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A Lesson Before Dying

Ernest J. Gaines

Study Questions & Essay Topics

Key Facts

Quiz

Study Questions

1.

Why is Grant initially so reluctant to help Jefferson?

Grant’s reluctance stems from his inability to confront his own fears and insecurities. Initially he tells Tante Lou that he cannot help Jefferson, implying that Jefferson is beyond hope. When Grant visits Jefferson and Jefferson behaves aggressively, Grant tells his aunt that he does not wish to proceed because he refuses to let Jefferson make him feel guilty. Although Grant is convinced that Jefferson is trying to make him feel guilty, Jefferson seems to bear no malice toward Grant in particular. Grant’s unnecessary self-defense points to his subconscious conviction that he does bear a certain amount of the blame for Jefferson’s situation, or at least for refusing to try to help Jefferson live with dignity.

Grant fears failure. When he sees Jefferson’s poor mental and emotional state, he fears he might fail if he tries to help Jefferson. He also does not want to deal with Jefferson because Jefferson, by intentionally fulfilling whites’ stereotypes, forces Grant to look at a physical embodiment of all the brutishness white men attribute to black men. Grant’s unwillingness to act on Jefferson’s behalf is part of his general unwillingness to participate in his society. He strives to keep himself separate from the unjust and oppressive world around him, and he loathes his own people because their plight depresses him. Grant knows that Jefferson’s life will end because of the bigotry of a white jury, a white attorney, and a white judge. He knows that such juries exist everywhere in the country and that Jefferson grew up powerless to fight the system. He also knows that someone who realizes that such injustices exist can fight them, and that if he fails to fight them, he can be held responsible for them. In order to avoid thinking about his own complicity in the racist system, Grant initially does not want to help Jefferson.

2.

How is Grant able to help Jefferson?

Eventually Grant comes to believe that Jefferson can be more than a convict, more than an oppressed black man. He comes to believe that Jefferson can change society. Through the simple act of believing—and telling Jefferson of his belief—Grant changes Jefferson’s life. He encourages Jefferson not just to believe in himself, but also to conceive of himself as a man more important than any man to live in their town. Everyone, including Jefferson, always believed that Jefferson had to learn his lowly place, but Grant teaches him that he can define his own place. Grant helps Jefferson at first reluctantly, and in order to succeed in teaching Jefferson how to save himself, Grant himself must undergo a series of changes. These changes occur during his interactions with Jefferson, but also with Vivian, with Reverend Ambrose, and with himself. Only when Grant changes can he help Jefferson. Only when Grant realizes and confesses that he needs a savior does Jefferson become a savior.

3.

Why do you think we never meet Vivian’s children? What does their absence from the novel say about Grant and his relationship with Vivian?

Gaines chooses the contents of the novel based on what Grant, the narrator, thinks important. We have access only to what Grant sees and hears and feels, and Grant shows very little interest in Vivian’s children. He only speaks of them once, and even then he only mentions them as part of a bid to be alone with Vivian. To Grant, the children represent obstacles to his relationship with Vivian. He speaks about running away with Vivian without thinking about the effect moving would have on her children. Although Grant muses about what to name his future children, we never learn the names of Vivian’s children.

The fact that Grant virtually ignores Vivian’s children is only one symptom of his failure to respect her. Grant’s self-centered perspective allows very little room for Vivian. He visits her only when he needs comforting and encouragement; he acts surprised when she visits him at his home. We know a few basic facts about her past, and we know that she is very beautiful. Beyond these details, however, Grant gives us very few glimpses into her life. That said, Gaines suggests Vivian’s disapproval and pain in the face of Grant’s inconsiderate actions. When she finally breaks down and tells Grant of her unhappiness, we are not as surprised as Grant.

4.

Why do you think Gaines chose Grant to narrate the novel? Why didn’t he choose an omniscient, third-person to narrate the story?

This novel chronicles not just Jefferson’s transformation, but also Grant’s transformation. By writing from Grant’s point of view, Gaines emphasizes Grant’s experience and transformation above the changes wrought in the other characters. Gaines could have used a third-person narrative, but Grant’s telling of his own story allows us to understand the self-deceptions, the insights, and the small moments of change that mark Grant’s gradual change. Also, because we likely identify with Grant more than with Jefferson, reading from Grant’s perspective forces us to imagine our own reactions to the impossible situation.

Suggested Essay Topics

1. Why does Reverend Ambrose call Grant uneducated?

2. How does Jefferson change Grant’s life? How does Grant change Jefferson’s life?

3. To what degree does Jefferson control his own transformation?

4. Is Jefferson a hero? Is Grant?

5. How does Jefferson compare to other inspirational figures in this novel (Jackie Robinson, Joe Louis, Jesus Christ)? How does Grant compare to them?

More Help

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Conflicts

by brittdawg22, September 02, 2013

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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143 out of 150 people found this helpful

conflicts

by brittdawg22, September 02, 2013

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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10 out of 11 people found this helpful

future conflict?

by brittdawg22, September 02, 2013

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.

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