African American author and professor Ernest James Gaines once said, “A writer tries to write about what he is a part of.” He has rendered representations of his personal life experiences into true literary depictions of African Americans. Gaines was born in 1933 as a sharecropper’s oldest son on a poverty-ridden Louisiana plantation during the depression. As a young boy he labored the fields just as his ancestors had since harsh times of slavery. In his later years, he wrote many books that were inspired by the American South including: A Gathering of Old Men and A Lesson Before Dying, both Louisiana twentieth century based novels. Considering both these literary works by Ernest Gaines, self discovery is portrayed through various techniques including: figures of speech and symbols. However, Gaines develops the journey of self discovery through different paths in both literary works. Gaines also used the idea of becoming a man as the evolution of self discovery.
Using figurative language, Gaines skillfully paints a picture in the reader’s mind that is presented by self discovery. For instance, in A Lesson Before Dying, when Grant was telling Jefferson that he could be better because everyone in the quarter needs him to be, he exclaimed, “And that’s all we are, Jefferson, all of us on this earth, a piece of drifting wood, until we—each one of us, individually—decide to become something else” (Gaines 193). In this quote, Gaines uses anthropomorphism, similar to personification, although, non-human things behave as if they are human. Grant was using imagery to tell Jefferson that like wood, he can be sculpted to become whatever he wanted to be in the future, all people have to decide what kind of person that we want to become. Additionally, in A Gathering of Old Men, when the men decide to go to Marshall, Chimley thought, “His eyes was still saying more than he had said. His eyes was saying: We wait till now? Now, when we’re old men, we get to be brave?” (Gaines 32). In this quote, Gaines uses personification, where the representation of an abstract quality is in humanistic form. He accomplishes this through the look Mat gave Chimley to illustrate how important it was for them to finally be brave.
Gaines explores the deeper meaning of self discovery through symbols. For example, in A Lesson Before Dying, when Reverend Ambrose argued the radio was no good for Jefferson Grant, Wiggins countered, “You can take it from him. But you won’t reach him if you do. The only thing that keeps him from thinking he is not a hog is that radio. Take that radio away, and let’s see what you can do for the soul of a hog” (Gaines 183). The radio is a symbol of many things, yet the most important would be the profound sense of Jefferson’s transformation from thinking he is a hog to knowing he is a man. As well as, in a Gathering of Old Men, when Johnny Paul was (falsely) declaring the responsibility for Beau Boutins death he added, “But I was here then, and I don’t see it now, and that’s why I did it. I did it for them back there under them trees. I did it ’cause that tractor is getting closer and closer to that graveyard, and I was scared if I didn’t do it, one day that tractor was go’n come in there and plow up them graves, getting rid of all the proof that we ever was” (Gaines 92). Johnny Paul shares his and many others’ opinions of the way life has become for the families in their community. He is finally speaking for his people, particularly, of the changing plantation conditions, gradually wiping their history away. In this quote there are two symbols, the graves and the tractor. The graves are a symbol for the history pictured of the families in the community from generation to generation, while the tractor is a symbol for the change Cajuns have brought to their lives.
Throughout both novels, Gaines uses the idea of becoming a man as the final development of self discovery. Such as, in A Lesson Before Dying, when Grant Wiggins read Jefferson’s diary he noticed that Jefferson’s last words were noted as, “good by mr wigin tell them im strong tell them im a man good by mr wigin im gon ax paul if he can bring you this” (Gaines 234). In this quote, Gaines utilizes Jefferson’s last words to Grant Wiggins as a way to emphasize Jefferson ultimately wants to be known to everyone as a man. Furthermore, in A Gathering of Old men, after Charlie had confessed to the murder, Sheriff Mapes had respectfully called him ‘Mr. Biggs’ following Charlies response, ““What’s that you called me, Sheriff?” Charlie asked him. “Mr. Biggs,” Mapes said, and with sincerity. Charlie grinned—a great, big, wide-mouth, big-teeth grin. It was a deep, all-heart, true grin, a grin from a man who had been a boy fifty years”” (Gaines 193). In this quote, Gaines applies the idea of Charlie becoming a man by his satisfaction of the respect and growth he has finally earned.
Finally, Gaines develops the journey of self discovery through different paths in order to highlight the different personal reasons and ways. While, In A Lesson Before Dying Gaines uses two characters to develop each others self discovery. Such as, “When Vincent asked him if he had any last words, he looked at the preacher and said, ‘Tell Nannan I walked.’ And straight he walked, Grant Wiggins. Straight he walked. I’m a witness. Straight he walked” (Gaines 254). Not only at Jefferson’s execution had he finally decided he learned the things he needed to about life but also, he could walk by himself. Doing this Jefferson had accomplished the final lesson, dying with dignity. Grant Wiggins discovered himself by teaching Jefferson how to do the same. He was awarded with the knowledge that Jefferson had died as a man, not a hog and revealed his emotions of sadness in the end crying to the class. On the contrary, in A Gathering of Old Men he uses storytelling to develop each of the characters self discovery. In particular when Johnny Paul says, “But you still don’t see. Yes, sir, what you see is the weeds, but you don’t see what we don’t see” (Gaines 89). This was the start to the spiral of stories where many men describe personal events that furthermore revealed their bitter feeling. This journey helped them grow as people, seemingly as a family, despite their many differences. Throughout the novel, the men tell their hardships through stories in order to develop their self discoveries.
All in all, Ernest J. Gaines portrays self discovery through figurative language to paint a picture in the reader’s mind and for the reader to explore a deeper meaning he uses symbolism. He also blossoms the idea of self discovery through the evolutionary process of becoming a man. Yet Gaines develops the journey of self discovery in two different ways. In A Lesson Before Dying, Gaines uses Grant Wiggins and Jefferson to develop each others self discovery path. However, in A Gathering of Old Men, Gaines uses the African American tradition of storytelling to develop the path to each characters self discovery. Relating to these novels, Ernest Gaines had listened to stories many of his neighbors and family elders had narrated during his childhood years and used that experience to write.