Grant Wiggins, the narrator of A Lesson Before Dying, is a disaffected African-American schoolteacher living in the quarter. Raised by his Tante Lou for unknown reasons (his parents are alive and live in California), Grant is more educated than most of the people, black or white, in the region, and is accorded high social status because of this. However, he feels oppressed in the South because of his race, and longs to move to the North and take up a different profession.
Grant's elderly aunt, Tante Lou, raised him for unknown reasons--his parents are alive but live far away in California. In her youth she worked as a cook for the Pichot family along with her best friend, Miss Emma, but now she stays home and works in her garden. Deeply religious, Tante Lou supports Jefferson and Miss Emma wholeheartedly, and she and Grant often bicker despite their love for each other.
Jefferson is a 21-year-old laborer from the quarter. Uneducated even by the low standards of the neighborhood, Jefferson worked in the fields starting at age six. He is incarcerated and sentenced to death after being caught at the scene of Alcee Gropé's murder.
Emma Glenn, or, as she is known to the novel's characters, Miss Emma, is Jefferson's godmother. Elderly, kind, and an excellent cook, her only wish is to see Jefferson go to his death with dignity so that they can be together in heaven. She is best friends with Tante Lou, and uses this friendship to persuade Grant to give lessons to Jefferson.
A young man with a bad reputation in the quarter. Along with his friend Bear, he asks Jefferson to come with him to Alcee Gropé's general store, where the murder takes place. According to Jefferson, Brother shot Gropé.
Bear is close friends with Brother, and has a reputation in the quarter for being a troublemaker. He invites Jefferson to go to Alcee Gropé's store with them, where the murder takes place. He is killed in the squabble that starts when Gropé refuses to sell the young men wine on credit.
A middle-aged white storekeeper, Alcee Gropé is shot by Brother when he refuses to sell him wine on credit. Jefferson is blamed for the murder and sentenced to death.
The pastor at the plantation church, Reverend Mose Ambrose is characterized as a “simple, devoted” (101) believer without much formal education. He stands by Jefferson and frequently visits Miss Emma, but comes into conflict with Grant because he believes that religion is the only way to impart dignity to Jefferson.
Henri Pichot owns the plantation on which many of the people from the quarter work. Miss Emma and Tante Lou were both employed by his family as cooks in their youth. Henri is married to Sheriff Guidry's sister, and remembering Emma and Lou's years of service, uses his influence to allow Grant to visit Jefferson in prison.
Henri Pichot's maid.
A wealthy friend of Henri Pichot, Louis frequently appears drunk and bets on whether Jefferson will face his death with dignity.
Grant's beautiful mulatto girlfriend, Vivian, lives in Bayonne. Like Grant, she has a college degree and works as a schoolteacher. But while Grant is often frustrated by his job, Vivian loves working with the children and is kind and encouraging to them. Vivian is estranged from her family because she married her first husband without their permission. She has two sons from this marriage and has never legally divorced her husband, a situation that prevents her from eloping with Grant.
The owner of the Rainbow Club, Grant's favorite haunt in Bayonne. Joe keeps a close eye on the bar to prevent fights from breaking out, but he is a generous spirit and helps Grant to buy the radio for Jefferson.
Joe's wife, Thelma Claiborne, manages the Rainbow Club. She knows many members of the community and often chats with patrons.
Grant's student teacher, Irene Cole, is often left in charge of the class when Grant does not show up for school. Although she behaves girlishly, Vivian believes she is in love with Grant.
A handyman often employed by Henri Pichot. Henri often sends Farrell to make deliveries and bring news to Grant.
Sam Guidry, the local sheriff, is in charge of the prison where Jefferson is kept. He is also close friends with his brother-in-law, Henri Pichot.
The wife of Sheriff Sam Guidry, Edna is sympathetic to both Jefferson’s family and the widow of Alcee Gropé. It is hinted that she is an alcoholic.
Dr. Joseph Morgan
The superintendent of schools in St. Raphael parish. Although he is an important figure, Grant does not respect him, noting that he is fat and lazy, and spends twice as much time at the white schools as he does at the ones for African-American students.
Louis Washington, Jr.
A first-grader, Louis is from a very large family and is Grant’s worst student.
Grant’s own teacher when he was in school. He advised his students to leave the South because no freedom or justice could be found here for poor blacks, and he inspires many of Grant’s lessons about dignity.
Deputy Paul Bonin
A young deputy who works at the jail in Bayonne, Paul is better educated than many of the other police officers. Over the course of the novel, he becomes increasingly sympathetic to Jefferson and Miss Emma.
An elderly friend of Tante Lou.
A teacher at Vivian's elementary school.
A loud, unhappy prisoner at the jail, who often yells to Grant and Miss Emma when they visit Jefferson.
The chief deputy at the prison. Fat and rude, he is unsympathetic to Jefferson and Miss Emma.
One of Grant's older students, he often leaves her in charge of the class along with Irene Cole.
Miss Rita Lawrence
Rita Lawrence is an older woman from the quarter and something of a busybody. She takes care of her grandson, Bok, who is insane but too benign to be institutionalized.
Gilley and Gusta
Joe Claiborne’s assistants, who work as waiters and dishwashers at the Rainbow Club.
A tall mulatto bricklayer. Grant brawls with him after hearing Griffin insult Jefferson to his friends at the Rainbow Club.
A worker that Jefferson remembers from his childhood, who would blaspheme God after getting drunk.
The African-American mortician that handles Jefferson’s remains after he is executed. His business is located in Bayonne.
A man from the quarter who is allowed to witness Jefferson’s execution, along with Reverend Ambrose.
Claude and Oscar Guerin
Two special deputies who help Sheriff Guidry on the day of Jefferson’s execution.
Another prisoner at the county jail, Murphy shaves Jefferson before his execution because Deputy Paul does not want to do it.
A hulking, mentally disabled young man from the quarter. Raised by his grandmother, Miss Rita, he is too benign to be institutionalized but is deeply distrustful of strangers. His most prized possession is his set of marbles, which he carries everywhere with him.
A Lesson Before Dying Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for A Lesson Before Dying is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
Grant became increasingly disillusioned with education. He saw no way out for his black students. They would remain subjugated no matter how much they learned from him. They used a church as a school and did not have any supplies.