SAE Coming of Age
October 10, 1996
A Lesson Before Dying
In A Lesson Before Dying, Mr. Grant Wiggins' life crises were the center of the story.
Although he was supposed to make Jefferson into a man, he himself became more of one as a
result. Not to say that Jefferson was not in any way transformed from the "hog" he was into an
actual man, but I believe this story was really written about Mr. Wiggins.
Mr. Wiggins improved as a person greatly in this book, and that helped his relationships
with other people for the most part. At the start of the book, he 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 I didn't see Jefferson doing
often at all in this book.
"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, not a hog. As far as the story tells, he never showed any sort of emotion
before the shooting or after up until that point. A hog can't show emotions, but a man can. There
is the epiphany of the story, where 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 like he should be a hog and always obey, yet she wanted him to
make a hog into a man. His Aunt was not a very nice person, she would only show kindness
towards people who shared many of her views, and therefore was probably a very hard person to
get along with.
The way Mr. Wiggins regarded his relationships most likely would have been different
were he white. 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 took place in the present, it would be much different. In fact, there probably would have
not even been a book because in the modern day, and honest and just jury would have found him
innocent due to the lack of evidence.
It wasn't really clear what sort of situation Mr. Wiggins was in regarding money, but he
could not have been too well off because he needed to borrow money to purchase a radio for
Jefferson, and he commented about the Rainbow Cafe: "When I was broke, I could always get a
meal and pay later, and the same went for the bar." I suppose he had enough money to get by,
but not much extra. As the book progresses he probably had less money to work with due to the
money he was spending to buy the radio, comic books, and other items for Jefferson.
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 the less intelligent 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 story. After the police found
Jefferson at the liquor store with the dead bodies all around, he was of course taken to trial and
the times being what they were, he was convicted with very little doubt that he would be found
innocent. 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."
At first Mr. Wiggins was not very concerned about Jefferson, he just wanted to pass the
time he had to spend with him, but then after a while he began to think of what it would feel like
to be a dead man, and what he could do to make the time Jefferson had left to be the best they
could for him. This was the greatest achievement Mr. Wiggins accomplished in the entire book.
He managed to be able to have pity upon Jefferson without 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
characters featured in the story. Vivian met new people and increased the quality of her
relationship with Mr. Wiggins, Miss Emma finally got to see someone stand for her, Tante Lou
learned that she had a decent nephew after all, and Jefferson got off of his four legs and stood.