As a novel that explores numerous complex themes. A Lesson Before Dying teaches that never give up even under a brutal system of racism, which is shown through the character of Jefferson, Grant and Miss Emma.
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Jefferson, a black man who is falsely accused of murder, is compared by his defense attorney to a hog who is not even worth executing, and Jefferson begins to act like a hog rather than a man. “He knelt down on the floor and put his head inside the bag and started eating, without using his hands. He even sounded like a hog.”(Chapter11,Page51-52)”‘That’s how a old hog eat,’he said, raising his head and grinning”(Chapter11,Page51-52) He was completely lost human nature and dignity in despair at that time.
However, we begin to see this change when Grant visits him and after a few visits, Jefferson doesn’t refer to himself as a hog, but talks with Grant even though it didn’t go smoothly. Especially, since his execution date has been set. Jefferson seems to find some kind of calm and start acting more like a human than a hog. He is still trapped in the past, because it’s pretty inescapable given the circumstances, but he’s starting to come back from the terrible place he had been in. When he finds out that his old pal Gable had a baby he reveals some of his memories “‘Old Gable,’ he said, and smiled to himself. ‘Got hisself a baby, got hisself a baby.’Then I saw the face change. He was no longer smiling but staring at the wall. “We was supposed to go hunting that day…He was remembering the day he was supposed to go into the swamp with Gable but instead had ended up with Brother and Bear at the liquor store. ”(Chapter22,Page99)
In the end, Jefferson begins to regain his humanity when he receives a notebook in which he can record his thoughts and a radio which he uses in order to have a connection with the outside world. Even though Jefferson is executed in the end, he is executed as a man with dignity and not as an animal.
Grant Wiggins, an educated black man who is a teacher in the town, is also treated as subhuman because of his race. In the beginning of the novel, his life spent in a segregated, racist community has made him bitter. He has no faith in himself, his society, or his church. He does not believe anything will ever change and thinks escape is the only option.
Grant longs 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. This defeatist attitude makes him shun responsibility, and he resents Tante Lou and Miss Emma for forcing him to help Jefferson. When his aunt keeps pushing him he takes his frustration out on her: “Everything you sent me to school for, you’re stripping me of it…The humiliation I had to go through, going into that man’s kitchen. The hours I had to wait while they ate and drank and socialized before they would even see me. Now going up to that jail…Years ago, Professor Antoine told me that if I had stayed here, they were going to break me down to the nigger I was born to be. But he didn’t tell me that my aunt would help them do it.” (Chapter10,Page49)
Over the course of the novel, however, he learns to accept responsibility for his own life, for his relations with other people, and for his role as an educator and agent of change in his needy community.
At the end of the novel, Grant cries after the execution, showing that he is also still tender enough, despite his dispiriting experiences of racism, to cry over the slaughter of a fellow human.
Miss Emma, Jefferson’s godmother. She possesses great faith in God. After hearing Jefferson’s lawyer call Jefferson a hog, she becomes obsessed with ensuring that Jefferson dies like a man. “ ‘don’t want them to kill no hog,’ she said. ‘I want a man to go to that chair, on his own two feet.’ ”(Chapter2,Page13). Miss Emma surely doesn’t really think that Jefferson is a hog. She loves him and thinks of him as her dear boy. However, she knows that being a man has to do with the way that society sees Jefferson, and how he sees himself. That’s what she wants to change. In order to make Grant to go alone to visit her godson, she can also be a little bit of a trickster. “Miss Emma…had on two sweaters, a black one over a green one. She had some kind of rag, possibly a baby’s diaper, tied around her head…I had the feeling that Miss Emma was not nearly as sick as she was pretending to be. For one thing, I had seen her that morning picking up chips in the yard, and she didn’t look sick at all. And now I could smell fried chicken and baked potato, and I knew she could not have done all that if she was dying.”(Chapter10,Page48).
She never gave up any chance about helping Jefferson. In order to get Grant to educated Jefferson in the jail. Miss Emma decides to use the only influence she has with a powerful white family to try to help her godson. She reminds them of all of the years that she worked cooking and taking care of their house, and appeals to their sense of justice to get them to help her. “ ‘Tell him what I done done for this family, Mr. Henri. Tell him to ask his wife all I done done for this family over the years.’”(Chapter3,Page18).
According to the example of three main characters above. Grant Wiggins and Jefferson, who are the novel’s dual protagonists, gradually became strong for their race. Miss Emma is the only person in this novel who is always aware of the importance of humanity and dignity for the dying black man. So the most important lesson before dying is about never left the belief die and keep fighting even under a harsh system of racism.
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