Grant cannot find Vivian at the Rainbow Club. He sits at the bar and orders a drink. In a corner behind him, two mulatto bricklayers talk loudly, hoping Grant will overhear them. Grant finally catches a few of their words. They state loudly that Jefferson should have been executed long ago. Grant tries to contain himself, but after a few minutes he loses control. He walks over and tells them to be quiet. A fight breaks out, during which Grant is knocked unconscious.
When Grant wakes up, he finds himself in Vivian’s bedroom. He discovers that Claiborne, unable to stop the fight, knocked him out, and that Vivian brought him here to recover. Despite her disapproval of violence, Vivian softens and asks Grant to stay the night. He knows that he should not, since her husband could return to try to get the children. She tells Grant that she needs more from him than he currently gives her, that she wants more consideration. Angry, he walks out of the room and stands at the front door. He looks out through the screen and into the darkness. He does not want to go outside, for he realizes that everything he cares for is in Vivian’s house. After a few minutes, he returns to the kitchen and buries his face in Vivian’s lap.
Reverend Ambrose talks to Grant about Jefferson. He wants Grant to help him teach Jefferson about God, but Grant no longer believes in the church and refuses to help the reverend. Reverend Ambrose gets angry and raises his voice to Grant, calling him “boy” and telling him that he is uneducated because he does not know or understand people. Grant says he cannot lie to Jefferson by pretending to believe in heaven or the Bible. Reverend Ambrose says he knows Grant looks down on him for lying, and he admits that he does lie in order to relieve people’s pain, but he says that people lie to themselves and to others in order to make life bearable. He tells Grant that Tante Lou has been lying to him all her life, telling herself and Grant she was fine when truly she was working her fingers to the bone in order to send him to college.
When Grant next goes to visit Jefferson, he sees the notebook on the floor, next to the radio. He opens the notebook and finds that Jefferson has filled up three-quarters of the first page, though he clearly erased a great deal. He has written about dying, and about the difference between men and hogs. Grant asks him about Reverend Ambrose’s last visit. Jefferson says Ambrose told him to pray, but that he does not pray because he doesn’t know if heaven exists. Jefferson asks Grant if he prays and Grant replies honestly, saying he doesn’t because he doesn’t believe in anything. Grant says he feels lost. He tells Jefferson that he wants Jefferson to believe in something so that someday Grant can look to Jefferson as an example and start believing in something himself.
Jefferson says that Reverend Ambrose told him to give up his possessions, which confuses Jefferson because he has so few possessions to give up. Grant says Jefferson may not have possessions, but he still has love to give. Jefferson says that everyone asks him to bear a cross, but no one ever bore his cross. Jefferson asks if Miss Emma or even Grant would go to the chair to save him. When Jefferson asks if Grant believes in God, Grant says he does. Jefferson says he wants to go to his death wordlessly, as Christ did. He talks of his execution, saying Grant asks too much of him. Jefferson says that he moved through his life working and grinning to get by, pandering to the whites, doing what he thought God asked of him, and now the people around him want him to change entirely. When Grant lowers his head, Jefferson accuses him of not being able to look at him. Grant looks, and sees Jefferson standing tall, not stooped. Jefferson asks Grant how the execution will feel. Grant continues to avert his gaze from Jefferson, but accepts a sweet potato when Jefferson offers it.
In these chapters, Grant becomes not teacher but student. Grant is lost and needs Jefferson’s help, as he admits to Jefferson. Grant also admits to the reverend that he is lost. Reverend Ambrose says he himself is found, for he understands that the black community needs the church in order to bear life in the racist South. Ambrose also says that lying is necessary in order to make life endurable and to help others, like Grant, make progress in the world. Here Ambrose changes his tactics slightly. Before, he challenged Grant solely on religious grounds, insulting him as a secular teacher. Now he talks not just about faith in God, but about kindness to friends and family. This argument seems to reach Grant. In addressing these subjects, Ambrose highlights the absurdity facing the black community—namely, the fact that the community must continually compromise its own sense of ethical behavior—honesty—in order to survive in an unethical and racist world. Ambrose’s emphasis on lying attracts Grant because he too has had to lie in the past—for instance, when he lied to Miss Emma about Jefferson’s aggression. Grant can identify with Ambrose’s words here and even puts them into practice. When he speaks to Jefferson in Chapter 28, Grant tries to persuade him to believe in religion whether Jefferson believes it will be good for his soul or not.
Jefferson begins teaching Grant to stop wallowing in his own pain and fear. Whereas Jefferson once lay mute on his bed and refused to talk, now he continually confronts Grant, demanding to know whether Grant has faith in heaven and God, and whether the people who want Jefferson to die for them would die for Jefferson. Grant has difficulty answering these questions and lowers his head in shame because he cannot bear to look at Jefferson. Jefferson confronts Grant about this reaction too, telling him that he should look at him. Jefferson’s posture marks his change: he stands up straight now. Jefferson’s relationship to food shows the change too; before he refused to eat when others offered him food, but now he offers food to Grant. He acts as Grant should act, lifting his head up and being brave.
Vivian also teaches Grant, showing him that he lacks consideration for other people and that his cynicism conveniently allows him to isolate himself and avoid dealing with other people’s pain. Grant claims to love Vivian, but he focuses attention on his own life, not on hers. He thinks of her not as a person with needs of her own, but as his distraction, his means of obtaining comfort, and his haven in times of distress. Vivian’s personal life is merely a nuisance to Grant, a source of complications and obstacles. Vivian seldom speaks in the novel—which reflects Grant’s minimal interest in her—but here she asserts herself and breaks into Grant’s world. Grant tells her, “That’s not you talking, honey,” as if he understands her better than she does herself. Vivian replies, “Who is me?” in order to emphasize the fact that Grant does not truly know her. She forces him to decide whether or not he wants to pay real attention to her. By burying his head in her lap, Grant agrees to do what Vivian asks.
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.