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As the main protagonist, Grant struggles to find a meaningful form of existence as an educated black man in the segregated South. Instead of improving his life, a university education only robs him of his former blissful pleasures while burdening him with added questions about the meaning of life. At the beginning of the novel he sides with Mathew Antoine and the fatalists. Not only does he think his teaching has no effect on his students, but he also considers himself powerless to changes his own life. This is one reason he abandons religion, because the redemption of mankind contradicts his belief that environment dictates our life’s course. He judges himself trapped in a job he hates because teaching school is the only thing an educated black man can do in the South. He can’t run off to California because he feels guilty about abandoning the people who sent him to university in the first place. So, he returns from university unable to accept his former life, unable to leave it.
with Jefferson changes all of this. At first he is dismissive of the idea that
his visits to Jefferson will benefit anyone, least of all himself. He accepts
Mathew Antoine’s fatalist attitude that, as a teacher you do as much as you can,
but in the end it won’t matter. He visits Jefferson out of a sense of duty to
his aunt. During the course of their visits, however, Grant watches this philosophy
crumble as Jefferson undergoes a remarkable transformation. At the conclusion,
Grant has undergone a conversion process to the idea of individualism. If Jefferson
can change himself from a ‘hog’ to the bravest man in the execution room, Grant
can change his own life. If he made a difference to a convict on death row, perhaps
he can make a difference to his students. Ironically, Grant’s search for the nature
of life finds meaningful answers in preparing for Jefferson’s death.
Vivian is a schoolteacher in Bayonne with extremely light-colored skin. Her family lives in Free LaCove, a community of mulattoes. The people in Free LaCove are extremely prejudiced against anyone with darker skin, so when Vivian goes off to college and marries a black man her family refuses to acknowledge him or their dark-skinned children. She has separated from her husband and is waiting for the divorce to become final, but still worries that her husband may come and try to take away the children.
Vivian represents the individualist side of Grant’s nature. He keeps visiting Jefferson largely because Vivian tells him this is something he needs to do. She repeatedly reminds him that his efforts are making a difference with Jefferson, and that things are slowly changing. When the impulse to run away from all his responsibilities becomes overwhelming, Vivian reminds Grant that he loves the people here more than he hates the problems and the discrimination.
Aunt Tante Lou
Grant’s aunt represents the ideal of self-sacrifice. She raised him from a baby because his parents left the South for California. She understands duty to family and community. She and Miss Emma both worked in Henri Pichot’s kitchen for decades before finally retiring. She cut sugar cane for years to send Grant to university so that he would never have to walk through the kitchen door at Henri Pichot’s again, meaning she wants him to be able to escape her life of servitude. But when Jefferson is incarcerated she tries to convince Grant that his responsibility to family outweighs the personal inconvenience and humiliation he has to suffer.
Like Tante Lou, she embodies self-sacrifice. She has spent her life raising Jefferson as his Godmother. Thus, she feels slighted when the defense attorney labels Jefferson a ‘hog’ because it renders her life’s work meaningless - she didn’t raise a hog. After that she continues to work tirelessly to make sure everyone recognizes Jefferson is a man when he goes to the chair. She convinces Henri Pichot to arrange a meeting with the Sheriff. She talks with the Sheriff’s wife about allowing them to meet with Jefferson in the day room at the courthouse. When Grant repeatedly asks why he must visit Jefferson, she responds that “someone goin’ do something for me before I die.”
The Reverend didn’t study theology at a seminary. He simply felt the urge to start preaching, so he did. More importantly, Reverend Ambrose understands that his job is not just to teach with the sermon, but also to lead through service and example. He spends nights at Miss Emma’s house during the ordeal and witnesses the execution. Although he does not have a degree, the Rev. understands himself and he knows the people of the quarter. Rev. Ambrose is uncomfortable having an agnostic teacher at the school, and he doesn’t think Grant is a good influence on Jefferson, who needs to accept Jesus in his final days on earth. He also helps Grant understand that education involves self-awareness.
Jefferson is a Christ-like figure. He is innocent of murder but goes like a lamb to the slaughter. He is even executed close to Easter, the commemoration of Christ’s death and resurrection. Like Grant, he begins his jail-sentence as a self-obsessed individual. Gradually, he understand that, although he can do nothing to save himself, his example can help others avoid his fate and improve their own lives. In his diary he records his astonishment that no one took an interest in him while he was alive, but now that he is going to die all sorts of people take time to make contact with him. Jefferson can stand up to racism in a unique way because, in a sense, he’s already dead. There is no worse punishment the man can give him. Thus, he is freer than Grant, Reverend Ambrose, or other blacks in the quarter because he can stand up and be a man without fear of repercussion.
The former schoolteacher represents the darker side of Grant’s nature and has a fatalistic influence over him. Like Grant, Antoine’s education only makes him bitter and self-obsessed. Like most mulattoes, he hates all people with darker skin, including Grant. Antoine stays in the South not because he likes teaching, but because there’s nowhere else he can feel superior to so many people. He truly believe that his light skin makes him superior to blacks, just as he accepts that whites are naturally superior to himself. He has a very destructive influence on Grant, convincing him that he has only two choices. He can run away from the South. Or, if he stays, he will eventually be broken down in to a ‘nigger’ and become like all other blacks in the quarter. Unlike Vivian, he tries to convince Grant that his efforts with the schoolchildren and Jefferson will make no difference in their lives whatsoever.
Sheriff Sam Guidry
The archetypical authority figure, the Sheriff represents the white Southern power structure. Despite his prejudice, he treats Jefferson with a firm, yet gentle hand during the latter’s stay in jail because he knows Jefferson is no threat to him. He is far more suspicious of Grant, because he recognizes that Grant is more educated than himself. Thus, he seeks out opportunities to reaffirm his status. Before their first meeting, he keeps Grant waiting in the Pichot’s kitchen for almost two hours as a not-so-subtle remind of his authority. In all their dealings, Sheriff Guidry is condescending towards Grant. He uses the title ‘professor’ in addressing Grant as a way of amusing himself and his colleagues. Like Antoine, he is a fatalist. He doesn’t believe Jefferson capable of change and thinks that Grant’s visitations are all a waste of time.
Three things separate Paul from the other deputies in the Sheriff’s department. First, he’s the youngest, implying that he’s more tolerant of new ideas. Second, everyone describes him as having “come from good stock,” meaning that his family knows how to treat people decently regardless of color or station. Last of all, Paul is the only deputy that treats Grant with some respect and hopes that his efforts will help Jefferson. At the ends of the book, Paul delivers Jefferson’s diary to Grant, symbolizing hope for a better future.