The Centrality of Community
The novel’s title suggests that someone has to learn something before the day of the execution. As readers start the novel, they’re led to believe that that someone is Jefferson, who must learn that he is a man before he dies. But as the story develops, it becomes clear that Grant also has a lesson to learn. The lessons both men learn concern the importance of community in their lives and the role each must play in that community. In fact, the idea that people need to exist within a supportive community is a theme that runs through much of Gaines’s fiction.
Grant and Jefferson both suffer because they are outside of their community. Grant has chosen this outsider status, but it keeps him from committing himself—to the schoolchildren, to his family and neighbors, even to Vivian. His reasons for holding himself apart are valid: He fears that his community will use him up and destroy him as he has seen it do to other men. And in some ways the communal demands on Grant are invasive (as in his conflict with his aunt and the reverend over church and God) and humiliating (as in the indignities he has to endure so that Emma’s plans will work). Community is not perfect, but it is part of human experience. Grant withers without it and begins to thrive only when he starts to work with others, notably, when he needs cash to buy the radio.
Jefferson has been torn away from his community and imprisoned; the isolation from everyone except jail personnel has a terrible impact on him. Gradually, however, through the efforts of Emma, Grant, and Paul, Jefferson is reconnected to community—through the radio, through the gifts and then the visit of the children, which leaves him in tears, and through the news from the quarter and the visits of people from the quarter. Again, community has not been a perfect influence in Jefferson’s life. His association with Bear and Brother, in fact, resulted in the circumstances that led to his trial. Yet community gives Jefferson something to live and, in the end, die for.
The racist divide in the parish is a further interruption of community, yet there are hints that this centuries-old divide may eventually be healed as well. White characters in the novel sometimes surprise Grant by stepping across that divide, as Edna Guidry does on behalf of Emma and Lou and as Paul Bonin does by coming to know and admire Jefferson and desiring to be Grant’s friend. There is the possibility, at least, that a larger, fairer community encompassing blacks and whites may come to be in the future.
The Impact of the Individual
Grant, the novel’s narrator and protagonist, struggles with the external conflicts imposed on him by life in a poor neighborhood in the racially divided, pre-civil rights South. However, an internal conflict also presses on him. He does not know whether one person—whether he—can make a difference, especially in a society that discriminates against half its citizens. Why teach, if teaching won’t change the children’s life for the better? Why bother with difficult visits to Jefferson’s cell, if Jefferson is determined to stare at the wall and say nothing? Grant doubts his ability to make a difference, and the man who mentored him, Matthew Antoine, reinforces these doubts by confessing that he himself made no difference when he taught. “Just do the best you can,” he advises Grant. “But it won’t matter.” Because of his doubts, Grant becomes self-centered and self-preserving.
However, Grant himself is evidence that Antoine’s teaching did matter. It changed Grant, caused him to want to go to university, and drew him back to the quarter to teach. And though Grant may not realize it, the children are changing as he teaches them. Not only do they learn academic matters, but they are able to plan and carry out the Christmas program and act compassionately toward Jefferson. Jefferson, too, painfully and slowly responds to Grant. The radio does, as Grant hopes, bring the world to Jefferson, and the notebook does help him express and work through his thoughts and feelings. The hard work is Jefferson’s, but the teacher—Grant—set the assignment.
The novel closes with Grant going into the church to be with his students after the execution. How his experiences with Jefferson, the children, the reverend, Paul, and other characters will affect his future in the quarter is left to readers’ imaginations, but he has had an impact on his community. The novel seems to suggest that an individual cannot hope to change the world but can—and must—do what he or she can to better it.