Study Guide

Jefferson in A Lesson Before Dying

By Ernest J. Gaines

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Two Bad Apples

Jefferson is a kid with really bad luck. He skips a hunting trip one day and ends up with two bad-news guys at a liquor store instead. They try to rob the place, the owner turns the gun on them, and Jefferson is the only one left standing.

Instead of making a run for it or calling the police himself, Jefferson makes two big mistakes. First, he grabs a bottle and downs it to get some liquid courage. Then, he sees the open cash register and is helping himself when a couple of customers come in and catch him red-handed.

We can see in these actions that Jefferson was not quick on his feet, and that he wasn't able to understand the severity of the situation he was in. If he had, he would have been out the door like a shot instead of waiting around and hoping for the best. But, to be fair, the dude was probably in shock. Also, he was super poor.

But these two mistakes define the rest of the book (and the rest of Jefferson's life). He is sentenced to death by electrocution, but not before his own attorney tries to convince the court that it isn't worth killing him because he has the moral and intellectual capacity of a hog. Wow. Bad lawyer, or worst lawyer?

High on the Hog

At first it's really hard to tell why Jefferson does the things he does because he is pretty uncommunicative with his visitors. He takes the hog comment to heart, and says that he is just an old hog being fattened up for slaughter:

He knelt down on the floor and put his head inside the bag and started eating, without using his hands. He even sounded like a hog.
"[. . .]
"That's how a old hog eat," he said, raising his head and grinning [. . .]

Jefferson has taken to heart what the lawyers and the world have told him what he is. In the court they decided to kill him like a hog, and he has decided that if that's how they want to define him, then he'll live up to their expectations. Initially when well-meaning people tell him to not act like a hog, his response is essentially "Not by the hair of my chinny-chin-chin."

Walk Like a Man

Once his execution date has been set, though, Jefferson seems to find some kind of calm and start acting more like a human than a hog. He is still trapped in the past, because it's pretty inescapable given the circumstances, but he's starting to come back from the terrible place he had been in. When he finds out that his old pal Gable had a baby he reveals some of his memories:

"Old Gable," he said, and smiled to himself. "Got hisself a baby, got hisself a baby." Then I saw the face change. He was no longer smiling but staring at the wall. "We was supposed to go hunting that day."
[. . .] He was remembering the day he was supposed to go into the swamp with Gable but instead had ended up with Brother and Bear at the liquor store.

You can almost see the wheels turning, processing the way that his whole life has changed—and been ruined—by one chance decision. He knows it isn't fair, but he has somehow figured out a way to deal with the unfairness without letting it take away his humanity.

Whatever Jefferson finds within himself that lets him move past being an "old hog" and lets him live out his last days like a human being really inspires Grant—it gives Grant hope that change is possible, even if it is extremely difficult and has all the odds stacked against it.

Jefferson really starts getting somewhere when he starts writing down his thoughts in the notebook Mr. Wiggins brought him. The last words he writes show the complete transformation he has made:

good by mr wigin tell them im strong tell them im a man good by mr wigin im gon ax paul if he can bring you this
sincely jefferson

Even though his spelling and grammar leave a lot to be desired, Jefferson at the time of his death hardly resembles the dude acting like a hog from the beginning of the book. He has formed a meaningful connection with another person, Mr. Wiggins, and also has found his own voice.

Even though Mr. Wiggins is the one that was designated to help Jefferson change, it seems that the real work, the real change and evolution, happen between Jefferson and himself. Mr. Wiggins was a facilitator—he allowed that self-reflection to happen. Mr. Wiggins brought him the notebook, but it was Jefferson that picked up the pencil on his own and started writing down his thoughts.

The novel shows us that change isn't about one person forcing others to become better; it's about one person reflecting on their own situation and deciding to become better, by themselves. A Lesson Before Dying suggests that these little, individual decisions might even add up to a sea change in society.

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