Recently, I read a post where a couple of experienced bloggers explained what made them continue to read certain books. Others they would abandon for various reasons, but some held them to the end. It made me consider why I choose to finish certain books, and some I toss backward right in the middle of them.
I must identify with the protagonist. I must sense in their strengths and weaknesses their humanity, and therefore my own. I must leave a book knowing more about the world and myself. The protagonist doesn’t have to be anyone who anything like me in physicality, race, gender, age, or culture. I must, only, see me when I read; I must see us all.
I recently read a short novel by Earnest J. Gaines called “A Lesson Before Dying.” I don’t know if there’s something about first-person narratives that aids our identification with the main character, but I felt immediate recognition with Grant Wiggins. Why? He is not your typical good guy.
The novel centers on this black elementary school teacher in the poor South during the oppressing Jim Crow days. A big case comes up: one of Grant’s acquaintances (Jefferson) gets caught up with the bad crowd and ends up the only one alive after a failed robbery attempt and a shoot-out. Naturally, the all-white jury finds him guilty of murdering the white store owner, although he was innocent. and he is sentenced to death. This is all business as usual, though. The real kicker comes from Jefferson’s state appointed lawyer, who claims that Jefferson should be set free because he knows no better than a pig and it would be wrong to kill an ignorant pig, right?
We’re talking about a human being here. We realize that there was not only something wrong with the legal system back then, but also the prevailing mindset of an entire generation of Americans (or pick any culture that dehumanizes others because they are different). So, Grant’s auntie and Jefferson’s grandmother tries to convince Grant Wiggins to teach Jefferson that he is not a stupid animal, but a man, before he dies. A hero would’ve taken on this assignment with courage and gusto, but Grant Wiggins is not a hero. He’s a cynic. He wants nothing to do with any of it.
That’s what got me.
Grant lived in a world where idealism could not thrive. As a teacher, as a young black man, he’s witnessed generations repeatedly fall into the same death-courting traps. No sign of relenting appears on the horizon. A strong, powerful system prevented his people from rising above their abject state, and he watched his people flounder in it. Once again, another type of man would’ve found the impetuous to fight the system, or at least do what he could to help the individual people around him. Not Grant. He’s over-educated, unhappy, frustrated, simmering with resentment, completely insensitive to the needs and desires of the very people he cares about.
He was human. It’s what happens to us when we really believe in something, when we really want something, when we want to correct a prevailing injustice, and we can’t. We are hurt. We stop caring. We become self-centered, sarcastic, cynical. The truth is, though, the worse we become reflects how much we initially cared. The point of this novel, then, was not so much the education of Jefferson (who ends up the real hero of the novel) but the education of Grant, and his getting his concern, love, and humanity back.
Cynicism is not, then, a position of strength; it is a scared, defensive position. It is not courage; it’s diametrically opposed to courage. The hurt person becomes afraid to care too much, afraid to be engulfed by the pain of fighting for a cause that will fight you back, make you bleed. So, what’s the cure? It begins, Gaines seems to show us, with trying to teach or convince others of some truth that you’re struggling to believe, that you’ve given up on.
Perhaps it works even when the other person does not respond. I tried the cure. I was attracted to a person who I believed was just like me: hurt, defensive, cynical. Even now, I believe that we loved each other on some level. I didn’t trust relationships, though. Growing up with the emotional dearth that I did, I initially had no hopes. But I begin to think, if I could just convince him that it was possible to trust again then maybe I would begin to believe, too. He could not respond. I was disappointed, but I realized that I had grown. I believed again. It will still be a long, hard road, but I would make it.
Even though I have moved past our relationship, I don’t blame him for not responding. I respect the hurts of others. I only pray that one day he feels the hope and happiness that I feel now that I’ve let go of cynicism and embraced courage and empathy.
What about you? What qualities of your favorite characters have you identified with?