A Lesson Before Dying Summary and Analysis
Miss Emma insists that Grant come along when she and Reverend Ambrose visit Jefferson. Although Grant is unhappy about being around the Reverend, he agrees. There is an awkward moment when Grant begins to eat the gumbo Miss Emma has brought before the Reverend has blessed the meal. Jefferson doesn’t touch the food, and later Grant confronts him about it, saying that he should try the gumbo because it would make Miss Emma happy. He goes on that Jefferson has the potential to be a hero by putting the happiness of others before his own. Grant explains that he is no hero himself, for he has passively accepted a job he hates, teaching children about the values of white people, and “nothing else—nothing about dignity, nothing about identity, nothing about loving and caring” (192).
Grant implores Jefferson to prove to white people that African-Americans are just as human as they are, by facing his fate with courage and dignity. He reminds Jefferson of the beautiful slingshots that Farrell Jarreau makes out of driftwood. Grant compares each human being to driftwood, which has the potential to become something remarkable, but only with hard work and perseverance. He looks up to see that Jefferson is crying. They return to the dayroom and eat Miss Emma’s gumbo.
Grant goes to the Rainbow Club to tell Vivian about his triumph in getting through to Jefferson. He remains troubled that Reverend Ambrose seemed so jealous that Grant was able to get through when he was not, but he resolves not to confide in Vivian about this. He reflects that he has been having trouble having sex with Vivian lately, which he believes is because he has been stressed about Jefferson. Meanwhile, some mulatto bricklayers talk together in the corner, occasionally glaring at Grant.
In an aside, Grant explains that many mulattos are very prejudiced against full-blooded African-Americans. Many of them are bricklayers or carpenters so they don’t have to work with the black people in the fields. Tonight, the mulattos are complaining about Jefferson, griping that he has made it hard for all colored people, and they “should have burned him months ago” (198). Grant tries to stay calm, but eventually he tells the mulattos to shut up and they begin to brawl.
The fight seems to end when Grant kicks the tallest bricklayer in the testicles, and Thelma Claiborne breaks up the brawl with a broom. However, the tall bricklayer gets up and punches Grant, and soon the men are hitting each other with chairs. Because they refuse to stop fighting, Joe Claiborne gets out his rifle and threatens to shoot them. This is the last thing Grant hears before he feels a blow and falls to the ground.
Grant soon comes to in Vivian’s arms. She explains that Joe Claiborne knocked him out with the butt of the rifle because he wouldn’t stop trying to attack Griffin, the tall mulatto. Although she is exasperated that Grant didn’t just walk away from the fight, she lets him spend the night at her house. There, she reveals that her husband is refusing to give her a divorce unless he can visit his children once a week. This means that Grant and Vivian can’t marry and leave the South as they’d hoped. Upset by this new development, Grant lashes out at Vivian, who is still annoyed by his drinking and recklessness in getting into the brawl. He storms out but quickly returns and buries his face in her lap.
The next morning, Reverend Ambrose comes to visit Grant at Tante Lou’s house. He tries to recruit Grant to help him save Jefferson’s soul, but Grant is resistant, explaining that saving souls is the Reverend’s business, not his own. The Reverend grows accusatory and tells Grant that although he knows reading, writing, and arithmetic, he knows nothing of his own people, and is unaware of how much Tante Lou suffered to put him through college.
Gaines’s detailed rendering of mid-century Cajun culture has thus far left out the prejudice that “mulattoes,” or people of mixed heritage, had against full African-Americans. Although the mulattoes face many of the same indignities that blacks do at the hands of Caucasians, they are no kinder to people with darker skin than them.
By including this detail, Gaines preempts two possible misinterpretations of the novel. The first wrong interpretation would be that African-Americans are morally superior to Caucasians, since most of the novel’s sympathetic characters are black people from the quarter. The second interpretation that the mulattos undermine is that being the victim of prejudice is a formative experience that makes the characters into better people, as might well be concluded from Jefferson’s experiences.
Alcohol continues to play a determining role in the events of this section. Grant is unable to stop fighting Griffin largely because he is drunk, and he evades having a serious conversation with Vivian by drinking more whiskey after he comes to. In the novel, alcohol is portrayed as a force that contributes to squabbling among people in the quarter. It is an instrument of oppression because it prevents African-Americans from unifying and cooperating, and strips them of their individual dignity.
This section also expands on Grant’s underlying sexism. Gaines’s examples of women enduring hardship are even more forceful—we hear of the cuts on Tante Lou’s knees, and understand how Vivian’s options are limited by the dictates of her faraway husband. In addition to dealing with poverty and hostile men, women like Vivian must also deal with unreliable but well-meaning lovers like Grant. Although he readily accepts Vivian’s help when he needs to get out of a scrape, Grant is unwilling to confide in her, refusing to admit to her that he is having a conflict with Reverend Ambrose.
This conflict is the last important theme addressed in the section. Reverend Ambrose continues to pressure Grant to include religion in his lessons to Jefferson, and the chapter repeatedly situates the two men’s methods in opposition to each other. Both are too proud to cooperate with each other, as Miss Emma had hoped they would. Although A Lesson Before Dying is not a conversion narrative—Grant does not change his mind and embrace Reverend Ambrose’s worldview—Gaines does endorse collaboration between Christians and secular intellectuals on difficult problems, which range from educating Jefferson to giving the quarter children the tools to lift themselves out of poverty.
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
- Test Yourself! - Quiz 2
- Test Yourself! - Quiz 3
- Test Yourself! - Quiz 4
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