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Free Study Guide-A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest J. Gaines-Chapter Summary
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PLOT STRUCTURE ANALYSIS

A Lesson Before Dying is structured around Grant. The novel traces his individual growth as he works with Jefferson, and this development gives shape to the work’s overall discussion of fatalism, individualism, heroism, and social injustice. From the start Grant is an angry, bitter, and self-absorbed person. He is angry at a society that, despite his university degree, will only allow him to teach other blacks. He blames his community for burdening him with unreasonable expectations and suffocating him instead of allowing him to leave Louisiana and pursue his own path. Most of all, he loathes himself for playing his role in a segregationist society and his own inability to somehow break free.

Grant does not attend Jefferson’s trial for two reasons. First, it does not directly affect him and so he sees no reason for it to interrupt his life. Second, in his fatalistic (or perhaps realistic) mind, he doesn’t need to attend because he already knows the outcome. When Miss Emma first approaches him about visiting Jefferson he wants nothing to do with it. He doesn’t believe his actions, or anyone else’s at this point, can make any difference in Jefferson’s life. Furthermore, he hates being committed to the school and doesn’t want to take on any added responsibilities. Grant wants to live for himself and Vivian, and no one else. But his relationship with Vivian also provides a glimpse into his selfish nature. He views her as an object, someone who makes him happy, but gives little thought to her own needs or his obligations to her. For example, he doesn’t seem at all interested in her children and they are never heard from during the story.


Before he changes himself, Grant plays an important role in Jefferson’s development. In Jefferson, Grant meets a person angrier more self-absorbed than himself. Both Jefferson and Grant have suffered injustice, but Grant struggles to help Jefferson understand that these attitudes are preventing him from achieving something remarkable. He teaches Jefferson the meaning of obligation, trying to convince Jefferson to eat some of Miss Emma’s food and make her happy. He teaches Jefferson about heroism, hoping Jefferson will realize the effect that standing up and walking to the chair like a man will have on people in the quarter. For his own part, Grant isn’t a very good example of duty or heroism, but teaching these values to Jefferson does impress their importance on him.

Grant’s own transformation involves the incorporation of values he has been teaching Jefferson into his own life. Just as he has taught Jefferson, Vivian and Reverend Ambrose become his teachers. After pulling him out of the bar fight at the Rainbow Room, Vivian explains that their relationship is doomed if he won’t ever think about anyone but himself. Grant is tempted to run away from the problem, but realizes he had nothing good in his life without Vivian. Next Reverend Ambrose informs him of his Aunt Tante Lou’s sacrifices so that he could go to university. He reminds Grant that he is not educated unless he understands himself and his people. On his next visit to Jefferson’s cell, Grant has undergone a type of conversion. He has new respect for Jefferson’s courage and his willingness to be strong for the sake of others. Yet Grant remains a flawed hero. In spite of everything they’ve been through together, Grant can’t make himself go to Jefferson’s execution.

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