? Second, what is taught within the novel? And third, what educational endeavor is the teaching of the novel a part of? This last question, especially, concerns an area about which college students have a certain amount of expertise and insight, afforded by their own experience. They generally know which educational strategies have worked for them, and they have their own reasons for pursuing higher education. Students' contributions to the other questions will be just as valuable, though perhaps not as expert.

There seem to be lessons to be learned- more than one-from reading A Lesson Before Dying, but as I will try to show, they do not make themselves readily apparent without the systematic effort of interpretation. As in any accomplished work of fiction, convincing moral positions and statements about life will arise out of the encounters and the conflicts of different perspectives, some more persuasive than others. Since the "lesson" of the title seems to allow both for what is taught and for what is learned, and since everyone dies, the number of possible interpretations of the title is nearly inexhaustible. We can hardly enumerate all of the possible learning audiences, let alone all the possible teachers. But consider some of the leading candidates; apart from the didactic message of the novel itself, there is the lesson that Grant Wiggins, the schoolteacher in a rural plantation quarter near Bayonne, Louisiana, teaches Jefferson, a man unjustly convicted of murder who now faces death by electrocution, and there is the lesson that Jefferson, in the process of learning, teaches Grant. Jefferson's example is supposed to teach everyone else a lesson too. The lessons learned by Jefferson and Grant are not identical to one another and neither of them is identical to the lessons for the readers of the novel. On the other hand, all of these are likely to be closely related, and their closeness will show the remarkable care with which the novel is constructed. They involve dignity, identity, loving, and caring, the elements that Grant comes to believe should be part of a young child's school curriculum (192). When we restrict our focus to Grant as the teacher of the lesson, we can see that the method by which the lesson needs to be taught is intertwined with its content: Treat the person you are trying to reach as fully human. At any rate, my aim here is not to pinpoint the lesson of the book, but to complicate it-or to insure that efforts to identify it go the long way, through the novel's workings and through a consideration of the changing ethical perspectives of its characters. It is not usually a novel's lesson, after all, that gives it its richness and vitality.

Grant Wiggins talks with and gives counsel to Jefferson on death row because he has agreed to do so at the request of his aunt, Tante Lou, and her friend Miss Emma, Jefferson's godmother. The jury has pronounced a death sentence upon Jefferson, and Miss Emma does not presume to have enough social power to appeal or contest the sentence. But after she hears Jefferson demeaned by a white attorney who was supposed to defend and represent him, she calls in several favors to get one bit of satisfaction before Jefferson dies, and before she herself dies. Miss Emma wants Jefferson to die like a man, walking to the electric chair with dignity. She wants Grant to help him achieve this feat. The defense attorney has said that Jefferson was no better than a hog, and Miss Emma asks Grant to visit him in the prison and to restore his dignity as a man. …

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