The experiences that people go through in life can shape how they look at life and other people in society. Many people change their perspectives about life based on the lessons that they learn along the way. Change is important in the life of an individual. No one can categorize change as positive or negative before they see the outcomes. Ernest J. Gaines’ book, A Lesson before Dying, is among the works of literature that show the importance of change in the life of an individual through its characters. The book is set in a community of mixed White and Black people. These two racial groups in the book struggle to coexist amid stereotypes and other factors such as racial discrimination, which completely draws the boundary between the two groups. Gaines uses the main character in the book, Grant Wiggins, to express the importance of change and how it can affect the life of a person unexpectedly. This paper will address how Gaines uses the theme of heroism to show how the relationship between Jefferson and Grant changes the character of Grant towards the end of the story by learning to do what is best for other people.
Gaines’ book expresses the thin line that separates the Whites and the Black in the community in which he sets his book. Jefferson is a Black man who is framed for a murder that he did not commit. Jefferson was a bystander by the time Mr. Grope was killed by two Black men. Jefferson was arrested, convicted, and sentenced to death for the murder of Mr. Grope. According to the narrator in the book, Jefferson offered a different account of what happened during the time of the murder. The narrator repeats Jefferson’s words that ‘He was halfway across the room, the money stuffed inside his jacket pocket, the half bottle of whiskey clutched in his hand when two white men walked into the store. That was his story’ (Gaines 8). According to Jefferson, two White men committed the murder. On the other hand, Grant is a learned Black man in a White-dominated Southern community. Grant does not feel like anyone appreciates his effort to go to school and acquire an education. After teaching for several years in the community, Grant realizes that young students do not change behavior compared to the old people without education. Grant gives up on everyone and loathes staying in the community until his aunt gives him a task to educate Jefferson in prison as he awaits his execution.
Grant takes the opportunity of his fast encounter with Jefferson to enlighten him about the true meaning of a hero. At this point in the book, neither Jefferson nor Grant is convinced that they have a form of heroism. Grant claims that a hero ‘would do anything for people he loves because he knows it would make their lives better’ (Gaines 157). This first encounter between Jefferson and Grant affirms that Grant has completely lost touch with society. Grant tells Jefferson that only people like him could become heroes because other people do not expect it to happen. Gaines also admits to Jefferson that he does not have what it takes to be a hero because he already believes that people are irredeemable. The main reason why Grant offers this advice to Jefferson is to change his mind about the impression he got from people. At some point, Jefferson refers to himself as a ‘hog’ that the White people are preparing to eat. This expression shows Grant that Jefferson has nothing to hold on to in life, just like him, except that Jefferson is facing the death sentence in a month. Therefore, Grant hopes that Jefferson would focus on learning to prove to the White people that he was a Black hero who persevered through his darkest moments. The idea of heroism, as presented by Grant determines the fate of the two characters at the end of the book.
The idea of heroism also begins to take a toll on Grant, although it was meant to strengthen Jefferson’s spirit. Grant did not believe that he could be a hero at the beginning of the book. His reasoning was that most Black people in that community had given up. Therefore, e did not believe that there was nothing he could do to change the lives of the Black people in the community better. Grant had learned this ideology from interacting with his students in a school he had taught for many years. Grant laments that ‘I wanted to scream at my aunt; I was screaming inside. I had told her many, many times how much I hated this place, and all I wanted to do was get away. I had told her I was no teacher, I hated teaching, and I was just running in place here’ (Gaines 14). The statement shows that Grant hated staying and teaching in a community where people did not learn anything. However, Grant’s impression about the people begins to change due to his continued interaction with Jefferson. Jefferson is committed to learn and make his godmother proud, even if he only has a few days left to live.
Jefferson’s conviction to learn completely changes the view of Grant on the Black folks in the community. Grant begins to understand that most of the people in the community have lost hope just because they do not have anything to hope for in life. Over time, Jefferson begins to attract Grant’s attention by becoming more interested in their learning lessons. Jefferson’s progress in learning prompts Grant to start learning afresh on how to understand the Black people in the community. For most of his life, Grant had been convinced that the Black people could not learn. The fact that Jefferson started to show interest in learning showed grant that he had missed something in his assessment of the Black people in the community. This realization sets the turning point for Grant as he seeks his path towards becoming a hero, just the way he had explained to Jefferson.
Towards the end of the book, Grant exercises his first act of heroism by buying Jefferson a radio. Grant learns a lot that he did not know about heroism from this first act. One of the lessons that Grant learns is that people do not react in the same way as an act of heroism. For instance, Grant disagrees with Reverend Ambrose over the decision to buy Jefferson the radio. Reverend Ambrose believed that Grant would give Jefferson religious teachings rather than buy him a radio to listen to secular music. Grant also learned the fact that acts of heroism are relative. Not everyone in the society will look at what you do as heroic (Franco 371). According to Grant, he had expressed an act of heroism by buying Jefferson the radio because it made Jefferson’s life better. This could be expressed from Jefferson’s happy and satisfied impression upon receiving the radio. The reverend could have thought that Grant misunderstood his intentions for Jefferson, but Grant was convinced that what he did had made Jefferson’s life better. At this moment of the book, Grant begins to embody his idea of heroism.
Grant finally embraces the idea of heroism fully by acknowledging Jefferson’s heroism in front of everyone. Grant marks the greatest attributes of a hero, which is acknowledging the heroism of others (Keczer et al. 1). Seemingly, Grant finally succeeds in changing the life of another person in the community. Grant had believed that the Black people in the town could not receive redemption. However, it is surprising in the end when other people acknowledge the great work that he did to turn Jefferson into a hero. After Jefferson’s execution, Paul claims that ‘He was the strongest man in that crowded room, Grant Wiggins,’ Paul said, staring at me and speaking louder than was necessary. ‘He was, he was. I’m not saying this to make you feel good, I’m not saying this to ease your pain’ (Gaines 202). This acknowledgment marks the completion of Grant’s cycle into becoming a hero.
Grant’s character changes from a man who does not believe in fellow Black people. He believes that they are beyond saving. Therefore, he plans to leave the community and his profession. However, Grant changes to a hero after giving Jefferson a definition of what heroes do. Grant also learns that change takes time and patience through his encounter with Jefferson. Grant also learns various lessons from the changes that he encounters while interacting with Jefferson. Grant learns that change needs patience and resilience. He also learns that not everyone is willing to accept change. However, Grant proves his theory of heroism at the end of the book. Jefferson takes Grant as his hero based on what Jefferson had done for him during his time on death row. Readers of the book can also learn the same lesson to exercise patience and conviction in order to embrace change. The changes that Grant undergoes in the book can happen to anyone who is committed to change. Grant shows readers that everyone can become a hero if they do things that benefit others rather than things that only benefit them. Other characters in the book, such as Paul, are able to appreciate this fact and acknowledge what Grant had accomplished with Jefferson by turning him into a hero that people could celebrate after he is gone.