Ernest Gaines gives many symbols in the book A Lesson Before Dying. [underline titles! Yes, Bedford says you can italicize but you’re supposed to do what the prof prefers-I prefer the underline. Besides, in handwritten work, you can’t italicize!] He signals symbolic meaning to them by using emphasis and repetition. The meaning is clarified by giving the true representation in a casual way. Symbolism is the voice of unspoken feeling. The food, ice cream, and radio are symbolic to show the feelings of and for Jefferson that don’t need to be said because they are expressed through these inanimate objects.
The food taken to Jefferson on each visit is a symbol of the love his godmother has for him. She feels this is the best way for her to show her love to him. Miss Emma gets upset during the first visit when Jefferson said, “Chicken, dirt, it don’t matter” because it is as if he is saying to her that even her love for him doesn’t matter anymore (73; ch.9). Grant lies to Miss Emma about the visit he takes on his own to visit Jefferson. Jefferson shows Grant how a hog would eat, getting down on his hands and knees, putting his head in the bag, and even snorting like a hog (83; ch.11). Instead of telling Miss Emma exactly what happened, Grant was very general in his description of the visit (98-99; ch.13).
He knew that if he even let on what really happened Miss Emma would be truly upset. Not only because of the way he acted, but because of the way he treated the food, the love, Miss Emma had given to him. In chapter 24, Jefferson and Grant had a discussion that changed Jefferson’s whole attitude. Jefferson had sat down with his godmother, the minister, Tante Lou, and Grant, during one of the last visits for Miss Emma, and ate the entire meal. Grant describes the joy he saw in “Jefferson’s nannan as he ate the gumbo she had cooked especially for him, and how he said goodbye when he had to go” (196; ch.25). This had pleased her so much to see because she now saw that he was excepting accepting her love and support for him.
The ice cream is representation for all things Jefferson was never able to have or have enough of, whether it was because of racial issues or poverty. Jefferson and Grant were discussing what it would be like on “that” day, and if there was anything special Jefferson wanted. He replied with a genuine smile on his face:
“I want me a whole gallona ice cream, […] A whole gallona vanilla ice cream. Eat it with a pot spoon. My last supper. A whole gallona ice cream. Ain’t never had enough ice cream. Never had more than a nickel cone. Used to run out in the quarter and hand the ice cream man ny nickel, and he give me a little scoop on a cone. But now I’m go’n get me a whole gallon. That’s what I want—a whole gallon. Eat it with a pot spoon.” (170; ch.22).[Period BEFORE the citation for block quotes]
Jefferson was smiling. He had something pleasant to look forward to. The thought of having all the ice cream he wanted was as if he was getting everything he had ever wanted.
The radio was symbolic for interaction with the outside world that Jefferson wasn’t able to have in the jail cell. Grant saw it as a diversion for Jefferson; the radio kept him from thinking he was a hog. While inside the jail cell, the only interaction that Jefferson receives is the visits he gets from his godmother, the minister, Tante Lou, and Grant. They don’t really discuss anything that is happening to the people on the outside of the bars and walls. The radio lets Jefferson hear what is going on and also allows him to listen to music which he wasn’t allowed to do before he was locked up. “These old people, you know—all music except church music is sinning music” (171; ch.22). Jefferson was never going to see the outside world again so the radio was a little window into the world that he would no longer know.
Although there are many symbols in the novel A Lesson Before Dying, the food, ice cream, and radio are the most important. The symbols are voices of unspoken feelings. Sometimes feelings are difficult to share or describe. Through emphasis and repetition symbols can do all the sharing of feelings for the characters.
Works Cited [separate page for Works Cited!]
Gaines, Ernest J. A Lesson Before Dying. New York: Knopf, 1993.
You’ve done a good job of analysis here-showing how what you see as symbols represents the unspoken feeling.
Note the few comments throughout.