The characterization is one of the central pieces of Ernest Gaines’s novel A Lesson Before Dying. It is clear that Mr. Gaines spent a lot of time developing the central characters in this novel. He also gave considerable development to some of the supporting characters in the story. I think one of the reasons the story is so compelling is that the authors’ character development is thorough. The characters are people you like and respect like Vivian Baptiste, characters you empathize with like Jefferson’s godmother Miss Emma, and characters you sometimes love and sometimes hate like Grant Wiggins.
The main characters, such as Grant Wiggins and Vivian Baptiste, are well-developed round characters, as are some of the supporting characters, such as Louis Washington, Jr. Although Louis Washington, Jr. is a static character in the story primarily as a foil for the Mr. Wiggins. and the other students, Mr. Gaines still provides background information about him that helps round out his character. Louis Washington, Jr. could have just been left as a flat, one-dimensional character and it would still have served his purpose well (thwart). However, the author demonstrates that he decided that the entire characters were going to be the centerpiece of his novel when he shares with the reader this information found on page fifty-five of the novel: “He was hands down the worst kid in the school”. . He came from a large family – thirteen, fourteen, fifteen: I don’t know how many – and he had to fight for every scrap of food he had.” Mr. Gaines in sharing that information is giving the reader insight into the psyche of Louis Washington , Jr., which helps the reader understand some of the character’s behavioral issues that occur later in the story.
Grant Wiggins is the protagonist of the stories. As the narrator of the story, we see the story through his eyes and through his frame of reference. Grant Wiggins is a very complex character. He is a man torn between his desire to escape the racism and oppression of the Deep South, but we get the sense that internally he believes he can make a difference in the lives of the children he teaches. Throughout the story, he tries to convince Vivian, and thus himself, that she is the reason he stays on the plantation. She instinctively knows this and tries to get him to admit that there are other reasons why he stays on the plantation besides her. Conflict surrounds Grant Wiggins: at home, at work, and even in his love life. He is in conflict with his aunt whom he obviously loves and respects and what he sees as her attempts to control and interfere in his life. At the beginning of the story, he is torn between giving two elderly women his wishes to visit and help Jefferson and the fact that doing so puts him squarely in the path of the racism and bigotry he has worked hard to avoid. He feels compelled to help others and on numerous occasions shows great concern for others. Twice at Mr. Pichots’s house even though he felt humiliated and embarrassed by the treatment he received, he tried to make the situation bearable for Inez’s sake. He suffered the humiliation of being frisked and rudely spoken to in jail for the sake of honoring the request of his and Miss Emma’s aunts and for Jefferson.
The antagonist of the story is clearly the setting and setting of the story: the Deep South. It is very clear that Grant is in conflict with the discriminatory institutions, policies and culture of Louisiana and life on the plantations. Grant is constantly evaluating his reason for being on the plantation and his reason for being a teacher there. He has flashbacks to his days as a boy on the plantation and his time as a student at the same church he now teaches. As an adult, he sees that life on the plantation doesn’t seem to change from generation to generation. He recalls a conversation he had with his former teacher that he went to visit. During the conversation recalled on page sixty-four, his former childhood teacher tells him: “You will see that it will take him more than five and a half months to clean, peel, scrape the cloak of ignorance that has been stuck on.” and plastered over those brains for the last three hundred years.” Grant obviously knows there is some truth to that statement and is torn between running away from the plantation or living somewhere else where there is a chance he can have a better life for himself. himself. However, he cannot leave the people who need his help. He stays on the plantation with his aunt because he feels an obligation to do so. He continues to teach, and although he is certain that many of the students will end up dead or in prison as did many of his classmates. Also, when his aunt and Miss Emma approach him with their plans for him to help Jefferson, he actually puts up very little.
The story is a powerful story of hope and inspiration because of the characters that make it up. The amount of background information we get about the characters brings them to life, and whether we like it or not, we feel like they’re living, breathing people. I’m sure many readers of this story will feel the pain of Miss Emma, the conflicting emotions running through Grant Wiggins, and the strain of life in the Quarter.
(c) 2006, Marcus Barber