A Lesson Before Dying

by: Ernest J. Gaines

Symbols

Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.

The Notebook

The notebook represents Jefferson’s reconnection with his humanity, a reconciliation facilitated by Grant. By writing down his thoughts, Jefferson reflects upon his position in an unjust world and begins to think seriously about his life. The notebook also symbolizes the reciprocal friendship between Grant and Jefferson. Grant gives Jefferson the notebook, symbolizing his desire to teach Jefferson and help Jefferson teach himself. Jefferson writes in the notebook as if writing a letter to Grant, which suggests that Jefferson looks to Grant for guidance even when alone in his cell. Finally, the notebook symbolizes hope for future collaboration not just between blacks, but between blacks and whites—for Paul, the white deputy, delivers the book to Grant and asks to shake Grant’s hand.

The Chair

When it arrives in a large black truck, the chair in which Jefferson must die evokes many different reactions from people in the town. The truck drives slowly through the town, and everyone comes out to see it. Some fear the chair. Some become nauseous looking at it or thinking about it. Some treat it with great care and hesitate to joke about it. Others, specifically white men, joke about using it to warn black men to watch their steps. The chair symbolizes the violence of the unjust system that convicted Jefferson. It also represents the fear that racism instills.

The Church

The church symbolizes the hope that society will change. Miss Emma, Tante Lou, and Reverend Ambrose believe that God helps them—they use this belief to comfort themselves in the face of prejudice and injustice. In the reverend’s eyes, when Grant unconditionally rejects God and the church, he rejects the possibility that anything can be done to improve society. Reverend Ambrose confronts Grant in Chapter 27, asking him, “You think a man can’t kneel and stand?” The reverend suggests that kneeling before God does not humble people, it gives them dignity. When Grant recognizes that his rejection of the church stems from his own inability to engage actively with his community, he moves closer to a -dignified existence.

Food and Drink

Characters use food to symbolize their affection for one another. Miss Emma brings food for Jefferson; when he refuses to eat it, Grant takes the refusal seriously as an expression of Jefferson’s anger at his family and begs him to eat in order to show Miss Emma that he loves her. When Grant becomes angry with Tante Lou, he insults her by refusing to eat her cooking. Grant offers to bring Jefferson ice cream and asks his students to gather peanuts and pecans as a gift for Jefferson. At the pivotal moment when Jefferson starts teaching Grant, he offers Grant food as a way of showing his -affection.