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A Lesson Before Dying

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Submitted By philly2003
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A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest J. Gaines reveals many fundamental and universal ideas. The book gives a reader a lot of mental pabulum. It makes people think about life and its value, about people’s relations and behaviors, and about the past and the present. The book teaches people to recognize injustice in the society and to take responsibilities to improve it; it teaches to accept the past as it is and to face problems; it teaches that a lie can be constructive, and that it can decrease people’s sufferings.
Grant Wiggins, the protagonist of the novel, often criticizes and bitterly resents racist society. He tends to run away and escape the society he feels will never change. Like Professor Antoine, he believes no one can change society without being destroyed in the process. Jefferson’s trial reinforces Grant’s pessimistic attitude. Grant sees the wickedness of a system designed to uphold the superiority of one race over another. He sees a man struck down to the level of a hog by a few words from an attorney. During the course of the novel, however, Grant comes to realize that cynicism like his is akin to lying down and dying, and that even small victories can accumulate and produce change. Rather than looking at Jefferson as a hopeless stranger, Grant accepts Jefferson’s plight as his own and begins to fight for Jefferson’s salvation. He accepts his duty to the society he inhabits, thereby taking the first step toward improving that society.
Alongside with the theme of facing problems and responsibilities, goes the question of accepting the past. In fact, the past is inescapable. It exists and influences people’s lives. It predetermines people’s present and their future. The heroes of the book, Grant and Vivian, are haunted by their pasts as well. White people treated Grant as their inferior as he was growing up. Grant deliberately severs himself from his past because thinking of it discomfits him. Vivian, his girlfriend, however, recognizes the sway her past has over her, and she deals with it. She cannot completely embrace her relationship with Grant, in part because her husband still threatens to take her children away from her. She also realizes that their history in Bayonne means that she and Grant cannot run away from their town. She feels responsible for the community. Unlike Grant, she recognizes that the problems of the past will not disappear by changing geographic location. Moreover, she recognizes that Grant’s wish to ignore his past is symptomatic of his inability to love his community, or to love her for that matter. Ernest Gaines suggests that only confronting racism will change it.
Another instructive idea lies in the question of constructive lying. Reverend Ambrose, a local pastor, delivers a rousing speech to Grant asserting that black people must lie and cheat in order to survive in the racist South. They must tell themselves that heaven exists, that they are not in pain, that God is good. The reverend thinks that Grant should cease judging people for lying. After all, Grant went to college on the strength of his aunt’s lies. She deceived him and herself, saying she was fine when actually she was working her fingers to the bone. Ernest Gaines considers that racism forces men and women to compromise their ideals simply to stay alive. He suggests that if black people are not to lie down and give up in the face of an unethical system, they must sustain their sense of hope although it may require them to lie to themselves.
Thus, the book A Lesson Before Dying arises many vital questions. It shows people how to survive in the world of cruelty and injustice. It teaches to face difficulties and to struggle for better life. Moreover, the book affirms a person’s right for human dignity and claims that all people, despite their race, age, sex, religion, or citizenship, are equal. All people are just humans, and all of them are uninsured from mistakes and problems. Therefore, the wisest lesson that comes from the book is that a man should think much before saying or doing something because he is not alone in the world and his behavior may affect someone else’s life.

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