A Lesson Before Dying
In "A Lesson Before Dying" by Ernest J. Gaines, Mr. Grant
Wiggins' life starts off as being the center of the story.
He was planning to leave his hometown, but is talked into
staying and teaching Jefferson. His goal was to make
Jefferson into a "man", however, he himself became more of
one as a result. Mr. Wiggins improved as a person in this
book, and this helped him form better relationships with
At the start of the book, Mr. Wiggins more or less hated
Jefferson, but after a while he became his friend and
probably the only person Jefferson felt he could trust. The
turning point in their relationship was the one visit in
which Jefferson told Mr. Wiggins that he wanted a gallon of
ice cream, and that he never had enough ice cream in his
whole life. At that point Jefferson confided something in
Mr. Wiggins, something that he rarely did. "I saw a slight
smile come to his face, and it was not a bitter smile. Not
bitter at all"; this is the first instance in which
Jefferson breaks his somber barrier and shows emotions. At
that point he became a "man".
As far as the story tells, he never showed any sort of
emotion before the shooting or after it, until that point.
A "pig"can't show emotions, but a man can. There is the
epiphany of the story. Mr. Wiggins realizes that the
purpose of life is to help make the world a better place,
and at that time he no longer minds visiting Jefferson and
begins becoming his friend.
Mr. Wiggins' relationship with his Aunt declined in this
story, although it was never very strong. His Aunt treated
him very poorly and expected him to always show obedience.
She also wanted him to be manly. His Aunt was not a very
nice person, and would only show kindness towards people
who shared many of her views.
Mr. Wiggins feels, and rightly so, that several white men
try to mock or make a fool of him throughout the story.
This was a time of racial discrimination with much bigotry,
so if the story had taken place in the present, it would
have been much different. In fact, there probably would not
even have been a book because in modern times, an honest
and just jury would have found him innocent due to the lack
It wasn't really clear what Mr. Wiggins' financial
situation was, but he could not have been too well off
because he needed to borrow money to purchase a radio for
Jefferson. His comment about how he was treated at the
Rainbow Cafe also seemed to indicate that he did not have
much money: "When I was broke, I could always get a meal
and pay later, and the same went for the bar." As the
book progresses he probably had even less money as he was
buying the radio, comic books, and other items for
Mr. Wiggins seemed to be well respected by the community,
and he felt superior to other African Americans because he
was far more educated than they were. That makes Mr.
Wiggins guilty of not practicing what he preaches, although
Jefferson probably made it clearer to him that even the
less intelligent people are still humans with feelings.
At the start of the book, Mr. Wiggins did not understand
this. He went to visit Jefferson because Miss Emma and his
Aunt more or less forced him to do it. He really had no
motivation except that he would be shunned by his Aunt if
he did not comply. The whole process of Mr. Wiggins'
development and the plot of this story both spawn from the
crimes of two characters with no other relevance to the
After the police found Jefferson at the liquor store with
the dead bodies all around him, he was of course taken
prisoner. The times being what they were, his trial was
not conducted fairly and Jefferson, the black man, was
convicted of the crime. Miss Emma, his godmother was
afraid that he would die a " hog" and have lived a
meaningless life. She wanted him "Not to crawl to the white
man, but to get up and walk to him at the end." When Mr.
Wiggins visited Jefferson in prison, he was not very
concerned about him and just wanted the time to pass
quickly. After a while, he began to think of what it would
feel like to be a dead man, and what he could do to help
This was the greatest achievement Mr. Wiggins accomplished
in the entire book. He managed to have pity for Jefferson
without having empathy. After the point in which he
discussed the ice cream and the radio with Jefferson, and
Jefferson admitted for the first time that he was more than
a "hog', Mr. Wiggins truly cared.
Mr. Wiggins developed greatly during the course of this
story, along with other main characters. For example,
Vivian met new people and increased the quality of her
relationship with Mr. Wiggins, Miss Emma finally got to see
someone stand up for her, Tante Lou learned that she had a
decent nephew after all, and Jefferson got off his " four"
legs and stood erect.
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