A Lesson Before Dying

by: Ernest J. Gaines

Motifs

Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.

Small Displays of Power

Gaines shows how racism pervades every nook and cranny of society, grinding down black people in everyday interactions. Black people are made to feel their inferiority when they are made to wait at a white person’s leisure, forced to enter through the back door of a white person’s house, or treated shabbily by a white salesperson. When Grant must enter Pichot’s house through the back door, it is a symbolic reminder of the days of slavery, when slaves could never approach the front door. When angry, the black Reverend Ambrose wields his power over Grant by calling him “boy,” using one of the pejorative terms usually employed by racist whites when referring to grown black men. Gaines suggests that such small moments of subjugation are impossible to shake off because of their cumulative oppressive effect.

Christian Imagery

Jefferson becomes a Christ figure as the novel progresses. Unjustly tried and convicted, the simple-minded Jefferson dies a martyr. The mayor attempts to dispel some of the associations of Jefferson with Christ by setting the execution date for two weeks after Easter, but his awareness of the imagery simply reinforces its power. In trying to move Jefferson to die with dignity, the cynical Grant begins to think of him as a Christ figure—repenting in front of Jefferson and saying that he feels lost—but should Jefferson show him the way, he will find salvation, if not as a Christian then as a caring and active member of the community. Grant tells Vivian that only Jefferson can break the cycle of failed black men; at the end of the novel, Grant begs Jefferson’s forgiveness as if speaking to a savior.