Friday, May 9, 2014

A Lesson Before Dying

A Lesson Before Dying
by Ernest J. Gaines, 1993

I am sure I take an unpopular view when I say that this novel falls terribly short of its great ambitions.

A barely literate young black man in Bayonne, a small town in Jim Crow Mississippi, is wrongly accused of murder.  His lawyer makes a desperate plea to the jury that the accused, Jefferson, is not really a man, and executing him would be akin to killing a hog.  The jury is unmoved and Jefferson is sentenced to death; Jefferson takes deeply to heart that he is in fact a hog.  His godmother pleads with the local schoolteacher, Grant, to talk with Jefferson in his cell and convince him that he is not a hog, and that he should die like a man, with dignity.  Grant, who left the community to be educated and returned as a teacher, is reluctant to get involved and skeptical that he will be able to impart this lesson before dying to Jefferson.

The premise of the novel is bold, raising questions of class, race, identity and humanity.   The depictions of the poverty, hopelessness and humiliations -- petty as well as large -- of a racist society ring sadly familiar and true.

The novel is told largely from Grant's first-person perspective, and his conflicts are acutely observed; he has returned to the community out of a sense of loyalty and commitment, is held in high esteem by virtue of his education, but is no longer one of them.  In particular he has turned agnostic and is culturally removed from the religious thread that holds together the social fabric of the community, thus arousing suspicion and some resentment, especially in the community's black preacher.  

To me the best part of the novel is the examination of Grant's ambivalence, and his predicament brings to mind Obi in Chinua Achebe's "No Longer at Ease", although delineated with less finesse.

But the novel fails in dealing with the central question -- how can Grant impart this critical lesson, which not only Jefferson but, to a lesser degree, we all need?  Without giving away too much, in summary, Grant takes the approach of reminding Jefferson of his obligation first to his loving godmother to ease her terrible grief, and subsequently to the larger community to act as a role model.

I have to say this approach repulsed me, and felt like emotional blackmail practiced on a young man already suffering in loneliness, confusion, and dread.  In fact, the black preacher's approach, relying on the Bible and rote religion, seemed at least authentic and sincerely felt.  Jefferson's eventual reversal thus feels unconvincing and unrealistic.

This is especially because Jefferson himself does not come alive -- his reaction to his visitors is one-dimensional, consisting largely of stony aloofness and mute despair.  While this is believable, as readers we are not privy to anything further.  We see little rage, bitterness or regret, and we get none of his back story, his memories and his aspirations.  Toward the end of the book Jefferson writes his thoughts into a notebook given to him by Grant, but it adds little color and depth to his personality.

This is the worst aspect of the novel, and where the novel's core seems hollow and even pernicious.  The lack of attention to Jefferson's unique, individual, idiosyncratic humanity robs the novel of the emotional impact it could have.  But, far worse, to a large degree Jefferson has been made into a mere symbol, a convenient placeholder, reduced to just being used in the algebra of racism in Bayonne.  One could even say that his humanity has been done as great a disservice, by being used in this manner, as being called a hog at his capital trial.  He is used by the narrative of redemption just as he was used in white society's narrative of a less-than-human person of color.

What bothers me most is that the novel has been hailed as an "instant classic", and will no doubt be taught in classrooms for years to come, possibly furthering insidious damage.  In the end the novel left me not only cold but sorely disappointed at a great lost opportunity.

May 2014