Taking on a task is like taking care of a flower. One must look after it, make sure it grows in the right direction, and ultimately guarantee it turns into what it is supposed to be. In the novel, A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest J. Gaines, Tante Lou, the main protagonist’s aunt, forces Grant Wiggins, the main protagonist who is a teacher at a plantation school, to visit Jefferson, a young African American man on death row, in jail and help him learn how to die with dignity despite being wrongly convicted.
Grant’s developing sense of selflessness and commitment to his town, despite the examples that previous traditions demonstrate, convey the theme that in a society where people grow up to run away from their burdens, a person’s sense of commitment may be afflicted, causing one to only think for the benefit of oneself.
However, only when one realizes the change one is making in one’s community or the world does one begin to feel inspired to commit oneself to help others.
At the beginning of the story, Grant Wiggins as an indifferent and selfish man who does not seem to have a sense of commitment to his community and job. He struggles to find something in Bayonne to stay for other than Vivian, his girlfriend. Grant and Vivian decide to meet up at the Rainbow Club where he starts questioning his commitment to his town. Vivian tries to persuade Grant to stay and focus on his job to which he counters by saying “[y]ou hit the nail on the head there, lady—commitment.
Commitment to what—to live and die in this hellhole, when we can leave and live like other people?”. Gaines uses the phrase ‘to live and die in this hellhole’ to show that Grant sees no purpose in staying in this small town as he regards it as an oppressive and unbearable place.
The phrase also communicates the idea that he does not see the purpose in teaching a bunch of children who may or may not even grow up to use the knowledge that he teaches them. Grant’s feeling of hopelessness affects his work ethic and outlook on life, making it seem like he does not care about his job or his town. The phrase “when we can leave and live like other people” illustrates his lack of commitment and selfishness because he believes that he can abandon his people and town, leaving everything behind for his own benefit. Another instance where Grant demonstrates his lack of selflessness or concern for others is when he is telling his class about what is going to happen to Jefferson and Estelle, Jefferson’s cousin, starts crying. He ‘[knows] that Jefferson [is] her cousin but [he does not] apologize for what [he says], nor [does he] show any sympathy for her crying’. This passage shows his indifference to others by demonstrating to the reader how even though he knew Estelle was upset, he chooses to continue with the story.
His lack of commitment to his job translated itself into a form of selfishness as he does not think about Estelle’s feelings, only about how meaningless his job is to him and how he wants to leave “this hellhole.” As the story progresses, Grant starts to develop a sense of commitment to Jefferson, and he realizes the lack of commitment in his community, describing it as the “vicious circle.” He mentions this concept of a “vicious circle” to Vivian when they meet again at the Rainbow Club. They are having a couple of drinks and discussing how Miss Emma, Jefferson’s nannan, needs a memory of Jefferson dying like a man, or in other words, someone to finally “be proud of.” As they continue their conversation, Grant explains to Vivian what he means when he says that Miss Emma needs memories of someone finally doing something for her.
He then says “[w]e [black men] stay here in the South and are broken, or we run away and leave [the women] alone to look after the children and themselves…because even though [we want] to change it, and maybe even [try] to change it, it is too heavy a burden because of all the others who have run away and left their burdens behind” (166-167). This excerpt reveals Grant’s thoughts on the lack of commitment in his community and how people grow up to run away from their burdens. Growing up and staying in this environment proves a struggle for Grant as he tries to find something to be committed to such as his job, or his mission to make Jefferson a man worth remembering. The repetition of the concept of wanting to change the cycle and the fact that Grant dubs the change ‘a burden,’ illustrates how he recognizes the lack of commitment in his community and how it affects each generation. Grant’s struggle communicates the central idea that in a society where people grow up to run away from their burdens a person’s sense of commitment can be afflicted.
As the story comes to an end, Grant’s transformation from a selfish, indifferent, and uncommitted man to a compassionate, selfless, and devoted man first becomes apparent when Grant revisits Jefferson at the jail. He confesses to him how he needs Jefferson more than Jefferson needs him and pleads for him to “[p]lease listen to me, because I would not lie to you now. I speak from my heart. You have the chance of being bigger than anyone who has ever lived on that plantation or come from this little town” (193). This passage shows Grant expressing his compassion toward Jefferson as his execution draws nearer, showing how his sense of commitment to Jefferson has evolved throughout the story. The fact that he cares enough about Jefferson to brazenly tell him that he has a chance of being someone great, someone respectable when at the beginning of the story he did not even want to see him, shows how Grant has grown as a person. After his speech, he sees Jefferson looking at him ‘in great pain’ and realizes ‘[h]e may not have understood, but something was touched, something deep down inside him—because he was still crying’ (193).
This section shows the exact moment when Grant realizes that he finally got through to Jefferson and starts to see a change in his behavior. The excerpt shows how he finally found something worth committing himself to. His newfound sense of commitment to Jefferson presents itself during another scene where Grant is waiting for Vivian at the Rainbow Club and overhears two bricklayers talking about Jefferson’s impending execution. Grant hears one of them say how he would pull the switch on Jefferson himself, and he keeps his composure until he decides that enough is enough and challenges one of them to a fight. He ‘hit him before he had a chance to protect himself,’ and the fight with the bricklayer continues until ‘[o]ne moment, as I remember it, the bricklayer and I were circling each other with chairs. The next moment, absolute darkness. The darkness came at the exact moment as a blow to the side of my head’ (199-202). This action-packed scene shows the dedication that Grant has towards Jefferson. At this point in the story, Grant truly believes that he can help Jefferson, even if only a little bit and that Jefferson is capable of change.
The way that Grant puts his own safety and pride on the line to defend Jefferson once again demonstrates his growth throughout the story, ultimately communicating the central idea that only when one realizes the change one is making in one’s community does one begin to feel inspired to commit oneself and help others. Grant’s journey as he evolves through the story emphasizes the concept that in a society where people grow up to run away from their burdens, a person’s sense of commitment may be afflicted causing one to only think for the benefit of oneself. However, only when one realizes the change one is making in one’s community or the world does one begin to feel inspired to commit oneself and help others. Although Grant’s initial response to the task that his aunt forces upon him is short of enthusiastic, he grows to accept and commit, helping himself and Jefferson evolve into the men that they are meant to be. Not only does Jefferson learn a lesson before dying, but Grant also learns how to be compassionate, selfless, and committed eventually marveling at how strong Jefferson is during his execution, just as one would marvel at the beauty of a flower.