A Lesson Before Dying

by: Ernest J. Gaines

Grant Wiggins

Characters Grant Wiggins

The protagonist of the novel, Grant is the son of cane-cutters who labored on a Louisiana plantation. He grows up working in a menial job, but makes his escape and goes to college. He returns to his hometown a secular, educated man, distanced from his downtrodden black community. College has given him a more sophisticated perspective and an educated way of thinking and speaking. Yet despite the changes in Grant, white people still consider him inferior. Their shoddy treatment outrages Grant, but he says nothing and does nothing. He feels rage at the whites for treating him badly and rage at himself for taking the treatment lying down. This rage, bottled up in Grant, turns to bitterness, cynicism, and self-absorption. He feels he cannot help his community, and in order to stop this failure from paining him, he removes himself from the people he loves, looking on them with contempt and deciding that, since they are beyond hope, he cannot be blamed for failing to help them.

Grant’s perspective changes over the course of the novel as a result of his visits to Jefferson and his interactions with Vivian, his aunt Tante Lou, and Reverend Ambrose. He learns to love something other than himself and to strive for change without retreating into his shell of cynicism. Still, Gaines does not suggest that because Grant’s attitude improves, he will be able to effect great change; he does not even suggest that Grant’s attitude improves entirely. Jefferson dies nobly, but he still dies, murdered by his racist oppressors. Grant ends the novel encouraged by the changes he has seen, but depressed at the barbarity of his society. He is still afraid, he is still withdrawn from some people, and he is still sarcastic and angry. Grant’s character development suggests that although great personal and societal improvement is possible, no quick fix will help a racist community, and for that reason Grant is justified in his despair.