Symbolism is a major aspect used in most literal writings. It is thereby the use of symbols to relate ideas by providing a symbolic meaning different from what it may mean literally. Symbols are of different form. Natural components or actions may symbolize other aspects of life. Gaines has used involved several aspects of symbolism in A Lesson before Dying. He uses symbols like butterfly, hog, the church, and the flag to air out his mind. The book is a setting of the 1940s. It was a period when the southern part of United States entirely depended on agriculture hence most symbols used were related to the primitive life of that time. Discussed are some of the symbols that were used in the book.
Gaines introduces a butterfly to symbolize transformation. Grant fails to attend Jeffersons execution. He asks his students to kneel down and pray while he goes for a walk. Grant chooses to sit under a pecan tree. While under the tree, Grant sees a yellow butterfly with dark specks in a hill of bull grass. Questions of what brought the creature to that place start puzzling him. Grant can see it opening and closing its wings then it flies away (Gaines 40-41). From his interpretation, he believes that the butterfly represents the death of Jefferson when it flies away.
The black specks on a yellow butterfly may symbolize the beauty of life despite some blemishes. Due to his sad mood, Grant wonders out loudly what might have brought the butterfly to his attention. He feels that the act of the butterfly opening and closing its wings is a sign of goodbye wave. He believes that Jefferson might have passed on. Generally, the butterfly is a sign of transformation (Barbara). Grant transforms from a cynic to a man of hope. On the other hand, Jefferson turns into a man as he has passed on to a lovely thing and not just a hog he is called by the defense attorney.
A hog is another aspect of symbolism Gaines has introduced in the poem. Jeffersons defense attorney uses a nice offensive part of reverse psychology. In a way, he tries to explain to the jury that they are right on not considering Jefferson, a man. He thus argues that it may not be worthwhile to kill such an incomplete creature. The attorney says it as why he would just put a hog in an electric chair like the one in the courtroom. This statement carries a lot of weight on the jury and the in attendance. Miss Emma is among those heartfelt by the statement and makes sure that Jefferson does not die a hog but a man. She asks them to let Jefferson go to the chair and not to kill him as a hog (Gaines 44-48).
The hog image is mostly used in conjunction with Jefferson. The towns major industries were slaughter houses for hogs; a saw mill and a cement factory (Gaines 10). A hog is a castrated male pig meant for meat production. Calling a human a hog could have thus held much weight to the people. People, as well as Jefferson himself, refer to like as a hog. It signifies a horrible messed-up thinking that turned to slavery. Jefferson wonders in writing why people do not knock him on the head if he is a hog or stab him like they do to one. When he is time for execution comes, the hog disappears as he walks to the electric chair. His last words ask those present to tell Nannan that he walk (Gaines 53). In a way, he has proven to the racists that he is beyond a hog they referred him as.
Gaines, Ernest J. A Lesson before Dying. New York: Library of Congress in Cataloging-in-Publication Date, 1933. Print. http://schoolsites.schoolworld.com/schools/MiamiDadeNW/files/filesystem/A%20Lesson%20Before%20Dying_Grade%209.pdf
Stanners, Barbara. Ernest J. Gaines' A Lesson before Dying: Study Notes for VCE English. Seven Hills, N.S.W.: Five Senses Education, 2005. Print.
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