A Lesson Before Dying

by: Ernest J. Gaines

The Past

Quotes The Past
Her large, dark face showed all the pain she had gone through this day, this past weekend. No. The pain I saw in that face came from many years past.

The narrator, Grant Wiggins, describes Miss Emma, Jefferson’s godmother, as he sees her in the kitchen immediately after the Monday morning sentencing. His comment sets up the novel as not only the story of Jefferson but also the story of an entire group of people over many years. The novel tells the story of racial injustice in the Jim Crow South. Miss Emma’s pain resonates through decades, even centuries, and speaks to the novel’s more universal themes.

You’ll see that it’ll take more than five and a half months to wipe away—peel—scrape away the blanket of ignorance that has been plastered and replastered over those brains in the last three hundred years. You’ll see.

Grant visits his former teacher, Matthew Antoine, who once held the position that Grant now fills. Matthew Antoine appears to be a broken man, a bitter, cynical mulatto from Poulaya who is aging and ill. Grant visits him several times and asks for his advice. During each visit, Antoine always seems cold, in both body and spirit, and tells Grant to simply do his best though his efforts won’t matter anyway. Here, he makes clear his pessimistic and hopeless attitude.

Every moment of the rest of his life, he’s going to know he’s in jail, and he’s going to be here till the end. This ain’t no school, and it ain’t no picnic ground. All right?

The sheriff addresses Grant after one of his visits with Jefferson. The women have asked that they also be allowed to visit Jefferson, along with Reverend Ambrose, in the dayroom. Here, the sheriff agrees to allow the visit as long as Jefferson remains in shackles. The shackles serve as a constant reminder that no matter who visits or where a visit takes place, Jefferson remains and always will be a prisoner. Jefferson’s past action has caught up with him. He will never be allowed to forget or change that past.

What she wants is for him, Jefferson, and me to change everything that has been going on for three hundred years.

At the Rainbow Club, Grant tries to explain to Vivian what Miss Emma truly wants. He says that Miss Emma wants Jefferson to be a man, which means that she wants him to stand up with dignity and have pride in himself. She also wants him to die with self-respect. Grant implies that this desire is not rooted solely in one young man and his godmother. Rather, Miss Emma’s wishes reflect the historical desire of all black women toward their men: a wish for a show of strength and confidence.