Essay on Themes of “A Lesson Before Dying”

Published: 2021/11/24
Number of words: 1541

Before writing A Lesson Before DyingErnest J. Gaines grew intrigued by the Willie Francis case, a young man who was sentenced to death through the electric chair, guilty of murdering a white man. Gaines established a deep connection with Francis’s case, which lead him to use that as inspiration for the plot of his current novel. The story is set in the 1940s where two black men struggle with the burden of spite and hopelessness inflicted by a society that oppresses them. Jefferson, an uneducated and illiterate young man, is sentenced to death for a murder he did not commit. As Jefferson nears his execution date, Grant – a schoolteacher – helps him find the strength within himself which allows him to defy his oppressors in Bayonne, Louisiana. Through Gaines storytelling, many themes began to unravel as we turn the pages. Racial injustice, inequity of the justice system, and inhuman capital punishment corrupt Jefferson’s and Grant’s reality. However, from building a friendship, they find a way to emerge from these injustices stronger than before.

Racial injustice has been portrayed through the life of Jefferson, and he was conditioned to accept his fate through religious text. Throughout his life, Jefferson was led to believe that he was a hog. The experiences of Jefferson highlight the general experiences of African Americans during a time of slavery where Black people were tortured and forced into hard labor because they were considered inferior. Racial injustice was demonstrated through slavery, discrimination and other forms of enslavement targeted at Africans. To demonstrate the deep entrenchment of racial injustice, it is important to showcase the contextual balance between racial injustice and religion. Whites propagated enslavement based on an old religious text drawn from the first book of the Bible.

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“He said cursed is Canaan, a slave of slaves he will be to his brothers” (Genesis 9:25).

The curse that befell Canaan and his descendants does not mention anything about skin color. The story in the book of Genesis from the Bible was interpreted in religious contexts to mean the enslavement of black people. Canty considers the position of Jefferson in society as similar to that of Baldwin in My Dungeon Shook. Canty (22) notes that the characterization of black people as niggers sought to degrade their humanity and their rights, the first step in exacerbating racial injustice. Understanding the text through the eyes of Gaines, it is clear that racial injustice was meted upon Jefferson. Jefferson’s close friends and associates such as Miss Emma and Tante Lou, have been treated as servants in white families. The two women worked as servants in the households of white people, and they were forced into subjectivity and humility because they occupied the lowest echelons of the racial hierarchy.

Perhaps the demonstration of racism is inherent upon Jefferson himself through his lack of education and inferior position. Jefferson is uneducated in a society where education is a privilege for the white man. Even though the story is set in 1940, Jefferson, like many black people at the time, was uneducated. Interestingly, this position was used by his defense attorney in court. The defense attorney asked the judge to release him stating “Justice, gentlemen? Why, I would just as soon put a hog in the electric chair” (Gaines 8). The comparison of Jefferson, a black man, to a hog, is the definitive portrayal of black people as less of human and deserving the treatment of animals. This explains why Grant Wiggins remarks that “Only when the mind is free has the body a chance to be free. Yes, they must believe, they must believe. Because I know what it means to be a slave. I am a slave.” (Gained 255), showcasing the position of the black man. Thus, racial injustice is rife within the novel and seeks to showcase black people as inferior beings.

Inequity in the justice system is portrayed through the arrest of Jefferson, his treatment through the court system and his sentencing. The criminal justice system in America today has undergone significant changes. Inequality in the criminal justice system is evident through Grant’s own admission that everything has been set up to portray the White man as the supremacy in the world. Firstly, Jefferson becomes the main suspect in the case just because he is black. The persecution of black people is evident in historical analyses the U.S. criminal justice system where black people are more likely to be arrested as suspects of a crime. Martin notes that “Gaines situates the courthouse, the jail, the home, and the church as central to the gendered racial consciousness of African American men and boys.” (1). The defense attorney wo represents Jefferson is inherently cold towards Jefferson and fails to make any effort to properly represent him in the courthouse. His defense further dehumanizes Jefferson as he calls him “a thing, a fool, a boy, and a hog” (Gaines 7); and further prods his humanity as a criminal suspect by noting “Do you see a man sitting here? … Do you see a modicum of intelligence? … No, gentlemen, this skull here holds no plans” (Gaines 7).

The jury appointed to hear the case is fully composed of white people. The denial of education to black people and the dominance of white people in politics showed why black people could not stand as part of the jury. Gaines himself notes that the jury considered Jefferson guilty before the trial. The life that Jefferson lived while in jail showed how he was treated like a criminal before he was sentenced by the jury. Jefferson is sentenced to death by the electric chair, and he died like a criminal among black people who suffered similar treatments. Irsyadi and Dinurriyah notes that the court system considered Jefferson “Although he inherits from his ancestors, but according to the jury, Jefferson cannot plan such a big and serious action like robbery and murder that are usually done by a man.” (12). Regardless of this notion, Jefferson is sentenced anyway. Thus, inequalities exist through the criminal justice system as black people, portrayed through Jefferson, are unfairly tried, convicted and sentenced to death by the electric chair.

Inhuman capital punishment was demonstrated through the death of Jefferson at the electric chair, an act sanctioned by the court. The concept of inhuman capital punishment is relatable to Grant who had read about slavery and the slave trade in the 19th century. However, the sentencing of Jefferson does not seem to surprise other black people who considered death a natural part of their lives. For instance, Aunt Emma pleaded with Grant to teach Jefferson so that he dies like a man. This shows that capital punishment was accepted in the society. Grant notes that “How do people come up with a date and time to take life from another man? Who made them god? […] Twelve white men say a black man must die […] They sentence you to death […] with no proof that you had anything at all to do with the crime […].” (Gaines 129). Despite this recognition of inhumanity, Grant does not do anything to help Jefferson in his plight.

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The use of capital punishment has changed considerably in today’s society compared to the novel by Ernest Gaines. Niedner notes that “The views of capital punishment in the book are unlike the views of today’s civilization. The legislation in Louisiana in the late 1940s differs greatly from the legislation today. Executions are only carried out if the crime is a first degree murder…” (9). The acceptance of capital punishment has also changed from the use of the electric chair to lethal injection. However, central to capital punishment is the idealistic belief that humans have the power to take away another person’s life on moral grounds. The white people in the jury and the white judge believe it should be done. However, it is critical to recognize that capital punishment was unfair; especially knowing that Jefferson was innocent all along.

The story A Lesson before Dying is a strategic novel highlighting the challenges faced by 1940s black populations. The point of view presented by Grant shows that black people were oppressed, denied the right to education and underwent servanthood and violence. Jefferson is the perfect specimen of an unequal criminal justice system and the imposition of the burden of capital punishment on black people. Racial discrimination, unfair trials and inhumane treatment marked the lives of black people at the time.

Works Cited

Bedenbaugh, Robin A., et al. “Toward Justice: Reflections on A Lesson Before Dying.” (2017).

Gaines, Ernest J. A Lesson Before Dying: Hauptbd../Annot. by Hartmut K. Selke. Ernst Klett Sprachen, 2009.

Irsyadi, Achmad Naufal. Hegemonic Discrimination As Seen In Ernest J. Gaines’ A Lesson Before Dying. Diss. UIN Sunan Ampel Surabaya, 2016.

Martin, Chante B. ““How a (Black) Man Should Live”: Southern “Places” of Memory, Instruction, and Transformation in Ernest J. Gaines’s A Lesson before Dying.” The Journal of Men’s Studies 20.3 (2012): 243-258.

Niedner, Natasha. “The Acceptance of Capital Punishment. A Comparison of Ernest J. Gaine’s Novel “A Lesson Before Dying” and Today’s Views.” GRIN, pp. 1-15.

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