A Lesson Before Dying
Summary: Chapter 6
It doesn’t matter anymore. Just do the best you can. But it won’t matter.
A maid lets Grant into the Pichot kitchen through the back door. She informs him that Mr. Pichot’s brother-in-law, sheriff Sam Guidry, will arrive soon. Grant waits in the kitchen, thinking moodily about his role in Jefferson’s affairs. After half an hour, Grant hears Sam Guidry and his wife Edna arrive at the front door. After another half hour, Edna enters the kitchen. She asks him many questions, but never gives him an opportunity to answer. She drinks bourbon and she says she feels sorry about Jefferson and the murder. After another hour and fifteen minutes, Sheriff Sam Guidry, Henri Pichot, Louis Rougon, and a fat man walk into the kitchen. Guidry asks Grant how long he has been waiting, and Grant tells him flatly, “About two and a half hours.” Grant realizes he should have grinned and said, “Not long,” but his anger and pride prevented him from being submissive. Guidry asks what Grant wants to do with Jefferson, and Grant politely answers that he does not know. After a while, the sheriff informs him that he can see Jefferson in a few weeks, although he thinks Grant’s efforts will fail and Grant should let Jefferson die a “contented hog.” Moreover, the sheriff says that Grant will lose his visiting privileges if he “aggravates” Jefferson.
Summary: Chapter 7
During the next few weeks, Grant awaits the annual visit by the superintendent of schools. He makes sure that his students appear clean and well behaved, since the superintendent could arrive at any moment. When the superintendent, Dr. Joseph Morgan, finally arrives, Grant notes Dr. Morgan’s heaviness and the difficulty with which he gets out of his car. Grant escorts Dr. Morgan to his own desk and then stands with his class. Dr. Morgan calls up several of the boys and girls, choosing the most obviously self-conscious or problematic students. He checks their teeth and asks them to recite Bible verses. He is angry yet vindicated when one young boy fails to recite his lessons properly. Grant thinks of the similarity between Dr. Morgan’s inspection and slave masters’ inspections. Dr. Morgan lectures the class on the virtues of good nutrition, hygiene, and physical labor, but compliments Grant on his class. Grant complains to the superintendent that most of the school’s shabby books are hand-me-downs from white schools. This grievance annoys the superintendent, who says that white schools struggle too. Before leaving, Dr. Morgan suggests that Grant put the children to work in the fields to earn money.
Summary: Chapter 8
The next week, the school receives its first load of wood for the winter. As Grant’s students saw and chop the wood, Grant recalls his own elementary school days and his teacher Matthew Antoine. A bitter, defeated man, Mr. Antoine hated teaching and hated his students. Grant calls Mr. Antoine a mulatto, referring to Antoine’s mixed race. Because he was a mulatto, Mr. Antoine considered himself superior to blacks and felt contempt for black people who wished to learn in a society that thinks them subhuman. After Grant studied at a university for several years, he returned to the plantation to teach in the school. He went to visit Mr. Antoine, who advised Grant to do his best but did not think Grant could help the situation. According to Mr. Antoine, blacks had but one option in the South: to run away.
Analysis: Chapters 6–8
In these chapters, Gaines illustrates the racism that plagues Grant. Sheriff Guidry agrees to let Grant visit Jefferson, but in warning Grant against aggravating Jefferson, Guidry denies Grant the right to elicit an emotional response from Jefferson. Guidry wishes Jefferson to remain meek and without convictions. Grant’s school operates at the mercy of the racist white community, receiving basic supplies like chalk, books, and firewood at the whim of the whites. Dr. Joseph sees the black children as physical laborers and implies blacks should be working in the fields as they did when they were slaves. He compliments Grant’s class by calling it a “good crop”—racist language that suggests Dr. Joseph thinks of the students as objects, not people. Dr. Joseph insists on the importance of hygiene, but Grant notes the poor health of whites; Edna drinks, a fat man grunts like a hog, and Dr. Joseph himself, who insists upon physical exercise for the black children, is so fat he can hardly get into his car.
While he notes the blatant examples of white racism, Gaines also delves into the murky areas where stereotypes begin to dissolve. While Grant despises Dr. Joseph for believing that black children should grow up to work on white plantations, Grant observes that the two men who bring the wood to the school truly enjoy themselves while performing their work. He also sees how much the children enjoy physical labor, chopping and sawing the wood. He gets frustrated when he watches them, and he wonders, “Am I reaching them at all? They are acting exactly as the old men . . . who never attended school a day in their lives. Is it just a vicious circle?” He worries that blacks are so used to their chains, they have come to like them. Going along with the whites is easier than fighting them, and the children’s enjoyment of the physical work makes compliance still easier.
Gaines suggests that racism is particularly difficult to root out when it comes cloaked in kindness. Edna Guidry feels empathy and goodwill for Grant, but she treats him as her inferior. She asks him questions but answers them herself. She makes observations about his life and the lives of his friends without letting him make his own observations. Edna acts out the role that she learned to play. Moreover, in emphasizing Edna’s reliance upon bourbon, Gaines implies that alcohol plays a part in preventing Edna from truly showing compassion for Grant, or other black people, for that matter. Alcohol also plays a role in Grant’s inability to change.
Professor Antoine, for all his cynical condemnation of whites, plays a role in propagating racism. Since he has white blood, he feels superior to black people, and he stayed in the South because he enjoyed this feeling of superiority. Antoine says mulattoes hate blacks because mulattoes know whites have the most financial and social worth and want to associate themselves with whites. The more white blood in a person, the higher he stands on the rungs of the social ladder. In order to deny their blackness, Antoine says, mulattoes avoid working with blacks. Antoine’s is a self-hating ethos.
Grant’s inner conflict stems from his experiences in education, including his exposure to the cynical Antoine. Inspired by years of study, Grant wants to make great changes in his hometown. Grant’s behavior defies stereotype, but in order to live, he must follow certain rules that make his small moments of defiance futile. The losing battle between small rebellions and survival becomes clear in Grant’s conversation with Guidry. Grant takes pride in flouting Guidry’s racist expectations by using grammatical English and maintaining his poise, but then he feels he has been “too clever” and adopts a humble demeanor. Like the nameless black narrator in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, Grant, no matter how much he asserts himself, can control only the superficialities of his life. He can use grammatical English and get an education, but the wrath of society would descend on him if he did something truly to step out of line.
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