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A Lesson Before Dying The abundance of situations in A Lesson Before Dying that provoke the analysis and correlation of communication theories make it difficult to select one example. However, I feel that when Grant finds himself watching his students saw wood outside causing him to reflect upon past visits with his old teacher, Matthew Antoine, is a particularly lucid example of both Symbolic Interaction Theory and Cognitive Dissonance Theory. The explanation of these theories in relation to this scenario will ultimately reveal the high level of awareness and intelligence in Grant, proving that he is a far superior being than he is given credit for. As West and Turner explain in their text, Introducing Communication Theory, Symbolic Interaction Theory is one explanation of what motivates people to act (2010). We assign meaning to people, things, and events, and our actions are based off of these symbolic meanings. Language is used to negotiate these agreed upon meanings in communication with others as well as self-talk, or private thought (West, & Turner, 2010). Additionally, Meade, creator of this theory, introduced the three key elements of Symbolic Interaction, mind, self, and society (West, & Turner, 2010), which prompts my example in A Lesson Before Dying that seeks to relate this theory. In the scenario previously mentioned, Grant is engaging in the first key element of symbolic interaction- Mind. By watching his students saw wood and considering how his teacher did the exact same thing for several years prior, Grant is role taking by symbolically placing himself in the imagined self of his teacher. As his thoughts continue, Grant is reminded of what Matthew often told his class: They would all end up dying violently or becoming vicious beasts, thus initiating the Pygmalion Effect within

2 the second key element of symbolic interaction. The Pygmalion Effect suggests that one’s actions are governed by the expectation that someone else has for them (West, & Turner, 2010). Because Matthew treated his students in the way that he predicted they would turn out, they fulfilled this expectation and did die violently, or became criminals and vicious beasts. The same is true with Grant, his teacher told him that he was the exception, and treated him as such, going to great lengths to educate him as much as he could. Grant responded to this by becoming a superior student and going on to higher education at a University. In both situations, the importance of meaning is evident, and is one of the fundamentals of Symbolic Interaction Theory (West, & Turner, 2010). Grant’s awareness of the mind and self distinguish him from the rest of his peers, though he is not recognized for this as an adult. When Grant describes his past visits with Matthew once he had retired and Grant had replaced him, their every conversation alludes to the importance of meaning. They are both aware and understand what is said, and what is meant. Without this consensus, the meaning of their conversation would be lost. Additionally, in the conversations they have, Matthew provokes dissonance within Grant. Their conversations often revolve around Matthew wishing he would have left, but did not, and that Grant should have left, and still can. This displays perfectly an example of Cognitive Dissonance Theory, a theory that realizes the human desire to seek consistency, and that we will take action in order to reduce psychological inconsistencies (West, & Turner, 2010). Grant may not be particularly happy with his job, but he makes himself believe that he has a purpose, and justifies his reasoning for coming back and staying in the town he grew up in. As Matthew brings up the topic of leaving the town and why Grant should go, cognitive

3 dissonance is created as Grant begins to question why he is still there, and if he is even making a difference in his students’ lives. In order to bring back a state of consonance, Grant changes his thoughts and beliefs, and begins to consider leaving and starting a new life somewhere else with Vivian. Rather than changing his beliefs to reflect his actions in staying in the same town, Grant evaluates what is truly the better option, changes his beliefs to match it, and then begins to take action to bring consistency back within himself. Many of the people that live in the town justify why they have stayed there and have made themselves believe it is what they want. This parallel shows Grant’s progression towards self-betterment, in which awareness and intelligence are necessary components. I find these examples compelling due to the discovery of their accessibility in everyday life. Often masked in a different context, similar situations occur all the time and I find it interesting to consider how these issues are dealt with. Frequently, concepts are easily understood when they can be related to on a personal level. I can relate to some of the issues Grant is going through, and am surprised that these theories are also applicable to situations I have been in. In A Lesson Before Dying, the students and Matthew are not Grant’s only dilemmas, but they are an important piece in his personal journey. Through the lens of Symbolic Interaction Theory and Cognitive Dissonance Theory, we can better appreciate the thoughts and struggles Grant is going through, consider them commending rather than suppressing, and are now able to understand and explain similar situations and reactions in our own lives.


Works Cited West, R., & Turner, L. (2010). Introducing communication theory. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

A Lesson Before Dying  

applying communication theory to A Lesson Before Dying