In the novel A Lesson Before Dying written by the famous American writer Earnest Gains, the theme of metamorphosis of human personality is put on the first place. The author tries to show injustice in human society where black people are discriminated by the whites. The events of the novel are related to 1940s. The main character of the story is Jefferson, a young black man who is 21. He is an uneducated worker who lives in Bayonne, Louisiana. Jefferson is convicted of the murder which he did not commit and of the robbery in the store. One day he witnessed the murder of three men in the store and mechanically took the money which did not belong to him. He was arrested. As he was black and the men who were killed were white, Jefferson was sentenced to die by electrocution. The defense attorney who was appointed by the court to protect Jefferson tried to assure the jury that the young black man was innocent. He told that Jefferson had no enough knowledge and experience to plan the robbery in the store. The defense attorney said to the jury who decided to give the young man supreme punishment: “What justice would there be to take this life? Justice, gentlemen? Why, I would just as soon put hog in the electric chair as this”. (Gains 6) Jefferson heard the racist words of the attorney and realized that the situation was really a serious one. He behaved aggressively. The godmother of Jefferson whose name was Miss Emma wanted her son to die with dignity. He asked Grant Wiggins who was a black teacher at the school for black children to help Jefferson to understand the major principles of life and to become a true man. After pressure from Grant’s aunt Tante Lou, the black teacher agreed to visit Jefferson in prison and to teach him to become the strongest man who could die with dignity. He did everything possible to explain Jefferson that his death would be the death of the hero. Nevertheless, Grant did not attend the execution. He was too upset and bewildered. Grant cried when he learned that Jefferson was the strongest and the bravest man in the day of execution.
Thesis statement: Any weak man can become a strong man if he realizes the main principles of life. In any situation a man should remain a man but not a hog.
The author highlights three major stages of change in Jefferson’s character. The first stage shows Jefferson as a hog. The defense attorney’s speech depicted Jefferson as “a fool” and “a cornered animal” who had no idea how to plan the scheme of the murder and robbery because he was “a thing to hold the handle of a plow”.(Gains 156) He also asked the jury to pay attention to “the shape of his skull, this face as flat as the palm of the hand … and those eyes without a modicum of intelligence”. (Gains 7)Jefferson took these words very much to his heart. He imagined the terrible image of himself and internalized it. Jefferson felt awful when he heard these insult words. Jefferson knew that he was black and that he could not be compared to the white man because he was “a hog”.
The young man did not want to accept Grant’s help when the black teacher wanted to teach him to be a man. During several Grant’s visits to the prison, Jefferson did not want to hear anything from Grant about dignity because he was sure that dignity was not “for hogs”.(Gains 26) Jefferson wanted to anger Grant and to prove the fact that he was a hog. He ate and snuffled like a hog and was stubborn in his convictions.
The second stage of change in the character of Jefferson shows that he starts to listen to Grant, a person who was asked to change Jefferson’s world perception and to teach him to be a man. The conversation about the final meal of Jefferson broke the barrier between two men. Jefferson said that he wanted “a gallon of vanilla ice-cream”. He said: “I never got anything I wanted in my whole life”. (Gains 169)The young man transformed from the wild animal to a person who had his desires and could smile.
The third stage of change in Jefferson’s character is represented by his new way of thinking and his new behavior. The author showed that Jefferson realized the importance of his death. Grand helped him to believe that he could save his atheistic soul. Jefferson realized that the attorney’s insult words were related to the whole black community which was always enslaved by the white men. Jefferson decided to stand up for his community and to become “the strongest” and the bravest men. He was proud that he could become a symbol to his community and decided to die with dignity. He said: “Tell Nannan I walked” and he walked to the electric chair in order to die with dignity. (Gains 253)
In conclusion, it is necessary to say that Jefferson became a hero because he could change his views and to die with dignity, to die as a strongest man who had no fear and who could prove the white men that they were mistaken when they called him “a hog”. In this unjust situation, a man could obtain his spiritual rejuvenation and die like a strong man but not a hog.
Gains, E. A Lesson Before Dying. Alfred A. Knoph: New York. 1994. Print.