A Lesson Before Dying

Ernest J. Gaines
Summary

Chapters 13–15

Summary Chapters 13–15

Analysis: Chapters 13–15

Despite their love for one another, Grant continues to neglect Vivian. When they stand on the porch after the initial barrage of questions from Tante Lou, Grant shows that he lacks sensitivity when he tells Vivian that he considers his family’s reaction “far from being the same thing” as the situation between her family and her husband. He may not intend to hurt her, but her silence and her hasty exit indicates that she takes offense to Grant’s remark. At this point, she doesn’t need to feel like an outsider. She needs comfort. Recognizing the similarities between their families provides her with some comfort, but Grant proves insensitive to her feelings by contradicting her. Moreover, Grant never interacts with her children and refers to them only as “the babies,” and only when they interfere with his weekend plans. He never even mentions their names to the reader, despite the fact that he and Vivian discuss the names for their future children. Though he loves Vivian, he does not recognize the fact that her children have grown up in the community. Instead, he plans to leave Louisiana one day, and he wants her to leave everything behind and go with him.

Given Grant’s blindness, and given the fact that Grant’s thoughts and actions represent the only point of view in the novel, the reader receives a limited picture of Vivian. Like most of the other characters in this novel, she seems to have very little significance beyond her direct influence upon Grant’s daily life. This limitation reveals yet again just how harshly we must criticize Grant and question how he relates information. We perceive characters and events through the eyes of a single, biased narrator. Even so, Gaines provides glimpses of Vivian’s character— her strength and resolve, her critical and sensitive nature—when he shows how she reacts critically to Grant both in these chapters and in their previous conversations. Ultimately, Vivian will confront Grant and burst his self-indulgent bubble, further displaying her vivid and powerful emotional life.

Vivian’s family illustrates how mulattoes displayed prejudice toward blacks, but Grant and Tante Lou illustrate how African-Americans of strict African heritage often act distrustfully toward mulattoes as well, even well-meaning people like Vivian. The ladies description of Vivian as a “lady of quality” includes elements of both praise and a mild resentment. Tante Lou says, “quality ain’t cheap,” degrading Vivian as an object for sale even while she puts her on a pedestal. Grant himself shows his resentment toward mulattoes when he tells Vivian that his family is “far from being the same thing” as hers. Both Grant and Tante Lou allow their defensive stance to affect negatively their relationships with well-meaning mulattoes. Recalling his description of the bitter Professor Antoine from Chapter 8, Gaines again addresses the paradoxical relationship between blacks and mulattoes, showing how racism breeds divisiveness within the African-American -community itself.

Grant indicates that his conflict with the church stems more from his inner conflict with himself than from a serious critique of the church. Gaines does not clarify in the novel whether Grant truly believes in a higher power called “God,” but he clearly indicates that Grant has little patience for any of the traditional church practices in which his aunt finds comfort. As we will later discover, Grant believes that the Christian church merely functions to keep black people in a subservient state, and that the God worshipped by his family and friends, therefore, is nothing more than a white God. However, Grant’s statement about “running in place” indicates that something inside prevents him from fully extracting himself from his community and his church. He feels drawn to his place of birth while simultaneously wishing to run away, indicating that he understands to a certain extent that his hard-and-fast interpretation of the black church as a white tool lacks sophistication. Having distanced himself from his community while at the university, Grant cannot see the positive values associated with the church.