A Lesson Before Dying

by: Ernest J. Gaines

Redemption

Quotes Redemption
“Reverend Mose will visit him,” Miss Emma said. “But no, sir, I won’t keep it at that.”

After Henri Pichot suggests that Jefferson only needs a minister to save his soul, his godmother, Miss Emma, expresses her own ideas about the matter and makes clear that she won’t back down. She wants Grant to turn Jefferson into a man, an act that will save his mind as well. In her quiet, persistent way, Miss Emma reminds Henri of all the years she served his family and that she deserves to have her desires honored.

Do I know how a man is supposed to die? I’m still trying to find out how a man should live. Am I supposed to tell someone how to die who has never lived?

As Grant confides his confusion to Vivian, he makes the connection between redemption and death by asking these questions. These lines represent the first hint in the text that death will bring redemption—and teach lessons—to both the doomed man, Jefferson, and the teacher himself, Grant. Although Grant cannot save Jefferson’s life, their journey together might save Jefferson’s soul and mind.

“Make him a man for what?” “To die with some dignity, I suppose. I suppose that’s what she wants.” “You think that’s a good idea?” “That’s what she wants, sir.”

Jefferson’s godmother, Miss Emma, wants him to die as a man, not a hog, which is why she wants Grant to spend time with him, teaching him what he can. During this conversation with the sheriff, Sam Guidry, Grant admits that teaching Jefferson was not his idea and that he’s not even sure what he’ll say to Jefferson if Guidry lets him visit. The sheriff doesn’t think highly of the idea, but his wife convinced him to allow Grant’s visits because Miss Emma has been so good to their family.

“Deep in you?” Reverend Ambrose said. “Deep in you, you think he know, he done grasped the significance of what it’s all about? Deep in you?”

After Grant’s first solo visit to Jefferson’s cell, Reverend Ambrose sits in the kitchen with Miss Emma and Tante Lou, hoping to hear how the visit went. Here, he demands Grant reveal what he believes, deep inside, about the condition of Jefferson’s soul, a question that Grant skirts. Grant himself no longer believes and seems to want to avoid having to reveal such a truth. He lost his faith while he studied at the university. Grant explains that he thinks there is room enough in that cell for both himself and the minister, for both secular redemption and religious.

“No matter how bad off we are,” I said, “we still owe something. You owe something, Jefferson. Not to me . . . But to your godmother. You must show her some understanding, some kind of love.”

For Grant Wiggins, the only path to redemption is love and respect, and in Jefferson’s case, the path lies in the love he can still show toward Miss Emma. At this point in the novel, Jefferson has not yet accepted Grant’s belief, but readers may note a crack in his hard exterior shield. Grant argues that Jefferson is human because he talks and wears clothes, and at least Jefferson converses with him. They are making some progress.

“You’re just lost,” he said. “That’s all. You’re just lost.” “Yes, sir, I’m lost. Like most men, I’m lost.” “Not all men,” he said. “Me, I’m found.” “Then you’re one of the lucky ones, Reverend.”

In this exchange, Grant and Reverend Ambrose go head to head, with Ambrose expressing his disdain for the secular way in which Grant lives his life. Reverend Ambrose sees the world in black and white, while Grant seems to understand that there exist many shades of gray. According to Ambrose, people are either lost or found, depending on whether they fall down on their knees and accept Christianity. Ambrose wants Jefferson to kneel. Grant wants him to stand. During this exchange, Grant remains humble, while Reverend Ambrose takes on an arrogant air. No matter what the attitude, both men seem determined.