A Lesson Before Dying Summary and Analysis
Grant is happy to see Vivian, but is slightly embarrassed by how “rustic” (104) Tante Lou’s house is, compared to Vivian’s home in Bayonne. Vivian suggests that Grant start going to church again, if only to keep him from being bored on Sundays, but he insists that he no longer believes. The couple goes on a walk around the plantation, and we learn that Grant is descended from slaves that worked on the plantation, and his parents moved to California when he was young, leaving him to be raised by Tante Lou.
They continue on their stroll, and have sex in the sugarcane field. Afterward, she remarks that she “think[s] something happened ... I have a strange feeling” (109), and the couple’s conversation turns to what they might name their children. Vivian wants to meet Tante Lou, but Grant does not believe the time is right, and his thoughts turn to Vivian’s past. She married another student at her college, a union of which her family disapproved, and she remains estranged from her parents.
Before Vivian can leave, Tante Lou comes home with Miss Emma, Miss Eloise, and Inez. Grant introduces Vivian to the women and announces that he will marry her one day. As he makes coffee for the women, Tante Lou interrogates Vivian about her religion and her relationship with her parents. Although the old woman seems angry, she eventually judges Vivian to be “a lady of quality” (116) and implores her not to give up on God.
Several weeks later, Grant bids his students farewell for Christmas break. He has decorated the room and held a pageant, just as Vivian suggested he do. A boy tells him that Miss Emma asked him to stop by after work, which he does. Miss Emma is angry and sad; she has visited Jefferson and realized that Grant was lying when he told her that her godson was making progress.
Grant returns home to Tante Lou, who tells him about Miss Emma’s visit to Jefferson. Jefferson stared blankly and continued to insist that he was a hog, a stressful encounter that ended when Miss Emma slapped him. Grant points out that Jefferson treated him the same way, and the situation is probably hopeless. Nevertheless, Tante Lou tells him that he must continue his visits.
Although he is not religious, Grant enjoys the Christmas season and is in a better mood on his next visit to Jefferson. He tries to learn more about Jefferson’s situation from Paul Bonin, a young deputy who seems more sympathetic to African-Americans than the other people who work at the prison. Paul tells Grant about Jefferson’s daily routine, which the young man goes through in a catatonic state, but says that he is unwilling to try to get close to Jefferson because he will die soon.
Grant reprimands Jefferson for making Miss Emma cry. He might as well be kind to the woman who has done so much for him, Grant rationalizes, adding that everyone will die someday and that’s why people should be kind to each other. Jefferson brushes off this explanation, threatening to scream and say rude things about Vivian if Grant doesn’t leave him alone. Grant is angry that he has insulted his girlfriend, but he recognizes that Jefferson is in pain, and calmly explains to him that Vivian is a true lady, and she is the reason that Grant keeps coming to the prison.
As Grant goes to leave, Sheriff Guidry pulls him aside, and complains that Emma, Eloise, and Tante Lou have asked him to meet with Jefferson in a more comfortable room in the cell, which is too small to fit them all. Guidry is offended that the women appealed to his wife, but decides that Jefferson can meet the women in the dayroom if he agrees to wear shackles.
Despite the more dignified setting of the dayroom, Jefferson initially shows no progress. However, Grant finally begins to break through one day when he visits Jefferson alone. Although Jefferson continues to repeat that he is a hog, he also confides his fears about being executed, pondering that Christ went to his execution without a murmur. Grant then goes to visit Vivian, and she praises him for holding the Christmas pageant and for continuing to visit the young man.
In this section, Gaines continues to develop the differences between potential sources of dignity. Miss Emma believes that having a meal at a table will help Jefferson, but he seems unresponsive to this tactic. His only glimmer of self-awareness occurs when Grant mentions Christmas, which leads him to comment that Christ went to his execution without complaint. This incident lies the groundwork for Jefferson’s embrace of intrinsic spiritual dignity, as opposed to dignity that comes from improved material surroundings.
Vivian’s importance also becomes apparent in these chapters. In addition to foreshadowing that she will become pregnant by the end of the novel, it becomes clear that she is the real reason that Grant continues to visit Jefferson, as opposed to pressure from Tante Lou or Miss Emma. Vivian is thus developed as a symbol of the redemptive power of love—she helps Grant behave maturely and generously when all other reasons fail.
Tante Lou’s character is also complicated in these sections. Grant believes that she will not approve of Vivian, and so resists introducing the women until he can no longer avoid it. However, Tante Lou is able to see past Vivian’s Catholicism and estrangement from her parents to realize that she is “a lady of quality.” The implication is that Tante Lou is perhaps not as conservative as she lets on, and that she is actually willing to accept Jefferson’s non-religious lifestyle if he pursues it with dignity and maturity.
This shift in the portrayal of Tante Lou also clarifies Gaines’s approach to narrative. Until now, Grant’s descriptions of the other characters have not been proven wrong by anything that has happened in the story. Although he frequently opines about the people around him, there is no reason to suspect that he is an unreliable narrator. When he suggests that Tante Lou will disapprove of Vivian, there is no reason to doubt him and thus it is surprising when she accepts her nephew’s girlfriend. This jarring shift in the older woman’s portrayal suggests that Grant may be wrong about other characters as well, and invites skepticism about other elements of his narration.
Gaines rarely discusses Grant’s past. It is unclear why he lives with Tante Lou instead of his parents, and he does not seem to have any other family in the quarter—an unusual situation in a neighborhood where many of the families have ten to fifteen children. In this section, he hints at the explanation for the first time, mentioning that Grant’s parents have moved to California and that he has gone to visit them. Grant’s unclear family background makes him a good character in an allegorical novel like A Lesson Before Dying, since his own lessons and experiences can easily be applied to other people’s lives. It also lends seriousness to his threats to leave the quarter, a possibility that is frequently discussed in the novel but never actually pursued.
A Lesson Before Dying Essays and Related Content
- A Lesson Before Dying: Major Themes
- A Lesson Before Dying: Questions
- A Lesson Before Dying: Purchase the Novel and Related Material
- Ernest J. Gaines: Biography
- A Lesson Before Dying Summary
- About A Lesson Before Dying
- Character List
- Glossary of Terms
- Major Themes
- Quotes and Analysis
- Summary and Analysis of Chapters 1-5
- Summary and Analysis of Chapters 6-9
- Summary and Analysis of Chapters 10-13
- Summary and Analysis of Chapters 14-18
- Summary and Analysis of Chapters 19-23
- Summary and Analysis of Chapters 24-27
- Summary and Analysis of Chapters 28-31
- Cajun Culture and History
- Related Links on A Lesson Before Dying
- Suggested Essay Questions
- Test Yourself! - Quiz 1
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