Recently I read Ernest J. Gaines’ novel, A Lesson Before Dying. The story is set in 1940s Louisiana. Black vs. white racial tension divided many of the characters in the narrative; the gospel of Christianity united others.
The main character (Mr. Grant Wiggins) is an unmarried, atheistic (at least initially), black teacher of black children in a Louisiana parish. He is persuaded/cajoled/manipulated into the awkward position of helping an innocent black man (Jefferson) recently accused of murder, to discover and embrace the fact that he is a full man, a creation of God, a person of worth.
Why is Jefferson these things? Because he bears the image of God (Imago Dei). The irony of ironies is that Grant himself, at least for most of the story, is a professing atheist.
Jefferson’s discovery of his worth comes through Grant Wiggins, the Jonah-like reluctant prophet, sent with a message of worth. Both men are changed throughout. The lesson before dying? Worth exists because of the Creator. Absent a Creator, worth and values are merely subjective preferences.
What follows is a form providing a brief book review:
- Main Idea
- Question(s) raised/reflection(s)
256 pages of southern literature. If you enjoy Walker Percy, Shelby Foote, Faulkner, O’Connor, Porter, Cormac McCarthy and other southern literary fiction, rest easy. You won’t be required to work that hard. This novel is easy to read.
Motifs of Christian self-sacrifice and atonement for a world in need pervade the narrative. But what happens in a world that does not want God? There’s the rub. The world is in need of those redeeming events but lacks the humility to admit it.
The novel is a solid story of an innocent man condemned by the mob of some racists in Louisiana. The protagonist is a university-educated black man, Grant Wiggins, who is (perhaps?) a professing Christian but who has lost whatever professed faith he had (during his college years), proving, I would argue, he never possessed saving faith/trust to begin with.
Grant returns to his roots in Louisiana, reunites with influential matriarchal figures like Ms. Emma and others, and is persuaded to serve as the advocate for the innocent-but-condemned black man (Jefferson) who is guilty only of being in the wrong place with the wrong people at the wrong time.
Here is an example of Gaines’ style. In the following paragraph, these are Grant’s thoughts towards the end of the novel re his crisis of faith:
Don’t tell me to believe. Don’t tell me to believe in the same God or laws that men believe in who commit these murders. Don’t tell me to believe that God can bless this country and that men are judged by their peers. Who among his peers judged him? Was I there? Was the minister there? Was Harry Williams there? Was Farrell Jarreau? Was my aunt? Was Vivian? No, his peers did not judge him—and I will not believe. (251)
I remember my high school English teaching telling me, “Look for how and when the protagonist changes; that’s crucial.” Great advice that has stood me and other readers of serious literature in good stead. In short, Grant Wiggins changes when he, reluctant prophet though he is, gives life to another by convincing him (Jefferson) that he’s a man, a creature of dignity and worth, a creation of God. The irony is that Grant himself has not believed that until … You see the idea.
One would be hard-pressed to find one who appreciates serious literary southern fiction more than I. But why the accolades for this novel? It is, I admit, an emotionally appealing novel. A skeptic discovers the gospel and what it means to be human and a creature of worth … rather than cosmic material ephemera. But is that new? No. That idea has been written for millennia via Scripture and via books like Thomas Howard’s Chance or the Dance?
Writers like J. Gresham Machen, Francis Schaeffer, R.C. Sproul, Chuck Colson, Nancy Pearcey, Larry Woiwode, C.S. Lewis, Flannery O’Connor, Ron Hansen, and others have addressed this issue of where worth comes from.
There is a reason Gaines’ novel received such attention by another generation of readers. Something in most of us recoils at the pervasiveness of injustice, racism, and cruelty. But unless one is willing to admit that God is the only grounds for objective moral values, any talk of worth and intrinsic value founders unless we will admit the founder and perfecter of all that is true, good, and beautiful.