April 13, 2010
Major Paper 3
“All it Takes is One Man, and a Little Faith”
A considerable amount of differences surround us now as Americans than did 60 years ago. Thus with time so has changed the concept of the American dream, maybe not dramatically, as the basic concept is ever similar, but extenuating factors of the American dream are ever evolving. This is justifiable, as with more knowledge so comes more want, and with more opportunity comes more need. People are a product of their environment. They are a slave to what they have grown accustomed to, and so imaginably their concepts of dreaming would match their understanding of the world and their participation and role in their surroundings. In the novel A Lesson before Dying by Ernest J. Gaines we are shown just that. Grant Wiggins, Miss Emma, Jefferson, and the entire community of Bayonne Louisiana are all living their lives based on and tied to what they have been brought up believing. Bayonne, a predominately white community, where the laws are all biased, swung away from black favor makes for a difficult living environment for our main characters, which explains why the concept of the American dream must be substantially different for them as it is now for those living in modern day America. Maybe the concept of the American dream is not changed so dramatically by time, as it is for how time has affected views on race.
I still hold strongly to the belief that sometimes the idea of a dream in the 40’s in the deep south may have seemed far off. Of course objectively I cannot make this statement, but as an opinion I continue to feel that it must be very hard to dream and plan when you are trying to survive your day to day life. Concepts of the American dream like the white picket fence, two dogs, a family of four, vacation time, a job you love are all things I don’t believe growing up in the deep south at the time were held to a high value, when they were dealing with things like racism, discrimination, and violence. Arguably, the ending of these circumstances were the American dream at the time. Ultimately an understanding of Ernest Gaine’s life, and themes such as injustice and responsibility, and redemption in death as well as symbols such as the notebook are defining factors for this novel which take the reader to a place where they can level with the character, and grasp on to a reality of the American dream (or lack thereof) at the time.
Gaines himself was born and raised in Louisiana until he was 15, and writes the majority of his stories with this setting. Just like Jefferson in A Lesson before Dying the strongest adult influence in Gaine’s childhood was “a great aunt, Augusteen Jefferson, crippled from birth, who crawled from kitchen to the family's garden patch, growing and preparing food, and caring for him and for six of his brothers and sisters” (achievement). It is very relevant to note Gaines life, as it ties into a huge part of what he knows, and how he experienced life from a first person stand point and how that will later be such an influence on his writing. Gaines went on at fifteen to live with his parents in California, where he would attend San Francisco state, and later Stanford, proving that what you set your mind to, can be done. “He is an extraordinary writer and his compassion for both the victims and the victimizers in his books is outstanding” (canon 2). Because of his experience in this time frame, and his understanding of the lives of those in the Deep South, Gaines has an empathy, and is able to write in a believable way in which his readers can become sympathetic to. He is quite the opposite of his character Grant, in that he understands that hard work, and not being thrown down by your society can take you far, and that you needn’t be changed by your conditions. Gaines himself is somewhat symbolic of the stereotypical American Dream, in that he exemplifies what hard work, motivation, and a little back bone can do for anyone who is willing to work for it.
The first important them of this novel is about the recognizing of injustice, and understanding responsibility. "It doesn’t matter anymore. Just do the best you can. But it won’t matter."(66) Grant as mentioned before is often a victim of his society. Surrounded by a constant cloud of racism, and assumed failure, he has become critical and made bitter by his location, and by extension believes nothing will ever change, or get better. The above quote was spoken to him by his teacher at the time, and is helpful in understanding why Grant feels helpless to his society. He is very aware of the presence of racism in his community, and how it has affected Jefferson’s sentencing. If anything Jefferson’s trial has only been a reinforcement of Grant’s pessimism. Though the eyes of Grant the reader comes to see how this system is designed in the favor of, and ultimately to uphold the survival of one race (the whites) over the other. Grant is subject to sit back and watch as a jury of his peers, uncaring of the injustices being committed, a corrupt judge, and worse yet, as the entire town sits in silence and watches as an innocent man is sentenced to death. Before too long however Grant realizes that his cynicism, and his own bad attitude is something quite similar to the silence of the town, and even more so just like laying down and dying, and still, just like accepting what he has been handed. Finally he accepts his dilemma to help Jefferson, and by extension brings this society step by step to its salvation.
The next theme is redemption in death. Gaines mentions Jesus Christ a great deal in this novel, this can be quite symbolic in that the novel really enforces that a man’s death can be meaningful and profound; even in the death of one of societies least significant members. "I want you to show them the difference between what they think you are and what you can be” (191). The previous quote explains how Grant wants Jefferson’s death to impact the society at large. He has come to terms with Jefferson’s death, and now wants him to die honorably and in a way that will show all who have condemned him what a mistake they have made, and how they must grow and change to survive. This is sort of an “uh huh” moment for Grant, in that he finally understands that as dying a death as a man, rather than a hog, Jefferson can prove to a society that they have wrongfully condemned him not only of murder, but of being a different skin color. It is imaginably one of the most difficult things in the world to have a dream when someone you know is innocent is going to die. However, it is quite clear that Grant’s dream can become reality through Jefferson’s death as a man, and through Grant’s understanding that he can and will change society.
The first symbol; the notebook, stands for many things in A Lesson before Dying. It represents Jefferson’s reconnection with his own humanity; by writing down his thoughts Jefferson is by extension able to connect with his thoughts on the society he lives in, and develop opinions on his attempt for survival in an unjust world. Then notebook can also be symbolic of a friendship between Grant and Jefferson. The notebook was a gift from Grant to Jefferson, and was given as a way for Grant to tell Jefferson he wants to teach him, and he wants Jefferson to teach himself as well. The first time Grant visits after he has given Jefferson the notebook, he sees that Jefferson has written the pencil down to nonexistence. In the notebook he had written nearly ¾ of a page, “If I ain’t nothing but a hog how come they just don’t knock me in the head like a hog? Starb me like a hog? Man walk on two foots; hogs on four hoofs” (220). From this quote we as the reader see that Jefferson’s writing is helping him to not only let out some of his frustration, but actually realizes that he is frustrated, and very aware of the fact that he is being mistreated. It shows us that he is not completely incapable of human feeling and thought, and that he by this understanding will die as a man, and not an animal, like the jury of his peers has made him. Out of everything this notebook symbolizes however, perhaps the most important thing it stands for is the future hope for intermingling between blacks and whites. “Paul stuck out his hand. Allow me to be your friend, Grant Wiggins. I don’t ever want to forget this day. I don’t ever want to forget him” (255). With that the white deputy gave Grant the notebook, perhaps the most moving and significant portion of this story; two men, both of different color, forging friendship, proving that Jefferson’s death has already shaped this community’s future.
After a critical analysis of this book, I still stand by my feelings that people at this time must have put their dream on hold. Living in a society which condemns you for being black, which mistreats you, considers you stupid, and alienates you solely based on the coincidence of birth, must play a hugely profound role in how one hopes and wishes. It is quite fortunate that as readers we get to experience and read a novel which was written by a man who lived and experienced this time frame. By shaping his character around a bitter personality we are able as readers to experience Grant’s growth. By making Jefferson into a man who no one sees as important, we fall in love with the concept of a man who was lowered to nothing can save his community in his death. At the end, when Paul asks for Grants friendship, it is as though everything has been solidified, that everything that Grant has working for in helping Jefferson will have an aftershock powerful enough to shake this community into acceptance, and there forth they can begin to have an American Dream, one which with a little work, may actually come true.