The Evolution of Grant in Ernest J. Gaines' A Lesson Before Dying

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After the Civil War ended, many blacks and whites, especially in the South, continued living as if nothing had changed with regards to the oppression and poor treatment of African Americans. Narrator Grant Wiggins, of Ernest J. Gaines' A Lesson Before Dying, possesses a similar attitude toward race relations. Through his experiences with a young man wrongly accused of murder, Grant transforms from a pessimistic, hopeless, and insensitive man into a more selfless and compassionate human being who can see the possibility of change in relations between whites and blacks.

Grant Wiggins, one of the few black men of the time to have a college education, lives with his aunt on a plantation just outside Bayonne, Louisiana in 1948, and teaches
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For the majority of the novel, Grant denies that he can help Jefferson in any way at all. When his aunt and Miss Emma request that Grant go talk to Jefferson to teach him that he is a man, Grant explains, "It is only a matter of weeks, maybe a couple of months – but he's already dead…All I can do is try to keep the others from ending up like this…There's nothing I can do anymore, nothing any of us can do anymore" (14). Before receiving extreme pressure from his aunt to comply, Grant goes so far as to refuse to even attempt to help Jefferson. With this attitude that "There's nothing [he] can do anymore," Grant can, in fact, do nothing. Even though Grant correctly recognizes the fact that Jefferson will die in a short while, he fails to acknowledge the possibility of working through the injustices to make a difference. Grant, himself, feels stuck in his environment – he is "just running in place" there – yet he feels a sort of responsibility for his people and an attraction to the town, and cannot bring himself to leave (15). In order to "try to keep the others from ending up like" Jefferson, Grant wants to help his students, but he fails to respect them (14). If Grant has a bad day, he takes out his anger on his students, slapping them on the back of the head for playing with an insect, or sending them to the corner for an hour
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