A Lesson Before Dying and the Power of Sex

I’ve been reading Ernest Gaines’ excellently written A Lesson Before Dying lately. It’s a depressing story–an innocent black man in the late 1940s is the only surviving witness of a liquor store shoot-out. During his trial, his defense lawyer, in an attempt to make the jury find him innocent, tells them that putting him to death would be like putting a hog to death. The remainder of the story is about a teacher’s attempt to make Jefferson go to the chair “like a man.”

The teacher–Grant Wiggins–frequently visits a lover who is separated from her husband. Though readers mostly only see the two drinking together, it’s implied that a large part of their relationship involves sex. At the climax of their story, however, the lover (Vivian) expresses something “she had been holding… in a long time” (209):

“What is me?” she said. “Tell me, what is me?”


“No, tell me,” she said. “Who am I? Who are you? Who are we? Tell me.”

“All I know is I love you,” I said.

“That’s not enough,” she said. “What is love?”


“What is it?” she asked. “That bed? That’s love?”


“No. Give me some answers. Give me some answers–today. Today I want answers.”

“Honey, I love you.”

“That’s no answer. I don’t know what you mean by love. That bed?… What is love? Tell me what love is.”

Initially I didn’t like this whole strand of the story, but I believe there’s some deep, biblical truth in this scene. Sex outside of marriage slowly undoes us; it unravels us. Sex is such a powerful thing, such a complete vulnerability; that’s why it’s got to be kept within the security of a marriage between a man and a woman.

Unfortunately, too many depictions of sex outside of marriage are truly fantasy. As a result, there are many Vivians out there–people who “followed their heart” at the cost of their identity.


About davestuartjr
Dave Stuart Jr. is a full-time teacher who writes about becoming better, saner teachers at He is a follower of Jesus Christ, a husband to Crystal, and a father to Hadassah, Laura, and Marlena.

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