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A Lesson Before Dying

Ernest J. Gaines
Summary Chapters 9–12
Summary Chapters 9–12

Grant’s discussion of Joe Louis and Jackie Robinson suggests that because few black public figures and heroes existed in the 1940s, sports figures like Joe Louis and Jackie Robinson shouldered the burden of personifying black greatness in public. These giants take on almost godlike qualities in the public eye; Grant dreams that the men could rescue the downtrodden from death. In his dream, a young man calls for Joe Louis to save him as if asking Jesus Christ for salvation. In this novel, however, Gaines shows how Jefferson and Grant come to serve as heroes for each other. Each develops a strong sense of humanity and character by working with the person in front of him, not by searching for a god to save him. Gaines does not wish to diminish the accomplishments of heroes like Joe Louis or Jackie Robinson, nor does he aim to degrade people for looking up to these heroes. Rather, he tries to show how two ordinary black men living in the troubled South become heroic figures for each other and for others too.

For Grant, Vivian and the Club both provide an escape and demand conscientiousness. While at the Club, Grant wonders whether Jefferson would ask for salvation from Jackie Robinson like the young man in his dream. In realizing that Jefferson would have to appeal to Jackie Robinson, Grant realizes that Jefferson lacks a positive role model, a hero, or a God who can actually save him. Vivian acts as Grant’s conscience, drawing attention to his tendency to deny reality. After Grant expresses a longing to leave the South, Vivian brings him back to earth, saying that both she and Grant must remain in the South. She says the South is all they have, implying that despite the difficulties they face, they have an obligation to the black quarter and its inhabitants—they cannot forsake their roots and community. Vivian knows why Grant never acts upon his urge to leave the South and spells it out for him, saying, “You love them more than you hate this place.” Grant says he wants more, which points both to his laudable desire to create a better life for himself and his bullheaded resistance to Vivian’s sensible observations. Although with his departure and return Grant has proven Vivian right in her idea that he loves his people more he hates the South, he remains convinced that by running away he and Vivian will solve all of their problems.

Vivian is proud of her love for Grant, and, despite her will to remain in Bayonne to keep her children, she cannot hide this love. The fact that the whole school is suspicious of their relationship, and that Vivian proudly accepts and announces that they suspect it, indicates that she foresees their ultimate union with one another. 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.