Cultural Memory, Legal Lynching, and the Death Penalty in Ernest J. Gaines’s A Lesson Before Dying

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In the United States, the death penalty has served as a court-sanctioned form of vengeance in the name of justice. Firmly embedded in the American penal code and psyche, it has endured since the execution of Captain George Kendall for theft in 1608. After hearing the arguments and pronouncing the verdict, the court demonstrates the state’s power over marginal others, legitimizing gruesome forms of institutionalized violence and the taking of human lives. The convicted are considered enemies of society or “Others” who can be eliminated without retribution, inasmuch as the courts pass sentences on the guilty or seemingly guilty and merely uphold the law. This actual carrying out of the sentence takes place––apart from a few witnesses––behind closed doors. By covering the death penalty from the courtroom to the electric chair, Ernest J. Gaines seeks to put execution back into the public eye. The primary focus of A Lesson Before Dying is not on the formal presentation of arguments against the death penalty, as in a number of other novels critical of capital punishment, such as Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood (1966) or Helen Prejean’s Dead Man Walking (1993). Instead, Gaines’s novel powerfully shows the effects of the death sentence on the convicted, his loved ones, and a black community in the Jim Crow South. Through minimalist descriptions of death penalty rituals and the execution, Gaines masterfully engages the reader. In this essay, I will position the two main characters’ struggles with legal lynching and the death penalty in the socio-historical context of the late 1940s. I will address the question of how the memory of slavery and black experience in the South factor into individual and collective responses to the denial of justice for blacks. Further interlinking themes, such as human dignity, responsibility, and masculinity, will also be treated. Although A Lesson Before Dying is set during the era of segregation, its relevance has not diminished since it first appeared in 1993.
Original languageEnglish
JournalLiteratur in Wissenschaft und Unterricht
Volume50 (2017)
Issue number3/4
Pages (from-to)155-170
Number of pages16
Publication statusPublished - 2020

Bibliographical note

ISBN: 978-3-8260-7027-3. Theme issue: African Americans: Free at last? Equal at last?