A Lesson Before Dying Essay Titles Capitalization

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1 A Lesson Before Dying Ernest Gaines
Ernest J. Gaines was born into a family of sharecroppers in Pointe Coupee Parish, Louisiana. handout 1 He attended grammar school in the plantation church, and was primarily raised by his aunt. A Lesson Before Dying tells the story of a young black man convicted of participating in the murder of a white man and consequently sentenced to death in Louisiana in the 1940s. Although a work of fiction, this novel reflects the racial discrimination and stereotypes Gaines would have encountered in the pre-civil rights South.

2 A Lesson Before Dying is set in the 1940s, a gap between two very important eras in American history—the period of Reconstruction following the U. S. Civil War but before the Civil Rights movement began in earnest in the 1950s. The economy of the South was still primarily based on agriculture. Sharecropping—tending a portion of another person’s land in exchange for a percentage of the crops—was common among both black and poor white families

3 The main character - called the “protagonist
The main character - called the “protagonist.” overcomes a weakness to achieve a new understanding by the work’s end. A “foil” provokes the protagonist -to highlight more clearly features of the main character. The most important foil, the “antagonist,” is any character or force that opposes the efforts of the protagonist. Also can be nature, a social force, internal drive in the protagonist.

4 Read Chapters 5-9 (pp ).How does his role as a teacher influence the way he views himself and others?

5 On page 25, Grant describes the fictional setting of the novel: Bayonne was a small town of about six thousand. [. . .] The courthouse was there; so was the jail. [. . .] There were two elementary schools uptown, one Catholic, one public, for whites; and the same back of town for colored. Bayonne’s major industries were a cement plant, a sawmill, and a slaughterhouse, mostly for hogs.

6 Grant Wiggins is the protagonist of the novel, but his life becomes inextricably tied to Jefferson’s. Examine how Jefferson acts during the visit with Grant in Chapter 11 and how he later acts when Miss Emma visits, as depicted in Chapter 16.

7 Read Chapters (pp ).pay close attention to the way Grant describes the scenery during his walk with Vivian.

8 Gaines vividly describes the Louisiana countryside throughout A Lesson Before Dying. Imagery, a description that appeals to one or more of the five senses (touch, taste, smell, hearing, or sight), assists the reader in understanding the time and place where the novel is set. Imagery can also project emotion, enabling the author to imply a mood without disrupting the narrative to inform the reader of a character’s emotional state.

9 One of the most beautiful descriptions of the plantation occurs in Chapter 14 when Grant takes Vivian on a walk down the quarter.close your eyes while you listen to page 107What emotions are evoked by the images of “a low ashen sky,” “a swarm of blackbirds,” and the plantation cemetery?How does the mood change once Grant and Vivian turn on the road that leads to the field of sugarcane?

10 Read Chapters (pp ).pay close attention to Grant’s actions during the Christmas program. As the schoolteacher, he is in charge of this event.Why is this an uncomfortable situation for Grant? How does he respond?

11 SymbolsSymbols are interpretive keys to the text. Most frequently, a specific object will be used to stand for a more abstract concept. Symbols may be of two types: universal symbols that embody recognizable meanings wherever used, or symbols specific to a particular story. Found in the novel’s title, at the beginning and end of the novel, or captured by the name or personality of a character, symbols can reveal the author’s intentions or can reveal a new interpretation of the novel. An author does not always include symbols intentionally. In a 1998 interview with Humanities magazine, Gaines said, “Students come up now and ask me, ‘Did you know you put those symbols in there?’ You never think of symbols.” Gaines does not intentionally insert symbols into his writing; they evolve as part of the creative process.

12 Religion as a symbolThere is a great deal of religious symbolism in A Lesson Before Dying. Like Gaines,many Southern writers use religious symbolism to reflect themoral ideals of a story’s characters or to highlight the conflict between characters whose religious views differ.consider the way religion permeates the society in which Grant lives and the way it influences the actions ofVivian,Grant,Miss Emma,Tante Lou,Reverend Ambrose.

13 Grant’s classroom is in a church
Grant’s classroom is in a church. How is this appropriate for his role in the blackcommunity?Does this contribute to Grant’s conflict with the Reverend?Does Tante Lou expect more out of Grant as a teacher than helping children learn to read and write? If so, what?

14 namesChoose a character from the novel whose name might serve a symbolic function.Explain how the name as a symbol relates to the character.Helpful questions to you to ponder:Does the person reflect or contradict the values of his or her namesake? Why might Gaines have chosen to depict the character in this way?

15 Jackie Robinson/ Joe Lewis
Handout Three.read the handout and in Chapters (pp ), pay close attention to the scene in Chapter 24 when Grant describes a hero.

16 Handout Three,“Jackie Robinson and Joe Louis
Handout Three,“Jackie Robinson and Joe Louis.” What qualities did these men possess that made them cultural heroes?In Chapter 12, the old men in the bar reenact highlights of the baseball games of their hero Jackie Robinson. Grant later tells Jefferson,“A hero is someone who does something for other people. He does something other men don’t and can’t do. He is different from other men. He is above other men” (p. 191).Consider the rest of Grant’s comments on ppQuestion to answer: Do you agree with his definition of a hero?Question to ponder: Can Jefferson be the role model Grant wants him to be?In your conclusion, make a statement of comparison with your understanding of an epic hero and how that epic hero has a quality similar to Grant.

17 Character development
Novels trace the development of characters that encounter a series of challenges. Most characters contain a complex balance of virtues and vices. Internal and external forces require characters to question themselves, overcome fears, or reconsider dreams. The protagonist often undergoes profound change. A close study of character development maps the evolution of motivation, personality, and belief in each character. The tension between a character’s strengths and weaknesses keeps the reader guessing about what might happen next, affecting the drama and the plot. In A Lesson Before Dying, Grant must teach Jefferson how to die like a man. In doing so, Grant examines his place and purpose in the community and Jefferson learns to act with dignity and pride while facing his own death.

18 Consider the ways Grant is a hero to his students and his aunt.
Does he ever disappoint them? If so, what dowe learn about Grant’s character in thesemoments?

19 write an essay on one of the women in the novel whose actions could be considered heroic. What is most admirable about her? How do her actions affect others? Do those who benefit from her actions realize it?

20 Read Chapters (pp ). pay close attention to the scene in Chapter 25 where Grant fights with the mulatto sharecroppers.How does Grant describe the mulattoes’ racism? Are his remarks about them equally racist? Consider the ways this scene advances the plot of the novel.

21 Building a plotThe author artfully builds a plot structure to create expectations, increase suspense, and inform character development. A novel’s plot follows a series of events as they lead to a dramatic climax, a tragic realization, or a happy ending. The author’s timing of events from beginning to middle to end can make a novel predictable and boring, or stimulating and riveting. Foreshadowing and flashbacks allow the author to defy time while telling the story. A successful author will keep a reader entranced by clever pacing built within the tale, sometimes confounding a simple plot by telling stories within stories. The events leading to Jefferson’s execution shape the way Grant views himself and others. While Jefferson’s fate is strongly foreshadowed throughout the novel, Gaines chooses to show us Grant’s transformation slowly, creating tension that might not otherwise exist. In Chapter 25, Grant fights with the mulatto sharecroppers. This is a major turning point in the novel because it demonstrates how deeply Grant is affected by his relationship with Jefferson. Grant’s journey toward self-discovery defines the novel’s pacing as much as Jefferson’s impending execution.

22 Writing assignmentanticipate the novel’s ending. Write a paragraph describing what will happen to Grant and Jefferson. Consider the ways the actions of these two men might affect the entire community.

23 questionRead Chapters (pp ). During his last days in jail, Jefferson keeps a journal. Why is Sheriff Guidry concerned about how Jefferson will portray him?

24 Profound questions raised by the story allow the character (and the reader) to explore the meaning of human life and extract themes. A novel can shed light on these age-old debates by creating new situations to challenge and explore human nature.

25 Using historical references to support ideas, explore the statements that A Lesson Before Dying makes about the following themes: Racial Injustice: “They sentence you to death because you were at the wrong place at the wrong time, with no proof that you had anything at all to do with the crime other than being there when it happened” (p. 158). 1. Has Jefferson been treated unjustly? Would a young white man in the same situation have been punished as severely? Why or why not? 2. How have Grant,Tante Lou, Miss Emma, and Reverend Ambrose suffered from racial injustice? How has each responded?

26 Commitment:“You hit the nail on the head there lady—commitment
Commitment:“You hit the nail on the head there lady—commitment. Commitment to what—to live and die in this hellhole, when we can leave and live like other people?” (p. 29). 1. Why doesn’t Grant leave? Why did he come back after he left the first time? Why won’t Vivian support his desire for both of them to leave? 2. How does Grant explain “obligation” to Jefferson? Why does he bother? Does Grant practice his concept of obligation?

27 DiscussionManhood: “Do you know what his nannan wants me to do before they kill him? The public defender called him a hog, and she wants me to make him a man” (p.39). 1. How does Miss Emma define manhood? How does Grant? 2. The final entry in Jefferson’s journal is,“good by mr wigin tell them im a man. . .” How does Jefferson define manhood?

28 After the TestA great novel stands the test of time and is read long after it is written. Gaines published A Lesson Before Dying in1994. Do you believe this novel will endure the test of time? Is the novel as relevant today as when it was first published? Do you think that its subject and themes will continue to be relevant? Why or why not?

29 Out the doorIf you were the voice of your generation, what would be your most important message?

In the year 1948, in rural southern Louisiana, Jefferson, a barely literate black man of twenty-one, has been sentenced to death because he had the misfortune to be a bystander at a shooting that resulted in the death of a white man. The action of the novel covers the period between sentencing and execution. That the sentence will be carried out is never in serious doubt. The question the novel explores is the terms on which Jefferson will confront his own death.

The issue that organizes the novel arises from the plea a desperate defense attorney made to the jury at Jefferson’s trial. Recognizing that an acquittal was impossible, he made it his goal to save Jefferson from the electric chair. A man, argued the attorney, can and should be held accountable for his actions. But when you look at Jefferson, he asked, do you see a man? To execute someone so simple, he concluded, would be like putting a hog in the electric chair.

The strategy did not work, but its effects are still felt, not by the jurors, but by Jefferson and those who care about him. His aged godmother, Miss Emma, accepts that Jefferson must die, but he must not die in the belief that he is no better than a hog. Before he dies, Jefferson must learn the lesson of his own dignity and humanity.

For this lesson, a teacher is required. Miss Emma, with the cooperation of her friend Lou, turns to Lou’s nephew, Grant Wiggins. A product, like Jefferson himself, of the black quarter, Grant is a university graduate who now teaches the children of the quarter between the months of October and April, when the children are not working in the fields. At first, Grant resists the call. He has plenty on his mind, including the complexities of his relationship with Vivian, a schoolteacher in the nearby town of Bayonne who is in the process of getting divorced from her husband. Moreover, Grant is a man whose allotment of hope is just about used up. He cannot bring himself to believe that his work with the children can possibly make a positive difference in their lives. What, then, can he do for Jefferson? Who am I, Grant wants to know, to say what a man is, or how a man should die? It is hard enough to figure out how a man should live.

Even with Grant’s reluctant participation, other obstacles remain, notably that represented by the local white power structure. Miss Emma can claim a right to special consideration because of the services she has rendered to powerful white families over the years. Her claim is acknowledged by the white people she has to convince, yet they remain dubious. For one thing, it is hard for a member of the white community, in this time and this place, to understand a project the purpose of which is to affirm the humanity of a black man, especially one under sentence of death. They want the execution to go smoothly and quietly. They are afraid that what Miss Emma proposes may stir up trouble, especially as it involves this educated black man, Grant, whose correct grammar strikes some of them as a provocation. For Emma’s sake, they give their grudging consent to the undertaking.

Grant is not the only one involved in the attempt to do something for Jefferson. Grant and the Reverend Ambrose, the preacher from the quarter, often find themselves at cross purposes. For the Reverend Ambrose, what matters is not whether Jefferson affirms his human dignity but whether he finds salvation. Tensions between the Reverend Ambrose and Grant threaten to break out into conflict at any time.

The most challenging obstacle to the success of the project is Jefferson himself. He heard what his attorney said, he understood what he heard, and he is tempted to accept it. He has known few possibilities in his life, he has had very few choices, and now a freakish combination of circumstances has determined that he must die. Is this what it is to be a man? At one point, he even goes down on all fours and, hog-fashion, pushes his snout into his food dish.

At first, Jefferson resists all of Grant’s efforts, and Grant, who was never enthusiastic about the project, is prepared to admit defeat. Miss Emma and Tante Lou, however, expect him to try—even more, they expect him to succeed—and Vivian adds her voice to theirs. In a situation he would never have chosen to become involved in, Grant must commit himself to the effort. The struggle begins to pay off when Jefferson agrees that he does not want to cause further pain to his godmother. In thus concerning himself with another, in the shadow of his own death, Jefferson begins to sense his place in the human family. He is touched by a gift from the schoolchildren, and he is grateful for the radio Grant brings to him. As he lets himself know these emotions, he begins to recognize that he is indeed a man.

Grant himself is by no means untouched by what is happening. In the commitment he found it so difficult to make, and in thus opening himself to the pain of sharing Jefferson’s agony, he has begun to move toward a new realization of his own humanity.

The law takes its course. At the time designated by the state, Jefferson dies in the electric chair. Paul, a white jailer who has treated Jefferson and Grant with sympathy and respect, is able to tell Grant that Jefferson was the bravest man in the room. He also brings the diary that Jefferson has been keeping at Grant’s suggestion. Capitalization is erratic, the spelling is weak, the punctuation is uncertain, and the style is inelegant, but the message of Jefferson’s diary is clear: “tell them im a man.” Paul and Grant, white man and black man, realize that Jefferson has indeed taught them a lesson before dying.

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