As I reread this 1993 novel by Ernest J. Gaines, I kept thinking, “Who is teaching who what lesson?”
Jefferson, a young, black man in a Louisiana Cajun community in the late 1940’s, is falsely convicted of participating in a pre-meditated crime resulting in murder and is sentenced to death. The defense had argued he was too stupid and sub-human to carry out such a crime. “Why I would just as soon put a hog in the electric chair as this,” was the last statement in the defense attorney’s closing argument.
Jefferson’s grandmother knows there is no justice to be found for him in the white-dominated, racist criminal justice system; she just wants him to die with dignity.
She and her friend turn to the friend’s nephew, Grant, the educated local school teacher, asking him to visit Jefferson in jail and restore his sense of self-worth after his humiliating victimization and his equally humiliating defense in that public courtroom. Grant is reluctant to agree. He will have to humble himself before the white officials of the town to get permission to visit Jefferson, and he has no idea what he can say or do to build Jefferson’s self-esteem on death row.
Grant bows to the pressure of the older women, however, and takes up the task. He finds Jefferson in a depressed state; not only is he facing an early death, he cannot get that image of himself as a “hog” out of his head. Grant has no lesson plan and despairs of getting through to Jefferson, but at the urging of his aunt and her friend, the grandmother, he continues to visit and try to talk to him.
Grant, himself, we might say today, has a bad attitude. He is sometimes disrespectful and even contemptuous of his elders, including the local minister. He wishes he could escape the small town and its traditional environment, hates his teaching job, and resists almost every effort to participate as a full member of his community. It doesn’t help that he has rejected the Christian religion that his family and neighbors live by. He refuses to lie to Jefferson about salvation and life after death, though he does dutifully preside over the school Christmas program.
Grant’s inner conflict is represented by the fact that his secular schoolroom is housed in the church. And the theme of religion vs. secularism runs through the entire novel. How will a secular atheist fulfill the wishes of his Christian aunt and her Christian friend, as well as their minister, to rebuild Jefferson’s self-image as a child of God, worthy of salvation and immortal life in heaven? And is it Grant who will teach Jefferson the lesson of self-worth or is it the community that will teach Grant the lesson of social obligation and self-redemption?
In the end it is both.
Instead of using religion to persuade Jefferson that he is better than a “hog,” Grant uses history, the whole history of slavery and racial oppression under white supremacy. Jefferson can use his execution and the manner in which he faces it to transcend that history and demonstrate to whites and blacks alike the full humanity, worth, and equality of the black man. In effect Grant builds Jefferson’s self-esteem by reminding him of his duty to his race, his family, his community, and by persuading him that he has the capacity, not only to be a hero to his people, but also to prove their human dignity to their white oppressors.
By rising to the challenge of his community, especially of the women in his community, and by learning to empathize with them, as well as with Jefferson, Grant learns the value of social relationships. When he teaches Jefferson that in the historical context of racial oppression his life and death have significance and meaning, Grant shows that he has learned the lesson of social obligation, that he is a member of a community as well as an individual in his own right. And when he refuses to take credit for Jefferson’s “transformation,” when he admits the minister and Jefferson are braver men than he is, Grant shows that he has learned the lesson of humility.
Not only does the novel raise a protest against racial injustice and the death penalty, it raises questions about the meaning of education, religion, power, and individualism.
The minister tells Grant that his secular, formal education cannot help him help Jefferson; Grant proves him wrong but also comes to appreciate the value of education through human experience. Similarly, while Grant does not undergo any sort of religious conversion, he comes to understand its meaningfulness in people’s lives. Likewise, he learns the difference between social power and psychological power, as the man who was reduced to a “hog” in public and sentenced to death emerges as the strongest and bravest in the room at his own execution. And finally Grant learns to temper his sense of individual righteousness with a sense of community values.
The story is narrated almost entirely from first person point of view by Grant. However, near the end we get Jefferson’s point of view in his journal and then the POV seems to pan out to an omniscient overview of the community. This technique reinforces Grant’s (and Jefferson’s) shift from egocentrism to sociocentrism.
In a larger sense, the novel uses Christian allegory and the universal patterns of the hero’s quest and the scapegoat myth to lift the novel out of its historical context to a transcendent level of meaning.
If you think it a stretch that Jefferson serves as a Christ figure, consider that, when his execution is set for two weeks after Good Friday, Grant notes, “And on Friday too. Always on Friday. Same time as He died, between twelve and three.” In addition, Jefferson is innocent of the crime he is accused of, and, like Christ, he dies with dignity and is lifted up by his community after his death as one who left a legacy as “the bravest man in the room,” braver than any of the white people who participated in, presided over, and witnessed his execution.
Like Christ, Jefferson is also a scapegoat. As Christ dies for human sin, so Jefferson dies as a scapegoat for the guilt and fear of his white oppressors. By accusing and executing him, the dominant white class reassures themselves of their own supremacy.
Grant also, however reluctantly, fits the hero myth pattern. He is called to a quest which he resists but ultimately fulfills—to “save” Jefferson from his shame and from an ignominious death. In the process, he learns that, as much as he might like to live his life for himself alone, he is part of a community, a race, and a human family, calling for certain sacrifices and challenging him to leave a legacy that is larger than himself. To that extent the novel serves as a coming of age story, not only for Grant, but for Jefferson as well.
And so both Grant and Jefferson redeem each other, contributing to each other’s maturation and growth into better people who leave something behind more significant than either would have done alone.
Finally, as one who has no faith in God or an afterlife, Grant learns and teaches Jefferson that it’s not that you die, it’s how you die, and how you live, that matters.