Friday, November 16, 2012

A Lesson Before Dying

This classic reminds me of Flowers for Algernon whose author taught me creative writing at Ohio University.

Ernest Gaines brings to light the perpetual racism in America in the late 1940s. He takes no sides. He portrays people as they are, much like the eye of a camera that sees and records. He gives us Grant Wiggins, the Creole who teaches black children in a small Cajun community, who is full of self-pity, self-hatred because of his race. Yet it is Wiggins who takes on the challenging task to counsel a young black man named Jefferson already on the death row for a murder he did not commit but was dragged into the scene against his will. His lawyer who defends him pleads to the jury to spare his life, the life of a 'hog'. That word hurts Jefferson's godmother deeply. She is the one who has labored all her life to bring him up, to send him to school, to see him break his back toiling in the cane field like the rest of the black children who grow up on the plantation. To love him only to hear them call him 'a hog' rather than a man tears her heart. So she asks Wiggins, the Creole teacher, to instill in Jefferson a notion that he is a man, not a hog.

Ernest Gains portrays Wiggins perfectly. In fact, he portrays every person he creates as real, as sympathetic, as interesting, and as formidably moving as a grand master of fiction would do. In the end, it is the hog that changes the man in Wiggins and not the other way around. Jefferson, who can't speak intelligently, can't write proper English (much like Charlie Gordon in Flowers for Algernon), gives every sign that he would crumble on the execution day. The teacher, the teacher's aunt, the godmother, the reverend, the young deputy, all stand in support of the condemned boy. Yet in the end, it is they who have to lean on one another for the moral support. And it is Jefferson who 'walks' to the chair and has his life taken away from him. In the end, he is not a hog, but a man transformed. By his own will.

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