Literary Criticism of A Lesson Before Dying
Thesis: The relationship that develops between Jefferson and Wiggins forms the emotional core of the novel. The force of A Lesson before Dying is a result of the dialogue that Gaines poignantly renders between the demoralized prisoner and the disheartened school teacher.
Do you see anyone here who could plan a murder, a robbery, can plan--can plan--can plan anything? A cornered animal to strike quickly out of fear, a trait inherited from his ancestors in the deepest jungle of blackest Africa--yes, yes, that he can do--but to plan? To plan, gentlemen of the jury? No, gentlemen, this skull here holds no plans. 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. That is what you see here, but you do not see anything capable of planning a robbery or a murder.(7-8) She is determined, in the months her godson has left to live, to convince him of his humanity: "'I don't want them to kill no hog,' she [says]. 'I want a man to go to that chair, on his own two feet'" (13). Only as a changed man, the text implies, can Wiggins himself become a catalyst for social equality through education. Gaines's narrative also points to the role that language can assume in symbolic enslavement and in freedom. Jefferson is able to recognize his humanity through writing (Wiggins has provided him with a tablet and pencil). Freedom through literacy is a primary trope in the African American expressive tradition. Henry Louis Gates, in his vernacular theory The Signifying Monkey (1988), argues that the first inscription of this trope is found in African American slave narratives, wherein "the slave wrote ... to demonstrate his or her own membership in the human community" (Gates 128). Gaines signifies on this African American tradition, powerfully creating,...
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