A Lesson Before Dying: Metaphor Analysis

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Coffee, and food in general, is present throughout the story and comes to represent community. The gesture of offering someone coffee is a metaphor for inviting the recipient into a community or for reinforcing the bonds within a community. Readers should remember the setting of the novel: post-World War II United States. Rationing of food had only recently ended; and coffee, especially among the people who live in the quarter, is a valued commodity. Even today, sharing coffee (or a meal) is a common way to try out a new relationship or maintain an existing one. Grant refuses coffee throughout the novel—Lou’s coffee, Inez’s coffee, Emma’s coffee. He never explains his rejection of the gesture, but readers see that it represents his desire to stand outside the community rather than reintegrate himself. Vivian, by contrast, on her first visit to the quarter, politely accepts coffee even though she does not want it. Jefferson’s refusal to eat the food Emma has specially prepared for him is another instance of this metaphor. For both Grant and Jefferson, the moment when they take up their roles in their community is accompanied by their acceptance of food: Grant lets Thelma make him a plate of food at the Rainbow Club when he is getting together the money for the radio, and Jefferson eats and shares with Grant the food that Emma sent him on the day he decides to face his death bravely.
The Cell Window
Jefferson’s jail cell is sparse, bare, and old; the fixtures leak and rust, and the floor and walls are bare. But a high window lets Jefferson see a rectangle’s worth of the outside world. Readers have to remember that, from the day of his sentencing, Jefferson does not step outside again during his life. He “exercises” by walking in the day room. Even on the day of his death, he merely goes from one tiny room, his cell, to another. So the window stands for the world to which Jefferson has lost access. He spends a lot of time looking out the window, and what he can see is the branches of a tree and the sky. These also mark time for Jefferson as they change with the seasons. One of the last statements that Jefferson records in his notebook, on the morning of his execution, is “sky blu blu.” That blue sky may represent to him an escape from his imprisonment or, toward the end of his life, heaven.
The Radio
The radio that Grant gives Jefferson suggests different ideas to different characters. For Jefferson, it is the voice of the outside world; it is a virtual community. Since the day he was cut off from his real community, he has lived mostly with his own thoughts and has become haggard and withdrawn. The radio brings other voices into his cell and reconnects him to people. Reverend Ambrose and Lou, and to some extent Emma, on the other hand, view the “sin box” as a tempting and dangerous distraction from what Jefferson should be doing: getting his soul ready for death. However, to the people who contributed money to buy the radio, to Paul Bonin, and to the other prisoners, the radio is a small mercy in the midst of suffering—a lifeline for a man whose life is in the hands of others already.
The Rainbow Club
Although its name suggests otherwise, the Rainbow Club is a bar where Grant can tuck himself away in a booth and hide in semi-darkness. The club is Grant’s escape from the burden of his responsibilities; there he can think, have a beer, and see Vivian. Because the club is in Bayonne, Grant gets to drive away from the quarter, from the church where he teaches school and from his aunt’s house where he lives, when he goes there. Rainbows are richly connoted in literature and lore already: They can be bridges to fantasy lands or promises of renewal; fond beliefs about pots of gold and happy endings are associated with them. For Grant, the Rainbow Club is the closest he can get to the life he thinks he wants. But the name of the club is also ironic because it does not in fact provide Grant with the escape he wants. The club is the scene of the fight with the bricklayers; and on the night before Jefferson’s execution, when Grant goes to get away from the talk, he finds that people there are talking about Jefferson, too. The ugly, problem-ridden world forces its way into Grant’s thoughts, even in the place that had been his refuge.

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