A Lesson Before Dying
Analysis of Major Characters
The protagonist of the novel, Grant is the son of cane-cutters who labored on a Louisiana plantation. He grows up working in a menial job, but makes his escape and goes to college. He returns to his hometown a secular, educated man, distanced from his downtrodden black community. College has given him a more sophisticated perspective and an educated way of thinking and speaking. Yet despite the changes in Grant, white people still consider him inferior. Their shoddy treatment outrages Grant, but he says nothing and does nothing. He feels rage at the whites for treating him badly and rage at himself for taking the treatment lying down. This rage, bottled up in Grant, turns to bitterness, cynicism, and self-absorption. He feels he cannot help his community, and in order to stop this failure from paining him, he removes himself from the people he loves, looking on them with contempt and deciding that, since they are beyond hope, he cannot be blamed for failing to help them.
Grant’s perspective changes over the course of the novel as a result of his visits to Jefferson and his interactions with Vivian, his aunt Tante Lou, and Reverend Ambrose. He learns to love something other than himself and to strive for change without retreating into his shell of cynicism. Still, Gaines does not suggest that because Grant’s attitude improves, he will be able to effect great change; he does not even suggest that Grant’s attitude improves entirely. Jefferson dies nobly, but he still dies, murdered by his racist oppressors. Grant ends the novel encouraged by the changes he has seen, but depressed at the barbarity of his society. He is still afraid, he is still withdrawn from some people, and he is still sarcastic and angry. Grant’s character development suggests that although great personal and societal improvement is possible, no quick fix will help a racist community, and for that reason Grant is justified in his despair.
The novel centers around Jefferson’s unjust conviction and his friends’ attempts to help him die with human dignity. A relatively simple man, Jefferson has spent his entire life on the plantation, working for poor wages. He has always worked without protest, believing that his place in the world is a lowly one. When Jefferson’s lawyer defends Jefferson by likening him to a mindless hog, Jefferson becomes terrified and infuriated, obsessed by the possibility that he really is no better than a hog. He rages in his cell, mimicking a hog’s behavior and jeering at his friends and family, or refusing to speak to them.
When Grant visits Jefferson for the first time, Jefferson is so withdrawn and sullen that Grant thinks it will be impossible to help him. Jefferson does change with Grant’s help, however. He begins to believe in his own worth, and he realizes his life and manner of dying might have symbolic importance for his community. Gaines casts Jefferson as a Christ figure, a man to whom people look for their own salvation. Jefferson becomes brave and thoughtful, and his journal reveals the truth that even the most woefully uneducated man can possess depths of intelligence and lyricism.
Sheriff Sam Guidry
Guidry is both an archetypal white authoritarian and a decent man. Guidry voices the ignorance, hypocrisy, inertia, and racism of the people in power in the South of the 1940s. As town sheriff, Guidry has plenty of power to wield. He resents any trespasses on his sphere of influence, and he wants to maintain the status quo in his courthouse and in his society. He believes that Jefferson should be left to die in happy, animalistic ignorance. Still, as soon as Jefferson and Grant begin to transcend the roles that Guidry and other powerful whites assign for them—as soon as they cease playing the humble schoolteacher and the angry, stupid criminal—Guidry seems to sense the fragility of his position. His worldview depends upon blacks conforming to these stereotypes; when they refuse to conform, Guidry becomes unsure of his footing. Although Guidry does not repent and change, he does show signs of increasing sensitivity. His harsh exterior begins to crack and reveal a kindly, anxious streak. By the end of the novel, he treats Jefferson with something approaching respect.
Tante Lou is slightly subdued and seldom reveals her thoughts to Grant. Even by the end of the novel, we do not truly understand her. Her occasional remarks reveal her to be a spiritual woman, motivated by a powerful faith in God and in his good works. Because of her faith, Tante Lou has the hope and resilience Grant lacks, and she disapproves of Grant’s cynical brand of atheism. She exudes a sense of dignity despite her position in society; she and Miss Emma dress respectably and insist upon being chauffeured in the backseat to the Pichots. Tante Lou refuses to accept the idea that she must despair just because blacks in the South remain on the bottom rung of the economic ladder. Tante Lou is a positive force in Grant’s life and in the community. In some ways, she is responsible for Grant’s evolution. She demands that he behave with compassion and bravery, nagging him to help Jefferson and insisting that he speak with the Pichots in order to gain visitation rights at the prison.
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