Characterization in "A Lesson Before Dying"

Characterization is one of the centerpieces of Ernest Gaines’ novel A Lesson Before Dying. It is clear that Mr. Gaines devoted a great deal of time to the development of the central characters in this novel. He also gave considerable development to some of the minor 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 that you like and respect such as Vivian Baptiste, characters you feel empathy for such as Jefferson’s godmother Miss Emma, and characters that you sometimes love and sometimes hate such as Grant Wiggins.

The major characters such as Grant Wiggins and Vivian Baptiste are well developed round characters as are some of the minor characters such as Louis Washington, Jr. Although, Louis Washington, Jr. a static character is in the story primarily as foil for Mr. Wiggins and the other students, Mr. Gaines still provides some information about his background helping to round out his character. Louis Washington, Jr. could have been simply left as a one dimensional flat character and would still have served his purpose (foil) well. However, the author shows that he decided well rounded characters were going to be a centerpiece to his novel when he shares with the reader this information found on page fifty-five of the novel: “He was without a doubt the worst child 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 crumb of food he got.” Mr. Gaines in sharing that information is giving the reader some insight into the psyche of Louis Washington, Jr. which helps the reader understand some of the behavioral problems of the character that happen later in the story..

Grant Wiggins serves as the stories Protagonist. 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, yet we get a sense that internally he believes that he can make a difference in the lives of the children that 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 better and tries to get him to admit that there are other reasons that he stays on the plantation besides her. Conflict is all around 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 views as her attempts to control and interfere with his life. In the beginning of the story he is torn between giving two elderly women their wishes that he visit and help Jefferson and the fact that doing so puts him directly in the path of the racism and bigotry that he has strived to avoid. He feels compelled to help others and on numerous occasions he shows a great deal of concern for others. Twice at Mr. Pichots’ home even though he felt humiliated and embarrassed for the treatment he received he still tried to make the situation bearable for Inez’s sake. He suffered the humiliation of being searched and rudely spoken to at the jail for the sake of honoring his Aunts and Miss Emma’s request and for Jefferson..

The antagonist in the story is clearly the environment and setting of the story-the Deep South. It is very clear Grant is in conflict with the institutions, policies, and discriminating culture of Louisiana and plantation life. Grant is constantly evaluating his reason for being on the plantation and his reasons for being a teacher there. He has flashbacks of his days as a child on the plantation and his time as a student in the very same church that he now teaches in. He sees as an adult that life on the plantation does not seem to change from generation to generation. He remembers a conversation that he had with his old teacher that he went to visit. During the conversation recalled on page sixty four his former childhood teacher says to him, “You’ll see that it’ll take more than five and a half months to wipe away–peel -scrape away the blanket of ignorance that has been plastered and replastered over those brains in the past three hundred years.” It is obvious that Grant knows there is some truth to that statement and he is torn between fleeing the plantation and living elsewhere where there is a possibility that he could have a better life for himself. However he cannot leave people that need his help. He stays on the plantation with his aunt because he feels an obligation to do so. He continues to teach and though he feels certain many of the students will end up dead or in prison like so many of his classmates did. Further when his Aunt and Miss Emma approach him with their plans for him to help Jefferson he actually resists very little..

The story is a powerful story of hope and inspiration because of the characters within it. The amount of background information that we receive about the characters gives them life and whether we like or dislike them we feel as though as they were living breathing people. I am sure that many readers of this story will feel the pain of Miss Emma, the conflicting emotions running through Grant Wiggins and the tension of life in the Quarter.

(c) 2006, Marcus Barber