Education is widely defined as the act or process of imparting knowledge of skill. But the primary function of education is the eradication of ignorance. Ignorance is multi-layered. A social awareness can be a camouflage for spiritual ignorance. An erudite thinking can be used to mask philosophical ignorance. A teacher can learn hither to unknown aspects of his teaching through the very act of teaching. Because Ignorance is like the mythical beast who can grow ten heads for each head that is slain.
Education is the sword that accomplishes the eradication of social, spiritual and philosophical ignorance – but only gradually and by continuous application to daily life. That precisely is a powerful underlying theme of Ernest Gaines’s novel “Lesson before Dying” Though looked at different perspectives by different characters of the novel, Education is the ultimate aim of most of them throughout the novel.
Tante Lou looks at education as the necessary ability to die like a man, aware of his actions, his fate and the courage needed to face it head on – the education she wants her nephew Grant to impart to Jefferson, the convicted black. For Jefferson, who awaits the date for his execution, education is the ability to dispel the images of being non-human, the opinion which his lawyer fosters on him while using it as his defense. For Grant, education, as it reveals itself is to be able to relate to the needs and emotions of others, the ability to look beyond himself, and the ability to deal with his perennial running away from his past.
For the black community of the Louisiana, the education that results from this incident is an increased awareness of their oppression, and the realization of a reality greater than their squalid living would allow them to contemplate – honor in the face of adversity. The setting for the quest of education is set in the initial chapters when the defense attorney uses the weirdest of arguments to plead the case of Jefferson. “This skull here holds no plans,” the defense attorney explains. “What you see here is a thing that acts on command.
A thing to hold the handle of a plow, a thing to load your bales of cotton, a thing to dig your ditches, to chop your wood, to pull your corn. . . 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. ” This sort of defense has its impact on two people. Jefferson internalizes the argument and starts believing that he is in fact a fool, a hog. While his god mother Emma is determined to ensure that Jefferson does not die in a way to justify his description in court but with the dignity of a man.
She enlists the support of Grant Wiggins’s aunt Tante Lou. They come to Wiggins’s place to convince him to educate Jefferson on human dignity before he is executed. Wiggins anticipates and deeply resents this task. Initially Grant is highly reluctant to perform what is required of him. He sees himself as symbolic of all black men who are constantly under the pressure of their folks to be heroic, to perform feats that defy their limitations of ability and social status. He sees Emma’s and Tante Lo’s expectations out of him and Jefferson as a perennial cross that burdens all black men.
At the same time he is consumed by guilt – of his reluctant to help Jefferson, his desire to run away from the demands of his society. Vivian, his girl friend tells him that though he does not acknowledge it, he loves his folks and that is the reason he keeps returning to the same roots and past that he so deeply resents. He is at the same time angry and afraid. He is himself consumed by serious doubts about the purpose and the method of his living and now is bewildered how he can teach somebody how to die when he himself does not know how to live. Slowly, Grant begins to understand the enormity and the importance of his task.
He is required to transform Jefferson’s execution as an educating experience for a lot of groups of people. To Jefferson himself, he needs to educate the concepts of human dignity. To the blacks of his neighborhood, Jefferson’s death needs to be a spiritual education of revolt against suppression. To the whites, the oppressors, Jefferson’s death needs to be an education in Christian concept of martyrdom. He, the reluctant teacher, who always wanted to follow the advice of his teacher Professor Antoine and leave Bayonne for good (chapter 13), starts realizing the immediacy of his duties.
Grant starts to warm to the task at hand. More than Jefferson, this experience gives him lessons on living. His girlfriend Vivian is a case in point. She teaches him the virtue of hope. She is afraid that their affair might become public knowledge leading her to lose custody of her children from the previous marriage. At the same time she has the courage to be led by her heart. She visits Grant at his place, they make love under the sky in a field. She allows herself to be questioned by Grant’s aunt about her religious affiliations.
All these instances provide Grant with a counter point to his own world view. His girlfriend has a lot of problems to deal with> But she never gives in to cynicism. She never gives up her religious beliefs but, when questioned, has the clarity of thought to say that she will give up her religious affiliation to be united with Grant. Throughout the novel she is a good sounding board to Grant’s rants of cynicism and is a constant source of an alternate point of view. This teaches Grant though very subtly, that his cynicism is a cloak to hide his fears.
There builds an uneasy camaraderie at first between Grant and Jefferson. Gradually both men start feeling that the other is helping them deal with their predicament or their life in general. Grant gets Jefferson a radio and book to write his thoughts in. This book starts exerting all the pressure of being an educated and aware man in Jefferson. He confesses that he has never had to think so much in all his life. He had spent all his life doing hard menial labor, pandering to the whites and grinning. If it was meant to be different, he never knew it.
This realization that he had the potential to become somebody else which he never actually had the opportunity of becoming makes Jefferson both sad and poignant at his life’s prospects. The change in the attitude of all his friends and the community as a whole is in itself an educating experience. This teaches Jefferson that though they might not have been overtly good to him before, his community identified itself with him and adored him as one of their own. His execution was not just an event of individual pain. His suffering was a point of reference for his family, his friends and his community.
In regards to religion, Grant is an unbeliever. He loses faith when in college. But upon Reverend Ambrose’s insistence he does talk to Jefferson about religion. Grant is unable to accept a God who seems to accept and encourage the vast differences in man based entirely on his skin color. His overwhelming cynicism takes him away from religion for which Reverend Ambrose chastises him that he was “uneducated because he never learnt to care for others”. Though Grant does not regain his faith in organized religion, his mind starts looking for the mercy he wants out of a God who can correct the wrongs of his society.
He so desperately wants to get his society to a better station, but feels so powerless to do anything. “I want you to show them the difference between what they think you are and what you can be. ” This is Grant’s demand from Jefferson, and slowly Jefferson internalizes this demand and acquires a composure and dignity worthy of a highly educated man, somebody who is capable of viewing his life philosophically. By behaving with utmost dignity towards his white captors, the sheriff and people around him even the day prior to his execution, he provides valuable lessons in human decency to the bigoted community of whites.
The night before his execution, Vivian comes to visit hm and her behavior towards the Jefferson is exemplary. She sets to rest Jefferson’s shame that he is ugly and unclean by kissing his face. This act of compassion helps boost the self-image of Jefferson and enables him to meet his destiny with great equanimity. “Good by mr wigin tell them im strong tell them im a man” – This entry in Jefferson’s notebook, with all its spelling mistakes is the ultimate grade given to Grant the teacher. He succeeds in making Jefferson an example of Christian charity and dignity.
When Paul shaves Jefferson’s head, wrists and ankles before the execution, he calmly entrusts him with his book, his radio and presents him a marble. This act of compassion makes Jefferson the strongest man in the novel and makes Paul realize the gravity of education Grant could provide Jefferson in such a short while. That is the reason he feels proud to shake Grant’s hand in the last chapter of the novel. Martyrdom of an ignorant person which seems to light up the sense of hope of a large community is so replete with religious symbolism.
At the same time it is a praiseful hymn to education, not as a system of teaching skills or imparting knowledge, but as a method of eradicating the darkness in its various forms from man’s heart – loss of hope, cynicism, self centeredness, bigotry. Education is also the method of erecting monuments for virtuous qualities in human heart after it has succeeded in eradicating the grossness of vilifying emotions- monuments of forgiveness, selflessness, sharing, and dignity in the face of death and danger. Lesson before Dying is about Lessons in Living.
Gaines, Ernest J. A Lesson Before Dying: A Novel. Vancouver: Vintage Books, 1994.