A Lesson Before Dying

A Lesson Before Dying Essay Questions

  1. 1

    Does the behavior of Reverend Ambrose reflect well or poorly on Christianity as a whole? Explain your reasoning.

    Like the other characters in the novel, Reverend Ambrose sometimes makes mistakes and behaves immaturely. However, he ultimately possesses a kind of strength that Grant lacks, and is a demonstration of how religion can help people survive adverse circumstances. Ambrose's vindictive condemnations of Grant's agnosticism make him seem immature at times, an impression that is compounded by his jealousy of Grant's early success with Jefferson. However, he is able to do the right thing when Grant is not, bringing news of Jefferson's execution date to Miss Emma, and witnessing the execution while Grant teaches school. As Grant says at the end of the novel, religion can give strength to people in need even if one disagrees with its tenets.

  2. 2

    Discuss the style of Jefferson's diary. Why does Gaines make Jefferson's writing style so different from Grant's?

    Jefferson's writing style, rife with misspellings and grammatical errors, reveals his lack of education and also his emotional stress. Unlike Grant, who understands most of what he sees, Jefferson often does not grasp the meaning of what is going on around him. This emphasizes Jefferson's innocence and the injustice of his cruel treatment.

  3. 3

    How are mulattos portrayed in the novel? Why does Grant take the time to explain the prejudices mulattos have against full African-Americans?

    Mulatto men, such as Matthew Antoine and the bricklayers with whom Grant brawls, are portrayed as bitter and prejudiced against full-blooded blacks. However, Vivian is also mulatto and she is kind, beautiful, and well-liked by people of every race. Their portrayal in the novel suggests that anyone can be racist, even those who are victims of racism itself, and there are good and bad people of ethnicity.

  4. 4

    Is Grant a good teacher? How do his teaching strategies reflect his character development?

    At the beginning of the novel, Grant is a very apathetic teacher who believes that he cannot make any difference in his students' miserable lives. He often leaves his classroom in the care of older students or Irene Cole, the student teacher. Vivian, who is also a teacher, encourages Grant to become more active in his students' lives, and he holds a Christmas pageant for them and becomes outraged at their lack of textbooks. At the end of the novel, he is much more dedicated to his job, overcoming the emotional moment of Jefferson's death to try to help the next generation avoid the same fate.

  5. 5

    Discuss the role of food in A Lesson Before Dying.

    Many detailed descriptions of Cajun cuisine appear in the novel. Gaines describes the meals Miss Emma makes for Jefferson in great detail, and Grant frequently dines with Vivian at the Rainbow Club. Food, then, is a symbol of love and friendship, and it reflects the essential role that these play in the lives of the characters. Food also serves as an indicator of Jefferson's maturity, when he changes his mind and requests Miss Emma's cooking instead of a gallon of ice cream for his last meal. The descriptions of food also showcase the local culture, something Grant worries will be lost due to prejudice and black people abandoning their regional mannerisms.

  6. 6

    How does Grant's self-image change over the course of the novel?

    At the beginning of the novel, Grant holds himself aloof from the people in the quarter because he is more educated than they are, and longs to move to the North with Vivian. However, Jefferson teaches him that dignity is intrinsic and not tied to education. After teaching Jefferson, Grant knows that his job as a schoolteacher is vital and important, and his self-esteem is based on that rather than his college degree.

  7. 7

    What is the significance of Jefferson's attorney's statement that Jefferson is a "hog" and too stupid to plan a murder?

    Although Jefferson's lawyer believes that this argument will acquit him, it does not save him from execution, and it destroys his dignity. In prison, Jefferson constantly repeats that he is a hog and behaves like one. In order to impart strength and dignity to Jefferson, Grant must convince him first that he is a human, which he does by teaching him empathy.

  8. 8

    What is the significance of the digression about the Joyce short story, "Ivy Day in the Committee Room"?

    Although Grant does not initially understand the relevance of the story to African-Americans, he later interprets it to be about how much people value their heroes. The inclusion of the Joyce story adds a literary dimension to Grant's discussion of the sports heroes Jackie Robinson and Joe Louis. The story helps Grant come to the conclusion that a true hero must show empathy and consideration for others, and this is the lesson he imparts to Jefferson.

  9. 9

    How does Gaines complicate Henri Pichot's character? How does he develop over the course of the novel?

    Initially, the wealthy plantation owner Henri Pichot seems like more of a caricature than Gaines's other characters. However, it becomes clear that despite his coldness and heavy drinking, he usually does the right thing when Miss Emma asks him for help with Jefferson. At the end of the novel, it is apparent that even his brief interaction with Jefferson has left him a changed man; he is kind to Jefferson at the end of the novel and gives him his pocket knife as a gift.

  10. 10

    Why does Grant believe the women in the quarter are so possessive? Does Gaines seem to endorse this view, or does the novel undercut it?

    Grant believes that the women from the quarter are possessive because Southern black men have only two options: to lose their dignity at the hands of white men, or to flee the region and live in the North. According to Grant, women are waiting for a black man who can retain his dignity while also being a good husband and father in the South. He seems to believe that men bear the brunt of racism's effects, while women escape the worst suffering and still expect men to provide for them. However, Gaines undercuts this worldview with numerous examples of strong, self-sufficient women, such as Tante Lou, who works hard so Grant can attend college, and Vivian, who has her own job and lives independently of her husband and family.