Yes, life has a way of teaching us lessons that we would never learn otherwise. Some of life’s lessons we would rather not have, some of what we learn we wish we did not have to. A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest J. Gaines does just this in an exemplary fashion. The novel is set in the late 1940s in Bayonne, Louisiana where two main characters, Grant and Jefferson, are engaged in a struggle to achieve self-respect in a society based on racial prejudice. Gaines is an effective storyteller because shows Grant’s frustration and attitude towards society and state of country in general.
The novel was set in the late 1940s around a fictional town- Bayonne. Even though the place was fictional, the way of life was real. It shows the racism and segregation that was present before the civil war. Gains (as narrator) states the segregation before Grant meets Vivian for the first time in the novel “Bayonne was a small town of about six thousand. Approximately three thousand five hundred whites; approximately two thousand five hundred colored. It was the parish seat for St. Raphael. The courthouse was there; so was the jail. There was a Catholic church uptown for whites; a Catholic church back of town for colored. There was a white movie theater uptown; a colored movie theater back of town. There were two elementary schools uptown, one Catholic, one public, for whites; and the same back of town for colored.”(21) As a result suppressed frustration and anger developed in black minds. Moreover, Grant still lives in the same town where he grew up watching his aunt work for whites which makes him feel trapped. Grant mentions how his ancestors had worked on the same plantation years ago- “Left of the weighing scales and the derrick was the plantation cemetery, where my ancestors had been buried for the past century.”(87) This shows how Grant’s family has been working in the same place for generations; maybe more to come- which scares Grant.
Grant’s frustration can be felt easily while reading the novel. Grant mentions how he needs to think of a good lie for Miss Emma after the horrendous meeting with Jefferson. “I knew Miss Emma expected me to come back and tell her all about Jefferson, but I had not thought of a good lie yet.”(70) Everyone expected too much from Grant always wanting progress with Jefferson which resulted in him wanting to quit meeting Jefferson. Coupled with Aunt Lou’s constant criticism about how grant could do a better job furthered Grant’s frustration. “She said over her shoulder, “Food there if you want it. Or you can go back where you had supper last night.” “(30) Gaines does a great job creating stressing scenarios where Grant’s patience is tested.
Gaines uses his stylistic writing style throughout the novel especially when writing as Jefferson. “mr wigin you say rite somethin but i dont kno what to rite an you say i must be thinkin bout things i aint telin nobody an i order put it on paper but i dont kno what to put on paper cause i aint never rote nothin but homework i aint never rote a leter in all my life cause nanan use to get other chiren to rite her leter an read her leter for her not me so i cant think of too much to say but maybe nex time”[A part of Jefferson’s diary](186) Gaines writes with a completely different tone cementing the fact that Jefferson really was a ‘hog’. Particularly Gaines attention to detail and proficiency adds reality in this fictional novel. “She doesn’t, huh?” Sam Guidry asked me. He emphasized “doesn’t.” I was supposed to have said “don’t.” I was being too smart. ‘(39) Gaines uses his knowledge of ‘Black Vernacular’ to make the events look real.
Gaines uses his stylistic approach, attention to detail and choice of setting to deliver a certain and authentic novel. He uses Grant’s frustration from people around him and society to enhance the depth of character and make the novel ‘life-like’. Therefore, Gaines uses his novel as a source to remind people that no matter what conditions you are met with, we should learn and inspire ourselves with them.