Miss Emma goes to church on Determination Sunday—when church members sing their favorite hymns and tell the congregation where they will spend eternity. Grant recalls last Friday, when he came back from talking to Vivian. He had found Miss Emma and Reverend Ambrose sitting with his aunt in the kitchen. Miss Emma asked him about his visit to Jefferson’s cell, and he lied and says that Jefferson seemed to be doing well and that he had eaten some of the food she had sent him. Reverend Ambrose tried to determine whether or not Grant intended to teach Jefferson within a Christian framework. Reverend Ambrose had visited Jefferson and he wanted to know if Grant had been undermining his teachings with cynical secularism. Grant became impatient with this line of questioning. After years of hard studying in academia, he no longer believes in the teachings of the Bible.
After his aunt returns from church, Grant sits at his desk correcting papers. He remarks that, up until his last year at the university, he participated in the church. He says that studying ate up most of his time and that he became distanced from his faith in the church, angering Tante Lou. Professor Antoine told him he should leave Bayonne for good, and Grant tried visiting his parents in California. Nevertheless, he returned to Bayonne to teach, where he cannot escape the influence of the black church. He says that he is “running in place, unable to accept what used to be my life, unable to leave it.”
Suddenly, Vivian surprises Grant with a visit to his house.
Vivian has never been to Grant’s house before. He gives her a small tour and offers her some coffee and cake. She insists they wash their plates after eating, even though Grant tells her that his aunt would take care of the dishes. He asks her to take a walk with him, and she consents. They walk through the plantation, past a cemetery, and onto the sugarcane fields. They make love on the field, concealed by the cane. Afterward, they discuss possible names for their future children, and Grant says he does not want to raise his children in this community.
After some time, they return home. Vivian says that she hopes Grant’s family will like her. She comes from a light-skinned mulatto community called Free LaCove, but she married a very dark-skinned man whom she met while attending Xavier University. She kept the marriage secret because she knew her family would object. When she finally told them, they shunned her and her new family. Even now, after her separation from her husband, she never speaks to her family.
They find Tante Lou, Miss Emma, and others at his aunt’s house. Grant introduces Vivian. He insists on making coffee because he and Vivian drank it all earlier, but his aunt objects, wishing to take charge in her own home. The tension between them makes the other ladies uncomfortable. Tante Lou asks Vivian about her background and beliefs. Vivian goes to church regularly, although it’s to the Catholic church. Tante Lou presses Vivian about whether she would drop her religion to marry Grant, the atheist. Vivian says she hopes she would not have to do that, but that if she had to, she would. Grant quickly ushers Vivian onto the porch. Vivian tells Grant that she is happy to know that at least other families criticize their children as much as her family does. Grant insists that his family differs from hers. Vivian becomes very quiet and then says she must go. The ladies say that Vivian is a “lady of quality” and encourage her to remain a Christian woman. After the interrogation, Vivian leaves gratefully with Grant. They watch a black girl and her boyfriend walking home from church holding hands. Grant thinks to himself, “Good luck.”
Despite their love for one another, Grant continues to neglect Vivian. When they stand on the porch after the initial barrage of questions from Tante Lou, Grant shows that he lacks sensitivity when he tells Vivian that he considers his family’s reaction “far from being the same thing” as the situation between her family and her husband. He may not intend to hurt her, but her silence and her hasty exit indicates that she takes offense to Grant’s remark. At this point, she doesn’t need to feel like an outsider. She needs comfort. Recognizing the similarities between their families provides her with some comfort, but Grant proves insensitive to her feelings by contradicting her. Moreover, Grant never interacts with her children and refers to them only as “the babies,” and only when they interfere with his weekend plans. He never even mentions their names to the reader, despite the fact that he and Vivian discuss the names for their future children. Though he loves Vivian, he does not recognize the fact that her children have grown up in the community. Instead, he plans to leave Louisiana one day, and he wants her to leave everything behind and go with him.
Given Grant’s blindness, and given the fact that Grant’s thoughts and actions represent the only point of view in the novel, the reader receives a limited picture of Vivian. Like most of the other characters in this novel, she seems to have very little significance beyond her direct influence upon Grant’s daily life. This limitation reveals yet again just how harshly we must criticize Grant and question how he relates information. We perceive characters and events through the eyes of a single, biased narrator. Even so, Gaines provides glimpses of Vivian’s character— her strength and resolve, her critical and sensitive nature—when he shows how she reacts critically to Grant both in these chapters and in their previous conversations. Ultimately, Vivian will confront Grant and burst his self-indulgent bubble, further displaying her vivid and powerful emotional life.
Vivian’s family illustrates how mulattoes displayed prejudice toward blacks, but Grant and Tante Lou illustrate how African-Americans of strict African heritage often act distrustfully toward mulattoes as well, even well-meaning people like Vivian. The ladies description of Vivian as a “lady of quality” includes elements of both praise and a mild resentment. Tante Lou says, “quality ain’t cheap,” degrading Vivian as an object for sale even while she puts her on a pedestal. Grant himself shows his resentment toward mulattoes when he tells Vivian that his family is “far from being the same thing” as hers. Both Grant and Tante Lou allow their defensive stance to affect negatively their relationships with well-meaning mulattoes. Recalling his description of the bitter Professor Antoine from Chapter 8, Gaines again addresses the paradoxical relationship between blacks and mulattoes, showing how racism breeds divisiveness within the African-American -community itself.
Grant indicates that his conflict with the church stems more from his inner conflict with himself than from a serious critique of the church. Gaines does not clarify in the novel whether Grant truly believes in a higher power called “God,” but he clearly indicates that Grant has little patience for any of the traditional church practices in which his aunt finds comfort. As we will later discover, Grant believes that the Christian church merely functions to keep black people in a subservient state, and that the God worshipped by his family and friends, therefore, is nothing more than a white God. However, Grant’s statement about “running in place” indicates that something inside prevents him from fully extracting himself from his community and his church. He feels drawn to his place of birth while simultaneously wishing to run away, indicating that he understands to a certain extent that his hard-and-fast interpretation of the black church as a white tool lacks sophistication. Having distanced himself from his community while at the university, Grant cannot see the positive values associated with the church.
The main conflict of A Lesson Before Dying lies within Grant himself. Even though Grant struggles to manage in the racist white society, his primary struggle is with his own mind. As he says to Vivian, he cannot face Jefferson because he cannot face himself and his own life. Vivian exposes Grant’s conflicted nature by bringing up the fact that he left the South in the past but eventually returned. Grant feels repulsed by the environment in which he grew up, but somehow he cannot bring himself to leave. Despite his statement that Vivian’s... Read more→
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rant’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 ... Read more→
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Her comment here at the end of Chapter 12 shows that she enjoys the thought of living with Grant in the South. Gaines shows Vivian’s emotional state here in order to heighten the ensuing clash between her and Grant that occurs later in the novel.