“A Lesson Before Dying.” Ernest J. Gaines. Alfred A. Knopf. 1993.
Capitol punishment has been a controversial issue since it has existed. Some believe that we don’t have the right to kill another, others think these people sentenced to death don’t deserve to live. People see them as nothing, less than human. These prisoners are judged on one decision they made in their life, and possibly might lose their life, because of it.
This book is about the personal and families process of someone going through the process of being convicted, on death row, and ends with the execution date of Jefferson being set, after being found guilty for a crime he didn’t commit. Capital punishment is the main issue of the book, but it also focuses a lot on self-worth. This book helped me to understand more about how it affects the family, and how it takes a toll on the mental state and self-view of the accused.
I recommend the novel, “A Lesson Before Dying” by Ernest J. Gaines because of its character development and focus on the political and moral issue of capital punishment, despite an abrupt and frustrating conclusion.
The characters grow drastically through out the entire book especially the main character, Jefferson. In the beginning, he was just an undereducated man in the wrong place at the wrong time, but by the end, he sees value in himself and knows the worth he has as a man. During the trial, to get him proven as not guilty, his attorney compares him to a hog. “What justice would there be to take this life? Justice, gentlemen? Why, I would just as soon put a hog in the electric chair as this.” (24) His attorney implies it would be cruel to kill a man with no more intelligent hog. This sticks with Jefferson. Through out the first few days of his imprisonment, he will not speak to anyone or eat. When people showed up to talk to him, he would rudely dismiss them. Grant, a friend of Jefferson’s mother who comes to talk to him in prison, also a teacher, brings Jefferson some food at one point, and Jefferson proceeded to stick his face in it and messily eat it, “like a hog.” But after working with Grant, Jefferson finally sees though what people have said to him.
“Good by mr wigin tell them im strong tell them im a man” (218) Jefferson writes this in his diary, to Grant. It shows his growth and that he knows how his life and death means to his family. Jefferson writes his last words to the man who helped him change from living a life barley living, to after the trial and just living in anger, and now he thoughtful and courageous. He filled his diary notes for Grant, saying how it takes a man to show affection. This shows how Jefferson grew into a true man before his set execution date.
The issue of Capital punishment has long been relevant in our world today, and this book focuses on both sides of that. You see it in the beginning from the Jurors prospective, of course with influence from the time this was set it. It was a much more common thing 50 years ago to talk down on people simply because of their skin tone. The jurors talk about how the case is simple, Jefferson and two others rob a liquor store, and it goes wrong leaving only Jefferson standing, they don’t believe he was truly in the wrong place at the wrong time, and then because of his lack of education and experience, wasn’t sure how to respond after the shootings. “I want you to show them the difference between what they think you are and what you can be.” (79) Grant says this to Jefferson, and it’s the turning point for him. Jefferson starts to see after this, that no matter what people say, he has worth, dignity, and he is a man. He knows he is not just the mistake he is being labeled for.
His execution is a big deal for not only his family, but his community and families to come. Those families who disagreed with the sentencing, use this as their “last straw” and many start to speak out about the injustice and racism in the courts. His story will carry on through his towns history because he took an unfair situation and made the best and most positive impact in his last few weeks.
The down side I saw to this novel was the realistic, yet abrupt ending. Through out the whole novel you see the growth of Jefferson, and it leads you to believe that it will some how work out differently that it did. Also, the entire novel is very in depth and descriptive, and then the last chapter wraps everything up very suddenly and it leaves the reader with unanswered questions.
Despite the abrupt and aggravating ending, I recommend the novel, “A Lesson Before Dying” by Ernest J. Gaines because of its character development and focus on the political and moral issue of capital punishment.