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Most people define life as something that is dynamic, void of any static activity; in other words, it is always changing. A person defines life as a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ experience depending on the events that took place which affected that individual in positive or negative ways. Many people have their own belief systems about what triggers these experiences and events. Some call the magic ingredient fate or destiny, while others are firm believers that all life experiences are results of one’s personal choices. The last group believes in moderation, believing that both fate and one’s own actions are the cause. In Ernest Gaines’ novel, A Lesson before Dying, the main characters, Grant, Jefferson and Vivian undergo positive and negative events which define their identities and force them to mature and change, because of these experiences. All three characters experience human transformations, which can only be achieved after one learns valuable life lessons.
At the beginning of the novel, Grant is introduced to Jefferson’s trial, as other characters, like Tante Lou and Miss Emma, desperately try to persuade him to counsel Jefferson. However, Grant possesses a low self-concept, and does not believe he has the potential to help Jefferson. He gives up even before trying making an effort by saying, “Tante Lou, Miss Emma, Jefferson is dead. It is only a matter of weeks, maybe a couple of months - but he’s already dead” (Gaines 21). Grant looks down on his Louisiana hometown, thinking its way of life and customs are ignorant and backwards. At a young age, Grant was given an opportunity to earn an education, a choice which he used to his advantage, returning after becoming highly educated in the contrast to his community members.
Throughout the novel, Grant’s point of view indicates to the reader that he is incapable of connecting to people around him, which means he cannot understand their dilemmas and emotions. Seemingly insensitive, he gives off a rather selfish aura, which is evident in his relationship with his girlfriend, Vivian. He is highly uncomfortable with change or new situations, and always prefers being left alone and unbothered. Grant thinks that he has fulfilled his duty and responsibility by simply coming back to his hometown; however, his actions are contradictory and anything, but noble. Even though he is responsible for teaching the town children, he is a moody teacher, often angry, and resents the circumstances the children are going through. Ironically, he does not realize that he is a part of the negative aspects of the society, and is repeating his old teacher, Professor Antoine’s, mistakes by discouraging children and not providing hope and optimism (Hager).
Grant’s biggest dilemma is that he does not believe that anything can change. Specifically, he does not believe that the unjust white supremacy culture will ever diminish nor that blacks will ever be given a fair chance or position in the society, no matter how educated they become. When Grant finally agrees to teach Jefferson to die with dignity, he becomes one step closer to changing for the better, but there is still a long way to go. During the trial, Grant witnesses the first-hand white injustice against Blacks, but does not say anything to fight it, despite his hatred for persecution. During his sessions with Jefferson and guidance from Vivian, Grant eventually comes to a realization which takes place in steps throughout the novel.
The point of human transformation, the point at which Grant changes for the better, is when he realizes that he must change what he hates about the society within himself first. Changing from ridiculing Jefferson and his trial, Grant realizes that he is inherently a part of Jefferson’s community, and therefore, he starts helping Jefferson sincerely, hoping to gain him salvation and help him die with honor. When he accepts this duty, Grant agrees to make other self-improvements, taking a silent pledge. His transformation is ultimately complete towards the end of the novel, when he is able to feel and relate to surrounding people’s emotions. For example, Grant cries in front of Jefferson and his students, admits to himself that he misses certain community members, like the Reverend Ambrose, and becomes softer to Vivian, ending his sarcastic streak. By placing his head in her lap, he lets his guard down, and by crying in front of his students, he shows them his vulnerable side, agreeing to become a better person, teacher, companion and lover (Hager).
The second character to reach a new transformation is Jefferson. A simpleton and uneducated man, Jefferson’s character represented the larger Black community in Louisiana at the time, whose members engaged in self-pity, accepted prejudice and bullying by the whites, and remained silent during injustice instead of conducting in civil disobedience. Jefferson too accepted his fate for a crime he did not commit, letting himself be defined by the white supremacists. He did not even defend himself and not even accepted the label of ‘hog’ placed on him, not being able to distinguish it as a bullying label for the entire Black community. The Prosecution at trial states, “Why, I'd just as soon put a hog in the electric chair” (Gaines 8). Through this label, Jefferson lost his humanity and was treated like an animal.
With Grant’s help, Jefferson goes through his human transformation. Ironically, he gains more resources and education locked up in prison than he had the opportunity to lead a meaningful life as a free man. He was, in fact, a prisoner outside the prison, as he was suppressed and controlled by the majority whites. Even though Grant does not sincerely believe in the things he is obligated to teach Jefferson, Jefferson is greatly affected by this new education, which, in turn, aids Grant’s transformation. When Jefferson realizes the impact his actions have on the Black struggle to equality, he matures from a silent victim to one that has the power to contribute to changing his people’s state and give them the needed courage to fight inequality.
Even though he was angry with being trapped, Jefferson reaches a higher spiritual level when he realizes that he is merely a sacrifice for being Black. Because of this, he knows that even though he cannot change his fate, he can control his choices; therefore, he chooses to die with dignity, making his community’s heads rise with pride. On the day of his execution, the reader sees physical transformation, as well when Jefferson jumps to meet his executioner, even turning the radio off, which he used before to isolate himself. From his walk to his mentality, Jefferson experiences a high level of transformation, which was applauded by others around him. Paul, the deputy, stated that Jefferson was “the strongest man in the room” (Raymond).
Vivian, the third character to undergo transformation, is Grant’s lover who is in the middle of divorcing her husband. She has two children and keeps her affair with Grant a secret, suggesting to the reader that the affair might have caused the marriage to deteriorate. She does not completely trust Grant, because he runs away from his problems, encouraging Vivian to abandon the community as well, and run away with him. She is the realistic and humane side to Grant, because she realizes that even Grant cannot leave the community, because they both love its members and have moral obligations to be loyal and help out (Smith).
Smith states, “Without the hope that these women provide through their belief in redemption in the future, life would be intolerable.” Vivian’s transformation was a minor one, as she simply became more accepting of Grant and open in their relationship, not fearing that her colleagues or students learn about the affair. Her larger role was in helping Grant achieve his transformation by steering him in the right direction and teaching him about the responsibilities he must accept. Folks states, “His relationship with Vivian leads to a more earnest commitment to particular human beings, for after she becomes pregnant with his child, Grant’s relationship to the entire community gradually changes.” By placing his head in Vivian’s lap, Grant makes an unstated pact that he will remain with her, accept his duties and listen to her guidance, as even though he is the more educated one, she is the one who holds moral authority and courage, by encouraging him to face racism and accept his identity. According to Smith, “Grant, who considers himself to be a teacher is taught the final lesson in this book which could not have been learned without…Vivian’s assistance in showing him what good he is capable of.”
Through Grant’s eyes, the author shows the characters’ transformations. Even though the vision was biased at first, the reader notices the viewpoint balancing out by the end of the novel through Grant’s transformation, as it was the guiding change around which all minor changes occurred. By making the decision to at least try to better understand his community, Grant not only changed himself, he connected himself to Jefferson and Vivian, triggering a domino effect of change. Grant thanked Jefferson for teaching him as well by saying, “You're more a man than I am, Jefferson” (Gaines 225). Jefferson’s transformation ended with his death, but Grant’s one began with Jefferson’s death, as he let himself cry for his people, his weaknesses and the injustice happening, allowing himself to feel other emotions in the future, permanently altering his vision.
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