A Lesson Before Dying Essay
A Lesson Before Dying by Earnest J. Gaines takes place in Bayonne, Louisiana throughout the 1940s and revolves around a tale of Jefferson, a poor, innocent black man wrongfully convicted of murder. The twenty-one-year-old uneducated African American, grew up on the town’s plantation along with his godmother Miss Emma and the teacher, Grant. Once he was put in jail, Miss Emma devotes her life to making sure her godson dies “like a man” by persuading Grant to visit the jail cell and provide the prisoner with daily lessons. During the novel Gaines intrigues the audience using a multitude of effective storytelling techniques. In his classic novel, A Lesson Before Dying, Earnest J. Gaines uses tone of voice, symbolism and various literary devices to effectively communicate his ideas.
A way Gaines is able to portray an effective story is his utilization of voice. Narrated by Grant Wiggins, most of the novel is told with stream of consciousness, a passage to Grants interior dialect “What am I doing? Am I reaching them at all? They are acting just as the old men did earlier. They are fifty year younger, maybe more but doing the same thing those old men who never attended school a day in their lives. Is it just a vicious circle? Am I doing anything?” (Gaines 62). The way Gaines writes, with the narrator of the story asking questions to the reader, makes for a very unique style of writing, which helps give the piece of literature a authentic feel. A second way Grant utilizes voice is how he conveys Cajun vocabulary, actually speaking the way they talk, as oppose to the proper English form “I didn’t raise no hog, and I don’t want to go set in that chair, I want a MAN to set in that chair, Mr. Henri” (20). When Gaines uses this type of southern, uneducated writing, it takes the reader to a time it likely has never been before, making it feel as though they are thrown into the story as it is going on.
Secondly, Gaines uses symbolism throughout the text to help with the storytelling.
The first use of symbolism in A Lesson Before Dying comes with food. Tante Lou, Grant’s aunt, uses food as a way to show affection. When Grant tells her, he had a different source of a meal, “Nothing could have hurt her when I said I was not going to eat her food” (24). For Tante Lou, and the rest of the characters, food symbolizes love and affection, making it one of the most important uses of symbolization throughout the book. However, the main symbol is the hog. Jefferson’s attorney attempts to bail him out by dehumanizing him, and essentially calling him stupid, he does not have a “modicum of intelligence” (7). Gaines uses very descriptive terms to convey the level of brain power that the coloured within the society get treated, and are looked as attorney then compares Jefferson to a hog “why, I would just as soon put a hog in the electric chair as this” (8). This quote signifies just how poorly they thought of coloured people, going as far as to compare them to an animal as filthy as a hog.
The final technique benefits Gaines from is the multitude of different literary devices such as repetition and through paradoxes.