Compare the use and effect of the words Monster and Hog in the books Monster, by Myers and A Lesson Before Dying, by Gaines.
n. One who inspires horror or disgust… a creature combining parts from various animal or human forms; frightening, legendary.
n. A castrated boar; swine, or a sheep up to the age of one year.
The words Monster and Hog uttered by attorneys in A Lesson Before Dying and Monster were used seemingly to manipulate the jury, instead they became the inception of the stories and pivotal symbols that the main characters focus on to grow and change.
The plot of A Lesson Before Dying begins with Miss Emma’s wish; “I don’t want them to kill no hog,” she said, “I want a man to go to that chair on his own two feet.” Her face showed all the pain she had gone through. (13, A Lesson Before Dying , Gaines) Jefferson’s defense attorney, in an attempt to render him motiveless in a robbery and murder says, “What you see here is a thing that acts on command… Why I would just as soon put a hog on that [electric] chair as this” ( 7,8). By dehumanizing Jefferson he encapsulates the life of every Negro person in the parish. The task before Jefferson is to withstand this myth by walking to his undeserved execution with a full measure of humanity, literally standing up to the lies lived out every day on the plantation. For a Negro do this was automatically a death sentence- but Jefferson was already condemned! His task was to take a forgone prejudicial act and elevate himself to the position of a martyr for the edification of the entire community and for all that would read his story later. Grant tells Jefferson, “You can be bigger than anyone who has ever lived on this plantation” (193). Grant uses an analogy that Jefferson and Steve must enact within their souls. He describes Mr. Farrell’s slingshot handles. “…it came from an old piece of wood. …And that’s all we are Jefferson, all of us on this earth, a piece of drifting wood, until we—each one of us individually—decide to become something else” (193).
In Monster by Myers the prosecution labels the main character a monster. The District Attorney seeks to clump all criminals into a group that is not human– a group that requires imprisonment or death. Steve, in depths of shame and fear takes this on. ‘I’ll write it down in the notebook they let me keep. I’ll call it what the lady who is the prosecutor called me. MONSTER” (4,5 Monster, Myers). As Steve listens to the D.A., Petrocelli, his attorney must insist that he internally withdraw from the monsters and show himself to be a man. It is up to Steve to separate himself from monstrous criminality. If he cannot, then no one else will.
This process of denying the belief of the community, of denying condemning evidence facing them, these young men begins each young man wearing the persona that is put upon them by the attorneys. In one scene in A Lesson Before Dying we find Jefferson on all fours, his head in a bag snuffling and eating. Sitting up and using his hands would be for ‘youmans’ ( 83 A Lesson Before Dying). In Monster Steve writes monster repeatedly on the page as he takes notes of his trial ( 24). These two are immersed in the accusation. Through consistent ministrations by instructors they pull away from emotion and begin to consider who they are. Through the mirror provided by writing, each man works through his thoughts to the truth of his humanity. When they abandon reaction and move into an intellectual life they assert reality and resist the accusations. They must step back from the convenient, inaccurate characterizations placed on them by lawyers seeking to influence jury perceptions who most profoundly affect Steve and Jefferson.
Both of these young men must transcend the reactionary responses that the community relies on and come to a creative place, reinventing themselves on their own terms. They must face truth. Ultimately Steve and Jefferson recreate their self-image and grow in the process. The question I have is, does the prosecutor face the truth? Does the community?
Gaines, Earnest, A Lesson Before Dying.
Myers, Walter Dean, Monster.