Earnest J. Gaines tackles the idea of what it means to be human in his book, A Lesson Before Dying. He shows the transformation of a man who was wrongfully sentenced to death. This man, Jefferson, describes himself through much of the novel as a hog. However, it is with the support of his family, especially is godmother Miss Emma, and his community, in particular, the school teacher Grant, that he discovers what it means to be human. Gaines shows us that it takes the encouragement of others and the will power of ourselves to fully realize our existence. In this, we assert this existence in a number of ways. Jefferson did so by “walking” to his death. Becoming human is a unique process. People, unlike animals, unlike hogs, have to ability to reason. This goes beyond the simple, rational facets such as thinking and comprehending ideas. In the beginning, Jefferson might have had these parts of reasoning, but it wasn’t until he discovered his true humanity that he found the other, deeper parts. He learned to show the ones who loved him that he loved them in return. He showed appreciation. He showed pride. He showed his feelings. And with that, he showed he would die as a human being.
When will power is not enough, it takes the support of those who love us most to show us what life really means. At first, Jefferson continuously called himself a hog. “Youmans don’t stay in no stall like this. I’m a old hog they fattening up to kill” (83). Jefferson believed that whatever life he had had was already over. There was no use for him to try to become a human because he was already dead. This, in combination with Grant’s hesitation, made this process very slow. “I’m still trying to find out how a man should live. Am I supposed to tell someone how to die who has never lived?” (31). Grant was so unhappy with how his own life was that he felt incapable of teaching another man what it meant to be a human. Jefferson had a view that his life was somewhat of a waste. He hadn’t done much living throughout his life, and he thought that he was better off dead, as he soon would be. As afore mentioned, he saw himself as a lowly hog; he even went as far as eating on the ground, the way an animal would. Grant tried telling him how important it was for him to walk like a man, a human, to his death. Not only should he do it for himself, but it was also of great significance to his family and his community. This shows great human significance: working towards the whole.
Gaines shows how especially important it was for a black man to die with dignity during the 1940’s in the South. For Jefferson, becoming human was more than just being human for himself; he was also becoming human for those around him. In this, being a human involves more than just the person himself. Grant talks about this aspect of humanness in relation to being a hero. “A hero does for others. He would do anything for people he loves, because he knows it would make their lives better” (191). Jefferson would be a hero and a true human being by living the rest of his life in a way that helped Miss Emma live her life. She did so much for him, but he showed her negativity time and time again. He began to finally realize how much he meant to her. He started acting in ways that would make her life better. They were not large or drastic measures, but doing small things like eating her gumbo, showed her that he did want to die with dignity largely for her sake. Beyond this though, he was also to be a hero to the community. Being human is working towards the common good, to help people as a whole in the collective humanity. Grant hoped that Jefferson could help diminish the myth of white supremacy. He (and many others) wanted him to act as a guiding light for the future of African Americans in his community and beyond. “I want you to chip away at that myth by standing. I want you – yes, you – to call them liars. I want you to show them that you are as much a man – more than a man than they can ever be” (192). Jefferson would prove to the people of his community – White and Black – that he was a human. If he could show people that he would die with self-respect, he would help prove the myth wrong. Being a human does not have to do with being a certain race or color. It is about the quality of the person’s character. Jefferson showed just that by walking proudly to his death.
Gaines’ work was both deep and shallow. It has its deep moments when it shows the cultural impacts of 1940’s South and it shows the gradual transformation of people. Gaines relates the idea that it takes work to be a human. Being a human means going beyond mere comprehension of ideas and actually putting these ideas into use. When a person actually becomes a human, they are able to feel and think of people other than themselves. That is what I took form this concept. I viewed the idea of being human in a deeper way. I believe that Gaines was trying to show this sort of idea through the relationship between Miss Emma and Jefferson. He also shows that sometimes “it takes a village to create a human.” Without the love of Miss Emma and the encouragement of Grant, Jefferson would not have made it to the point that he does in the closing scenes. However, I felt that how this happened was a little contrived. It seemed like Jefferson was just stuck in such a rut of hating himself and others and seeing no use left in trying to live, that he would never become a man. On the other hand, I think it’s impossible to read even just the back cover and not know how the book will end. This is where the book is shallow. It was so set out to have the ending that it did, that it neglected some of the plot. Yes, I did see things gradually change within Jefferson, but I felt like it was sort of out of nowhere, with nothing to reciprocate it. I wondered how and why exactly Jefferson started making those changes. I wondered what made him take an interest in the weather, and people in the quarter. These questions aside, I enjoyed the transformation none the less. Also, although it was very hard to get through, I liked reading Jefferson’s notebook. This was the only real insight we got of this character. With everything else being described by Grant, sometimes it was distracting to the actual task at hand. As far as Grant is concerned, I view him as a fairly static character. He had a lot of problems that he pretended he could sweep under the rug or run away from. Overall, I liked him as a character, and feel like I might view him in a better way than other readers might. I felt like he was relatable and that he did what he thought he could for those around him (sometimes not in the best ways, but he made some attempt at least). I’m not sure if he was making any transformations throughout the journey, but I feel like that is not the most important question to ask about him. The more important thing is that he helped Jefferson transform. And in that, he succeeded. He worked as an important catalyst in Jefferson’s growth, and that is often times just what a person needs to become human.
Gaines shows us that the transformation into a human is often times a hard one. Being a human is not determined by our skin color, but rather our character. It goes deeper than just the idea that reasoning is unique to humans. It involves being able to assert our existence in a way that might not always be expected. It is important for humans to show their real character and feel and show emotion towards their fellow man. In this same view, the book shows the importance of community. If one man can make an impact, then when a group comes together as a whole, they can make great progress. Jefferson did just that. He showed his transformation into a human through little by little realizing his importance to his family, his community, and most importantly, himself.
Gaines, Ernest J. A Lesson Before Dying. New York: Vintage Books, 1993.