Lessons are told so others can see the significance of a story or event. They are learned through instruction and support from others and by personal experience. Several characters in Ernest Gaines' A Lesson Before Dying experienced this, particularly Jefferson and Grant. Both men were able to learn from each other and in the end made each other better and more mature people. Grant Wiggins, the narrator, is the son of cane-cutters on a plantation in the Deep South.
Unlike those before him, Grant is the school teacher on the plantation and has attended college not only to become educated, but to escape the heavy prejudice and racism against blacks. This negative environment has made him bitter and have little faith in himself, society, or the church. He does not believe anything will ever change and feels he can not help others or make a difference in their lives. Meanwhile, Jefferson, a sensitive, black man of below-average intelligence, takes it to heart when his lawyer says he is not smart enough to commit murder and calls him a hog.
He becomes morose and remote as he sits in a cell of dark times and feelings awaiting his death by electric chair. Jefferson also begins to mentally and physically live the lifestyle of a hog. 'I don't want them to kill no hog, I want a man to go to that chair, on his own two feet,' says Miss Emma, Jefferson's Godmother. (pg. 13). Grant unwillingly goes to see Jefferson in the courthouse jail at his family's request to help Jefferson become a man before he is killed. In the cell he finds a non-verbal Jefferson who has messy hair, forgotten all hygiene, and eats off the floor. He acts like the animal he believes he is.
Through out the novel, Gant begins to feel compelled and drawn to the pathetic, hog-like individual in the cell and sincerely wants to help him. At first, there is little communication, but after the two begin to finally talk, a relationship and bond develops. Jefferson is given a radio, which is his connection to the world outside his physical jail cell and mental 'jail cell'. It is his first personal possession. Grant also gives him a notebook in which he can write thoughts or questions he would like answered. Writing about his emotions helps Jefferson release them and understand.
He comes to see that he is not a hog, but a human. 'Mr. Wiggins, if I ain't nothing but a hog, how come they just don't knock me in the head like a hog? Starb me like a hog? Man walk on two foots; hogs on four hoofs. '(pg. 220. ) This was a light bulb moment for Jefferson. When Grant meets Jefferson, he had previously been a school teacher who felt discouraged by his work. He felt no matter what he did or taught the children it would have no positive effect on their lives. This past experience influenced his thoughts regarding the situation with Jefferson.
The two men develop a rapport and Grant notices Jefferson's progress towards humanity. 'I raised my head, and I saw him standing there under the window, big and tall, and not stooped as he had been in chains? I'm going to do my best Mr. Wiggins. ' (pg. 225). This positive progress was a key factor to Grant recognizing he had made a difference. By the time Jefferson goes to the electric chair, Grant has gained a stronger sense of inner peace that he has affected someone's life in a positive manner even though he is pained that his good friend is dying. Good by mr wigin tell them im strong tell them im a man. ' (pg. 234). Jefferson's goodbye to Grant shows he understands that he is dying for his people with dignity. Jefferson once lived a life of submission. After the trial he lived in anger, acting out like an animal in his cell and mistreating the people who loved him, but now he is thoughtful and courageous. He fills his notebook with kind words for Grant, showing that he was the one who helped him become a man and learn this lesson before his death.