A Lesson Before Dying is a deceptively simple novel that explores numerous complex themes. Like Albert Camus’ The Stranger, which also explores a prison experience, albeit from the prisoner’s pointof view, its stark simplicity and spare language belie a complex and profound book. Gaines uses harsh (or austere) language to reflect the spiritual and personal alienation of humans in the twentiethcentury. Through Grant Wiggins’ emotionally detached account of Jefferson’s trial at the beginning of the book, we recognize that something about the main character is out of the ordinary. The novelchronicles Grant’s role in Jefferson’s mental and spiritual transformation from a person beaten down by the system, exhibiting apathy and anger, to a man with a sense of passion and purpose, exhibitingdignity and strength. By helping Jefferson triumph over his dehumanized existence, Grant is also transformed. As a result, Grant regains his hope in humanity and his faith in his own ability to make adifference, with the promise of a future as a better teacher who can pass his hard-won lesson on to his students and more positively influence their lives.
On the surface, the novel is the story ofone man’s struggle to accept death with dignity while another man struggles with his own identity and responsibility to his community. But on a deeper level, it explores the process of an oppressed,dehumanized people’s attempt to gain recognition of their human dignity, acknowledgment of their human rights, and freedom to pursue their dreams. Gaines’ manipulation of time, focusing on theday-by-day struggles of ordinary people, is a definitive structural element in the novel.
Unlike many black American writers, Gaines focuses on a cultural perspective of time that views history from anEastern (Afrocentric) view, as opposed to a Western (Eurocentric) view. The primary difference between these two perspectives is the definition of time as it impacts our view of the past, present, and...
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