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A Lesson Before Dying by Grant Wiggins: Critical Analysis

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Withdrawal of emotion and empathy are common symptom in people who struggle with depression. In the novel, A Lesson Before Dying, Grant promised his aunt’s friend, Miss Emma, that he would help her godson, Jefferson, keep hold of his pride after receiving the death penalty. Grant’s obligation to teach Jefferson how to die with dignity ultimately benefits Grant by allowing himself to connect with his empathic nature.

Grant Wiggins could be described as a lost soul. He constantly debates if it would be worth it to drop everything and start his life over somewhere else. Many of the relationships in his life are strained in some way, such as, Grant has spent most of his life away from his parents. He and his aunt are quite passive-aggressive towards each other. Vivian, his girlfriend, is frequently preoccupied with her kids and her divorce, in addition to, his former teacher, Matthew Antoine, constantly has told him to give up his dreams. The combination of these relationships has made him feel unwanted. When the jury reached the verdict that Jefferson had been found guilty. Grant goes to talk to Tante Lou and Miss Emma, “Her large dark face showed all the pain she has gone through this day… Jefferson is dead… There is nothing I can do about it” (14). He knows Miss Emma is in great anguish. Yet he still continues to talk in a blunt and crude manner. This exhibits a clear lack of empathy. Calling a living man, dead is cruel especially knowing the circumstances. Grant is aware of the pain a godmother may be compelled to be feeling knowing her godson is going to die for a crime, she believes he didn’t commit. After, meeting with Jefferson for a long while and finally seeing a bit of progress. He learns his student Irene wants to become a teacher and leaves her in charge of his class, “Leaving Irene Cole and Odessa Freeman in charge of classes I drove to Bayonne” (187). Although this is a small gesture, it shows a clear improvement, from when he smacked a child on the back of the head with a ruler for looking at an insect. Seeing the difference he is making with Jefferson he realizes that he will be able to help others as well. He is beginning to care about others and his actions are reflecting his feelings. Grant is starting to allow himself to feel again instead of suppressing his emotions.

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Being an African-American male in 1940’s Louisiana, at the peak of segregation, he is constantly oppressed by his caucasian peers. He has gone through more education than most African Americans, they believe Grant thinks he is superior to them. This leaves him feeling isolated and like he doesn’t belong to either group. Learning how much Jefferson loves music he offers to buy him a radio. While being checked into the jail, the sheriff mispronounces batteries, “Yes sir batries…I had almost said batteries” (184). He does not correct the sheriff and decreases the intelligence of his language to avoid an argument so Jefferson can have a working radio, which reveals how much he cares about Jefferson’s happiness. Earlier in the novel, Grant was having a conversation with the sheriff and his brother-in-law and refused to dumb down his language which caused a bit of a quarrel. This event reveals definite progress in his selflessness, sacrificing his pride to make Jefferson’s last days a bit more enjoyable is a genuine act of kindness. After Jefferson was executed, Paul the deputy came to Grant’s school to give him Jefferson’s Journal the gift he wanted grant to keep. He tells him how Jefferson kept his head up and died with pride, “I saw the transformation, Grant Wiggins… I didn’t do it… maybe he did it himself” (254). Granny not taking credit for helping Jefferson demonstrates how the situation became more than just an obligation. His compassion for Jefferson became so strong that it taught him to be empathetic towards others. Shortly after, his conversation with Paul he begins to cry. Him crying represents the final release of emotion that he has been holding back for the entire novel. Grant’s journey with Jefferson taught him, not only, to care about others but take their emotions into account.

Grant Wiggins was always seen as a strong man but would hold back his feelings any chance he got. After, fulfilling his obligation to help Jefferson die with pride. He soon realized that in order to connect with someone, one must wear their heart on their sleeve. His relationship with Jefferson will continue to benefit Grant in his current romances and friendships as well as ones to come.

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A Lesson Before Dying by Grant Wiggins: Critical Analysis. (2022, March 18). Edubirdie. Retrieved June 8, 2023, from
“A Lesson Before Dying by Grant Wiggins: Critical Analysis.” Edubirdie, 18 Mar. 2022,
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