Many characters in A Lesson Before Dying demonstrate an unhealthy relationship with alcohol, from Jefferson and Grant to Edna Guidry and Henri Pichot. The murder of Alcee Gropé occurs because Brother and Bear are desperate for wine, and Jefferson is unable to explain what happened in great detail because he was drunk; in a sense, the main conflict of the book can be blamed on excessive drinking. Grant drinks to avoid problems rather than cause them, but even this bad habit negatively impacts his relationships with Vivian, Jefferson, and Tante Lou. The pervasiveness of alcoholism among the black and the white characters in the novel suggests that racism is only one of many social ills that the characters must overcome.
The transformational power of love
At a pivotal moment in the text, Grant tells Jefferson that he persists in visiting the prison not because he feels obliged to his aunt or Miss Emma, but because Vivian encouraged him to. For Gaines, love is a more powerful influence than selfishness, duty, or even society at large. Vivian's love also transforms Grant in smaller ways--for example, she influences him to become more dedicated to his job and hold a Christmas pageant for the children, something he would be unable to do otherwise. And significantly, it is kindness from Grant and the townspeople rather than preaching from Reverend Ambrose that finally convinces Jefferson to behave with dignity.
The sources of dignity
At the beginning of the novel, Grant is convinced that any dignity he has comes from his high level of education. This attitude prevents him from getting through to Jefferson, who is of significantly lower social status than Grant. It also brings him into conflict with Reverend Ambrose, who believes that dignity can only come from faith in God--at the Christmas pageant, Ambrose even implies that Grant is no better than Jefferson, because neither man has faith. By the end of the novel, both men learn from Jefferson that dignity is intrinsic and comes from loving and being loved, and does not come from external sources like religion or education.
The benefits and limitations of education
Grant's job as a schoolteacher puts him in the middle of many debates that raged at the time about what and how African-Americans should be taught. Grant greatly values his status as an educated man, and believes that literature has the power to help people understand the world around them. Nevertheless, he is doubtful that public education as it works in the quarter is very effective. "Reading, writing, and 'rithmetic" seem inadequate to the needs of Grant's students, who must overcome poverty and prejudice to scratch out even a meager existence. Grant also frets that he is being required to impart white values, and that even as it helps people, education might also be eroding African-American culture.
Racism pervades the ethnically mixed town of Bayonne, a fact that might not surprise those familiar with the history of the South at this time. However, Gaines also portrays racism within the African-American community in the quarter. Mulattos avoid associating with full-blooded African-Americans, and Grant himself harbors some negative stereotypes about mulattos, speculating that they all work in bricklaying so they don't have to be around full blacks. The women who are considered beautiful in the quarter all seem to be light-skinned. Gaines takes care to emphasize that anyone can be racist, without minimizing the enormity of segregation by whites.
The benefits and limitations of religion
At the beginning of the novel, Grant views religion with disdain, acknowledging its important place in African-American culture while questioning its truth and its usefulness. Although he never embraces Christianity, the events of the novel make him more aware of how religion can soothe the afflicted. He encourages Jefferson to pray just to please Miss Emma, also suggesting that religion can be a useful means of social cohesion even if the teachings themselves are questionable to some.
Cooperation as a vector for social change
Grant spends much of the novel at odds with the people around him, especially Tante Lou and Reverend Ambrose. It is only when he uses his influence to make Jefferson listen to Reverend Ambrose that Miss Emma is satisfied with his progress. Thus, the influences of education and religion only help Jefferson if they work together rather than against each other. This can perhaps be extrapolated to social change in general; Gaines seems to suggest that many different subcultures and personalities must cooperate if social problems like racism are to be eradicated.
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.