A Lesson Before Dying

A Lesson Before Dying Quotes and Analysis

“What justice would there be to take this life? Justice, gentlemen? Why, I would just as soon put a hog in the electric chair as this.”

Jefferson's defense attorney, 8

Although Jefferson’s attorney makes several strong, logical points that show that Jefferson could not have murdered Alcee Gropé, he instead focuses his defense on the fact that Jefferson is too stupid to be worth executing. This degrading argument inspires Miss Emma to have Grant teach Jefferson that he is “a man,” not a hog. The comparison of a human to an animal here is the first of many in the novel, and Grant senses that this is a means by which white people dehumanize African-Americans and make racism more palatable.

“I’m the teacher ... and I teach what the white folks around here tell me to teach—reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic. They never told me how to keep a black boy out of a liquor store.”

Grant Wiggins, 13

This passage reveals the underlying causes of Grant’s anxiety about teaching Jefferson his final lesson. His own education has been based on mastering the cultural vocabulary of white America, and although he is respected in the quarter for his high level of academic achievement, Grant knows that he is only helping to perpetuate this system. Although he wants to help his students avoid the pitfalls of being black and poor in the deep South, he feels ill-equipped to do this despite his academic pedigree.

“There was always news coming back to the quarter about someone who had been killed or sent to prison for killing someone else: Snowball, stabbed to death at a nightclub in Port Allen; Claudee, killed by a woman in New Orleans; Smitty, sent to the state penitentiary at Angola for manslaughter. And there were others who did not go anywhere but simply died slower.”

Grant, 62

Here, Grant reflects on the fates of his classmates, who all died violent deaths at a young age. He is struck by how accurate Matthew Antoine’s warnings were; he had said that most of his students would die young despite his best efforts. Although each of these deaths seems circumstantial, in aggregate they point to a potent, systemic combination of poverty and racial oppression. Perhaps more significantly, Grant’s classmates that stayed in the quarter are “simply [dying] slower,” unable to live life to its fullest because of legal and economic barriers rooted in racism.

“What do I know about life? I stayed here. You have to go away to know about life. There’s no life here. There’s nothing but ignorance here. You want to know about life? Well, it’s too late. Forget it. Just go on and be the nigger you were born to be, but forget about life.”

Matthew Antoine, 65

Although Matthew Antoine’s opinions are not the same as Grant’s or Gaines’s, it is important to note the similarity between his assertion that “there’s no life” in Bayonne and Grant’s observation that his old classmates are dying slowly by living poor, confined lives in the quarter. Both men believe that the opportunity to live life to its fullest is an important component of human dignity. This help explain why Grant is initially unwilling to teach Jefferson—he believes that dignity is impossible without opportunity.

“I read the story and reread the story, but I still could not find the universality that the little Irishman had spoken of. All I saw in the story was some Irishmen meeting in a room and talking politics. What had that to do with America, especially with my people? It was not until years later that I saw what he meant ... I began to listen, to listen closely to how they talked about their heroes, to how they talked about the dead and how great the dead had once been. I heard it everywhere.”

Grant, 90

In this quote, Grant explains his reaction to the Joyce story, “Ivy Day in the Committee Room.” The emphasis on “the dead” here is curious, since Jackie Robinson and Joe Louis are both alive at this point in the novel (although the concept is a motif in Dubliners). While Grant is almost certainly alluding to the importance of heroes more generally, the inconsistency here is itself notable, since it reveals the distance of Robinson and Louis from the everyday experiences of the black people in the quarter. Though their successes are important because they provide hope, they are no more alive to average people than historical heroes like Frederick Douglass or Nat Turner, because their integration of sports has so little effect on daily life.

“Easter was when they nailed Him to the cross. And He never said a mumbling word.”

Jefferson, 139

This is one of Jefferson’s first pieces of dialogue that does not relate to him being a hog. Although it is some time before Grant recognizes that Jefferson is making progress, Jefferson’s recognition of a role model is significant. The passage also sets up the novel’s portrayal of Jefferson as a Christ figure. Although Jefferson does not seem to have much in common with Christ at this point in the book, he learns from his ordeal in prison. Like Jesus, Jefferson’s spiritual purification culminates in his execution. Death is part of the young man’s development into a symbol of innocence and moral purity.

“How do people come up with a date and time to take life from another man? Who made them God?”

Grant, 157

Grant’s relationship with Jefferson has changed his attitude toward capital punishment. While watching the trial, he was apathetic to Jefferson’s plight, seeing the young man as a lost cause. Now, however, he silently fumes when hearing that a date has been set for Jefferson’s death, meditating that no man has the right to kill another. Grant’s objections to capital punishment are, to an extent, race-specific: he finds it especially upsetting that white people can decide the fate of black people, of whose experiences they know nothing.

“It was the kind of ‘here’ your mother or your big sister or your great-aunt or your

grandmother would have said ... It was the kind of ‘here’ that asked the question, When will all this end? When will a man not have to struggle to have money to get what he needs ‘here’? When will a man be able to live without having to kill another man ‘here’?”

Grant, 174

The repetition of the word “here” allows a dual interpretation of this passage. According to Grant, black men must, in general, struggle financially and kill other men, but especially “here” in the Deep South. This passage also illustrates the extent to which men and women play separate roles in Grant’s worldview—men suffer more because of racism, and women futilely try to soothe them. While this view has many potential flaws and limitations, it is one that Grant expresses frequently, as when he meditates on the tendency of black men to run away to the North.

“A hero does for others. He would do anything for people he loves, because he knows it would make their lives better. I am not that kind of person, but I want you to be. You could give something to her, to me, to those children in the quarter. You could give something I never could ... The white people out there are saying you don’t have it—that you’re a hog, not a man. But I know they are wrong.”

Grant, 191

Throughout the novel, Grant’s tattered self-image has prevented him from getting through to Jefferson. He has had trouble reconciling his revered place in the black community with his selfish and immature impulses. By acknowledging that he is “not that kind of person”, Grant understands for the first time that despite his lack of education and refinement, Jefferson can outdo him by becoming a generous spirit. It is only once Grant has this epiphany that he can truly believe in Jefferson’s potential to be a hero.

“it look like the lord just work for wite folks cause ever sens i wasn nothin but a litle boy i been on my on haulin water to the fiel on that ol water cart wit all them dime bukets an that dipper just hittin an old dorthy just trottin and trottin an me up their hittin her wit that rope...”

Jefferson, 227

Here, Gaines reiterates several of Grant's objections to organized religion. However, Jefferson's simple language and limited ability to think critically lend the objection poignancy. Both men find Christianity problematic because of the deeply unjust conditions to which African-Americans are subjected by white people.