A Lesson Before Dying Critical Essays

The women that surround Grant in “A Lesson Before Dying" by Ernest Gaines are all catalysts for his eventual change away from the bitterness and doubts. Without Miss Emma or Tante Lou, it seems natural to conclude that Grant would have stagnated in his despair and spent his life feeling angry and irritable. However, since Emma and Tante Lou force Grant to go visit Jefferson and keep him motivated to stick with the task they’ve assigned him, they can be said to be the real force in the novel—rather than Grant.

The role of women in “A Lesson Before Dying" is quite significant as they are the foundations of community and family. Vivian, while an equal force in Grant’s eventual change in attitude that constitutes a form of double consciousness in “A Lesson Before Dying" by Ernest Gaines and seems to have a different effect. While Grant tends many times to shy away from interaction with his aunt and Emma throughout “A Lesson Before Dying", and even in one of the most important events in “A Lesson Before Dying" he finally opens up to Vivian at the end and admits his weakness by laying his weary head in her lap.

Performing a character analysis of Grant in “A Lesson Before Dying” by Ernest Gaines is a complex task because his understanding of his community shifts. The first line of “A Lesson Before Dying" when Grant states offers one of the most important quotes from “A Lesson Before Dying" by Earnest Gaines, “I was there—but I wasn’t really there" (1) can not only be taken literally since he wasn’t actually at Jefferson’s trial, but in the metaphorical sense as well. Even though he part of the Tante Lou, Miss Emma, and Vivian’s lives, he seems to be only there in presence rather than in spirit. The first half of “A Lesson Before Dying"shows Grant always separating himself from the women in his life and the small gestures he makes of what he feels to be his “apartness" seem like they are keenly felt among these women, even if the author doesn’t delve too deeply into these women’s psyches and inner thoughts.

To highlight this theme in “A Lesson Before Dying” consider for example, both Tante Lou and Miss Emma are always trying to get Grant to eat their food, which for them is a symbolic way of taking care of their men, and just like Grant, Jefferson ends up doing the same thing when he refuses the food that the ladies brought for him. In some ways, this refusal on the part of both these men to accept this sign of love and care from the women binds them together and one can’t help but wonder if this mutual refusal (and finally acceptance) of the gift of food is what helps Grant begin to understand Jefferson. Also, perhaps this is one of the reasons that Miss Emma and Tante Lou were so convinced that Grant could help the condemned man—because they could see the link between them and the possibility for a learning experience.

Part of Grant’s bitterness in “A Lesson Before Dying" stems from his negative feelings about the black population in his hometown and as the novel continues, he experiences a double-consciousness about this matter. He feels that they are all bending to the will of the whites and seems very frustrated that so few of them don’t act out against those who are keeping them down. Along these lines, there is a big difference between Grant’s feelings and those of the women in his life since they are all actively involved in the community that Grant seems to have such a distaste for (even though he continues to stay). Everything seems repetitious to Grant, as is expressed in the important quote from “A Lesson Before Dying", “After listening to one or two of the verses, I tuned out the rest of them. I had heard them all many times,” Grant says (p. 33). This church and community that the women around him are all involved in just seem to Grant to be the same thing, a vicious circle of submission. It is not until Grant learns to put some faith in these women who are trying to make him realize that he can change and become a fully realized man, even if he just thinks they are all bending to the pressures of white society.

“Without the hope that these women provide through their belief in redemption in the future, life would be intolerable."(3) In essence, this means that without a few members of the black community taking pride in their actions and status as a cohesive unit, life would be even worse for all the African Americans living in Bayonne. Emma, Tante Lou, and Vivian are the forces in the black community this quote is referring to. Without them, Grant, with his feelings of disgust, would likely spend his life hating everything around him and this would be intolerable. These three women is Grant’s life cause him to take the first steps towards realizing his place in the community by forcing him (at first) to take up the issues of injustice surrounding the eventual execution of Jefferson.

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Gaines and his inspirations
Ernest Gaines' Materials: Place, People, Author Author(s): Mary Ellen Doyle Source: MELUS, Vol. 15, No. 3, Discovery: Research and Interpretation, (Autumn, 1988), pp. 75 -93
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/467504

 

Literary analysis of his depiction of religion
"’You Think a Man Can't Kneel and Stand?’: Ernest J. Gaines's Reassessment of Religion as Positive Communal Influence in A Lesson before Dying.” Author(s): William R. Nash Source: Callaloo, Vol. 24, No. 1, (Winter, 2001), pp. 346-362 Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3300506

 

Book Review of A Lesson Before Dying
Review: Redemption According to Ernest Gaines Author(s): David E. Vancil Reviewed work(s): A Lesson before Dying. by Ernest J. Gaines Source: African American Review, Vol. 28, No. 3, (Autumn, 1994), pp. 489-491 Published by: Indiana State University Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3041985

 

Literary Analysis and Comparison
“Of Snow and Dust: The Presence of James Joyce in Ernest Gaines's A Lesson Before Dying.” Author(s): Matthew Spangler Source: South Atlantic Review, Vol. 67, No. 1 (Winter, 2002), pp. 104-128 Publisher: South Atlantic Modern Language Association Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3201588

 

Book Review
Review: [untitled] Author(s): Anissa Janine Wardi Reviewed work(s): A Lesson before Dying by Ernest J. Gaines Source: MELUS, Vol. 21, No. 2, Varieties of Ethnic Criticism, (Summer, 1996), pp. 192-194 Published by: The Society for the Study of the Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States (MELUS)  
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/467965

 

 

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