A Lesson Before Dying – Quotes Analysis

Ernest Gaines' A Lesson Before Dying is a novel of self-discovery and confronting responsibility in the face of injustice. Various lines in the novel characterize these themes with a general clarity not found elsewhere. Four specific quotes which seem to project from the page make Gaines' message clear.

"What justice would there be to take this life? Justice, gentlemen? Why, I would just as soon put a hog in the electric chair as this."

Jefferson's defense attorney defines the course of the novel with these words from Chapter 1. He reduces Jefferson to the level of an animal, stripping him of every shred of human dignity he may have had. Jefferson then internalizes his words and begins to act out in a way that ultimately leads to his confrontations and connection with Grant. Miss Emma listens to the lawyer's words and realizes that Jefferson will probably take the words seriously and she makes it her last mission in life to make sure he does not die like a hog. This animalistic characterization reflects the attitude held by white society toward blacks, and thus it positions Jefferson as a symbol for his entire people. When he later discovers his own value and defies the implications behind these words, he does so in the name of an entire oppressed community.

"It doesn't matter anymore. Just do the best you can. But it won't matter."

Matthew Antoine, Grant's primary school teacher, was a defeated, bitter, mulatto man, whose attitude affected Grant's perception of Southern society. Antoine's last words to Grant in Chapter 8 respond to Grant's belief that Grant could affect positive change by teaching in the South. Though Grant resisted Antoine's words at first, he later grew to believe in them and to adopt their cynical attitude that blacks in the South must necessarily fail. Ironically, Antoine's defeatist outlook stemmed in part from the reality of the situation but in part because as a man of mixed race he felt himself superior to blacks. Antoine believed that running away represented the only sure-fire way to avoid failure, but to him the inevitability of failure related to something inherent in blacks themselves, not just the system. Grant, a dark-skinned black man, follows this tainted view of black abilities and displays his burning desire to leave the quarter.

"I want you to show them the difference between what they think you are and what you can be."

During his visit to the jail with Miss Emma and Reverend Ambrose in Chapter 24, Grant walks with Jefferson and communicates to him that he ascribes a great deal of importance to Jefferson's death. He knows that the entire community will long remember the execution, and that Jefferson's final moments will have a powerful impact on thousands of people. He wants to make that impact as positive and far - reaching as possible, and so he asks a very difficult thing of Jefferson: to die with absolute dignity. If he can walk to the electric chair with a proud and courageous bearing, he will defy an entire community of oppressors. Here, "they" refers to the white community.

"Good by mr wigin tell them im strong tell them im a man"

In Chapter 29, Jefferson communicates with Grant through his diary, which serves as a vivid link between the two men. With these words, he lets Grant know that he understands precisely what his life and his death signify. He lets Grant know that he has learned a great lesson about life. Prior to writing these words he lived a life of submission and after the trial he lived an angered, but nevertheless undignified, life, acting out like an animal in his cell, disrespecting the people who loved him. Now, Jefferson respectfully and lovingly says "good by" to his teacher and friend, illustrating the fact that to be a man means to reciprocate love. In essence, Grant learns the exact same lesson throughout the novel, both with respect to Vivian, but also with respect to his entire community and the people who raised him.

These four quotes are indicators of a progressing theme that Gaines seeks to convey. Injustice is a part of the world and sometimes one has to take the responsibility of staring it straight in the face. Jefferson and Grant accepted their duty, and they won the battle.




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