Set on a plantation in the fictional community of Bayonne County, Louisiana in 1948, A Lesson before Dying follows the final days of Jefferson, a young African American Man, who is arrested and sentenced to death for allegedly robbing and murdering a Caucasian man. A series of flashbacks confirm the innocence of Jefferson in spite of the circumstantial evidence placing him squarely at the crime scene at the time it happened. During the course of the trial, three versions of the events are presented with perspectives from the narrator, the prosecutor and Jefferson's attorney. What stands out from the court case, however, is the demeaning defense of Jefferson's court appointed attorney. As part of the defense strategy, perhaps believing that Jefferson was certain to be found guilty, the attorney refers to Jefferson as a thing and contends that it is not intelligent enough to tell wrong from right. He posits that sentencing Jefferson to die is akin to sending a hog to the electric chair (Gaines 8). This defense sets the tone for the rest of the story, and as the rest of the story unravels, various themes emerge. One of the principal themes in the story is the theme of redemption.
At the end of Jeffersons trial, he is left dejected and feeling debased not so much because of the outcome of the trial, but because of his attorneys reference to him as a hog. Jefferson accepts the degrading image of himself presented to the jury by the attorney when he urges them to note the shape of this skull, this face as flat as the palm of my hand, . . . those eyes [without] a modicum of intelligence" (Gaines 9). He internalizes the dehumanizing language used by the attorney. It was upon seeing this that Ms. Emma., Jefferson's godmother prevails upon Mr. Grant, a local teacher, to help redeem Jefferson from the abyss of self-deprecation in which he had sunk.
Ms. Emma is insistent that Jefferson must die with dignity a strong statement denouncing racist devaluation. Despite being hesitant at first, Grant eventually accepts to talk to Jefferson, teach him and attempt to salvage his manhood. At first, Jefferson is recalcitrant and angry and behaves in keeping with the criminal nature imposed on him. Over time we witness his redemption happen in little increments every day. Grants education is successful in redeeming Jefferson and his insistence that Jefferson is not a hog finally gets to him and he starts acting like a man.
The theme of redemption is also fortified by the numerous mentions of Jesus Christ and his crucifixion throughout the story. There are many parallels between Jefferson's story and the story of Jesus Christ including the redeeming power of death both for the individual and the community. The death of Jefferson serves to bolster a black community existing in ignominy. Grant contends that when Jefferson was called a hog, the entire black community was insulted.
Jefferson's successful deconstruction of racist stereotypes branding black people unruly and criminal and his success in reclaiming his manhood despite his impending death reflects a redemption for the entire black community too. By defying a society which, without shame, wrongly accused him of murder and convicted him of his blackness, Jefferson attains eventual redemption. The redemption is made complete when he makes his community proud by walking to his execution with a transcendental calm. Onlookers even remark how he is by far the bravest person in the room.Work Cited
Gaines, Ernest. A Lesson Before Dying. Ernst Klett Sprachen, 2009.
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