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A Lesson Before Dying

Ernest J. Gaines

Themes, Motifs & Symbols

Analysis of Major Characters

Chapters 1–2

Themes

Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
Recognizing Injustice and Facing Responsibility

Grant often criticizes his society. He bitterly resents the racism of whites, and he cannot stand to think of Jefferson’s unjust conviction and imprisonment. For most of the novel, however, he does nothing to better his lot. He sarcastically claims that he teaches children to be strong men and women despite their surroundings, but he is a difficult, angry schoolmaster. Grant longs to run away and escape the society he feels will never change. Like Professor Antoine, he believes no one can change society without being destroyed in the process.

Jefferson’s trial reinforces Grant’s pessimistic attitude. Grant sees the wickedness of a system designed to uphold the superiority of one race over another. He sees a man struck down to the level of a hog by a few words from an attorney. He sees a judge blind to justice and a jury deaf to truth. These injustices are particularly infuriating because no one stands up to defy them. The entire town accepts Jefferson’s conviction with a solemn silence. Even Grant stays silent, resisting his aunt and Miss Emma, who implore him to teach Jefferson how to regain his humanity.

During the course of the novel, however, Grant comes to realize that cynicism like his is akin to lying down and dying, and that even small victories can accumulate and produce change. Rather than looking at Jefferson as a hopeless stranger, or ridiculing him as someone who tries to make Grant feel guilty, Grant accepts Jefferson’s plight as his own and begins to fight for Jefferson’s salvation. He accepts his duty to the society he inhabits, thereby taking the first step toward improving that society.

Redemption in Death

With its consistent references to Jesus Christ and his crucifixion, this novel insists that a man’s death can be a meaningful event that bolsters a community. Jefferson has led a quiet life, working as a common laborer for years and never speaking a word out of turn. When convicted for a crime he did not commit, Jefferson is initially angry and recalcitrant, acting like the animal the whites think him. Eventually, however, his death sentence liberates him, and he finds spiritual rejuvenation.

By the end of the novel, Jefferson understands that by dying like a man, he will defy the society that wrongfully accused him and convicted him not just of murder, but of being black-skinned. He knows that by refusing to bow down in his final moments, he will make his community proud. For these reasons, he walks to his execution calmly, and onlookers say he is the strongest man in the room.

The Inescapable Past

Both Grant and Vivian are haunted by their pasts. White people treated Grant as their inferior as he was growing up. Grant deliberately severs himself from his past because thinking of it discomfits him. Vivian, however, recognizes the sway her past has over her, and she deals with it. She cannot completely embrace her relationship with Grant, in part because her husband still threatens to take her children away from her. She also realizes that their history in Bayonne means that she and Grant cannot run away from their town. Unlike Grant, she recognizes that the problems of the past will not disappear by changing geographic location. Moreover, she recognizes that Grant’s wish to ignore his past is symptomatic of his inability to love his community, or to love her for that matter. Gaines suggests that only confronting racism will change it.

Constructive Lying

Reverend Ambrose delivers a rousing speech to Grant asserting that black people must lie and cheat in order to survive in the racist South. They must tell themselves that heaven exists, that they are not in pain, that God is good. The reverend suggests that Grant should cease judging people for lying. After all, Grant went to college on the strength of his aunt’s lies. She deceived him and herself, saying she was fine when actually she was working her fingers to the bone. Gaines suggests that racism forces men and women to compromise their ideals simply to stay alive. He suggests that if black people are not to lie down and give up in the face of an unethical system, they must sustain their sense of hope although it may require them to lie to themselves.

Motifs

Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
Small Displays of Power

Gaines shows how racism pervades every nook and cranny of society, grinding down black people in everyday interactions. Black people are made to feel their inferiority when they are made to wait at a white person’s leisure, forced to enter through the back door of a white person’s house, or treated shabbily by a white salesperson. When Grant must enter Pichot’s house through the back door, it is a symbolic reminder of the days of slavery, when slaves could never approach the front door. When angry, the black Reverend Ambrose wields his power over Grant by calling him “boy,” using one of the pejorative terms usually employed by racist whites when referring to grown black men. Gaines suggests that such small moments of subjugation are impossible to shake off because of their cumulative oppressive effect.

Christian Imagery

Jefferson becomes a Christ figure as the novel progresses. Unjustly tried and convicted, the simple-minded Jefferson dies a martyr. The mayor attempts to dispel some of the associations of Jefferson with Christ by setting the execution date for two weeks after Easter, but his awareness of the imagery simply reinforces its power. In trying to move Jefferson to die with dignity, the cynical Grant begins to think of him as a Christ figure—repenting in front of Jefferson and saying that he feels lost—but should Jefferson show him the way, he will find salvation, if not as a Christian then as a caring and active member of the community. Grant tells Vivian that only Jefferson can break the cycle of failed black men; at the end of the novel, Grant begs Jefferson’s forgiveness as if speaking to a savior.

Symbols

Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
The Notebook

The notebook represents Jefferson’s reconnection with his humanity, a reconciliation facilitated by Grant. By writing down his thoughts, Jefferson reflects upon his position in an unjust world and begins to think seriously about his life. The notebook also symbolizes the reciprocal friendship between Grant and Jefferson. Grant gives Jefferson the notebook, symbolizing his desire to teach Jefferson and help Jefferson teach himself. Jefferson writes in the notebook as if writing a letter to Grant, which suggests that Jefferson looks to Grant for guidance even when alone in his cell. Finally, the notebook symbolizes hope for future collaboration not just between blacks, but between blacks and whites—for Paul, the white deputy, delivers the book to Grant and asks to shake Grant’s hand.

The Chair

When it arrives in a large black truck, the chair in which Jefferson must die evokes many different reactions from people in the town. The truck drives slowly through the town, and everyone comes out to see it. Some fear the chair. Some become nauseous looking at it or thinking about it. Some treat it with great care and hesitate to joke about it. Others, specifically white men, joke about using it to warn black men to watch their steps. The chair symbolizes the violence of the unjust system that convicted Jefferson. It also represents the fear that racism instills.

The Church

The church symbolizes the hope that society will change. Miss Emma, Tante Lou, and Reverend Ambrose believe that God helps them—they use this belief to comfort themselves in the face of prejudice and injustice. In the reverend’s eyes, when Grant unconditionally rejects God and the church, he rejects the possibility that anything can be done to improve society. Reverend Ambrose confronts Grant in Chapter 27, asking him, “You think a man can’t kneel and stand?” The reverend suggests that kneeling before God does not humble people, it gives them dignity. When Grant recognizes that his rejection of the church stems from his own inability to engage actively with his community, he moves closer to a -dignified existence.

Food and Drink

Characters use food to symbolize their affection for one another. Miss Emma brings food for Jefferson; when he refuses to eat it, Grant takes the refusal seriously as an expression of Jefferson’s anger at his family and begs him to eat in order to show Miss Emma that he loves her. When Grant becomes angry with Tante Lou, he insults her by refusing to eat her cooking. Grant offers to bring Jefferson ice cream and asks his students to gather peanuts and pecans as a gift for Jefferson. At the pivotal moment when Jefferson starts teaching Grant, he offers Grant food as a way of showing his -affection.

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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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121 out of 126 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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9 out of 10 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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