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Free Study Guide-A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest J. Gaines-Chapter Summary
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POINT OF VIEW

Grant tells the entire story in a first person narrative style. His narration reveals his fickle character. He is brooding right from the start, but also alternates between cynicism and confidence according to the events of the story.

GENRE

Fiction, Historical fiction, Social commentary


IMPORTANT QUOTATIONS - QUOTES

1) “ But let us say he was (guilty). Let us for a moment say he was (guilty). What justice would there be to take his life? Justice, gentlemen? Why, I would just as soon put a hog in the electric chair as this.” (Page 8)

The public defender in Jefferson’s case attempts to win leniency by claiming that Jefferson has diminished capacity to reason. It is an appeal to the belief that blacks were somehow sub-human. It is the quote that begins the action in the novel. From that point on Grant’s mission in the book is to show Jefferson hope, dignity, and self-respect, and to prove to whites and blacks alike that it is possible to rise above your circumstances.

2) “I still don’t even know if the sheriff will let me see him. And suppose he did; what then? What do I say to him? Do I know what a man is? Do I know how a man is supposed to die? I’m still trying to find out how a man should live. Am I supposed to tell someone how to die who has never lived?” (Page 31)

Grant talks with Vivian about his Aunt’s proposal that he visit Jefferson and try to make him into a man before his execution. The quote speaks to Grant’s own insecurities that, despite his education and teaching job, he understands no more about finding meaning in life than anyone else in the black community.

3) “Now, about that mulatto teacher and me. There was no love there for each other. There was not even respect. We were enemies if anything. He hated me, and I knew it, and he knew I knew it. I didn’t like him, but I needed him, needed him to tell me something that none of the others could or would.” (Page 64)

Grant wants his former teacher to confirm his suspicion that he must leave the South if he wants to experiences anything other than humiliation and disappointment. Mathew Antoine represents the pessimistic, darker side of Grant’s personality.

4) “‘I can’t tell you anything about life,’ he said. ‘What do I know about life? I stayed here. There’s nothing but ignorance here. You want to know about life? Well, it’s too late. Forget it. Just go on and be the nigger you were born to be, but forget about life.’” (Page 65)

This is Mathew Antoine’s response to Grant’s inquiries about how be a man in the South, how he can find happiness and fulfillment in life. The mulatto teacher tries to convince Grant that there are only two option for a black man in the South: either run away to make a life somewhere else; or stay and be broken down by the white racist establishment.

5) “Go back,” she said.

“Why, Miss Emma?” “’Cause somebody go’n do something for me ‘fore I die.” “Why me?”

“’Cause you the teacher,” my aunt said. I got up from the table.

“And where do you think you’re going?” Tante Lou asked me. “I don’t know,” I said. “But I’ll go crazy if I stay here, that’s for sure.” “You going back up there, Grant.”

“What for?” I said. “What for, Tante Lou? He treated me the same way he treated her. He wants me to feel guilty, just as he wants her to feel guilty. Well, I’m not feeling guilty, Tante Lou. I didn’t put him there. I do everything I know how to do to keep people like him from going there. He’s not going to make me feel guilty.”

“You going back,” she said. “You ain’t going to run away from this, Grant.” (Page 123)

Grant expresses his frustration at the thought of having to continually visit Jefferson until the execution. His aunt reminds him that he cannot run away from this problem - he must face it like a man. His first duty is to respect the wishes of his elders. But, as the teacher, he also has a duty to share what he knows about life with the people of the quarter. The latter responsibility is the most daunting of the two, since Grant doesn’t feel he knows anything about life.

6) ‘Go on and scream, Jefferson. Go on and scream for Guidry, if that’s what you want.’

“We looked at each other, and I could see in those big reddened eyes that he was not going to scream. He was full of anger - and who could blame him? - but he was no fool. He needed me, and he wanted me here, if only to insult me.” (Page 130)

Jefferson is immersed in self-pity, and he wants everyone else to feel that pity too. Having never experience much kindness during his life from anyone except Miss Emma, he is unnerved by Grant’s visits. He doesn’t trust Grant. At one point, to lash out at Grant, he considers calling the Sheriff to end the visits. When he sees the Grant is willing to call his bluff, he reconsiders. In the end, he decides that he wants Grant around, if only as a target for his hate and anger.

7) “We black men have failed to protect our women since the time of slavery. We stay here in the South and are broken, or we run away and leave them alone to look after the children and themselves. So each time a male child is born, they hope he will be the one to change this vicious circle - which he never does. Because even though he wants to change, and maybe even tries to change it, it is too heavy a burden because of all the others who have run away and left their burdens behind. So he, too, must run away if he is to hold on to his sanity and have a life of his own. I see by your face you don’t agree so I’ll try again. What she wants is for him, Jefferson, and me to change everything that had been going on for three hundred years. She wants it to happen so in case she ever gets out of her bed again, she can go to that little church there in the quarter and say proudly, ‘You see, I told you - I told you he was a man.’” (Page 167)

While Grant and Vivian are having a drink at the Rainbow Club he explains to her that expectations that Miss Emma has for both him and Jefferson. His explanation relates the dilemma facing black men in the South, either stay and be broken by the white establishment, or run away from your responsibilities and make a new life for yourself. Miss Emma constantly repeats the phrases “Somebody goin’ do something for me before I die,” and what she wants is for Jefferson to stand up and be a man for her. Grant’s explanation gives the reader a better understanding of the pressures and expectations that are weighing down on Grant as he tries to make a life for himself and help Jefferson deal with death at the same time.

8) “Do you know what a myth is, Jefferson?” I asked him. “A myth is an old lie that people believe in. White people believe that they’re better than anyone else on earth - and that’s a myth. The last thing they ever want is to see a black man stand, and think, and show that common humanity that is in us all. It would destroy their myth. They would no longer have justification for having made us slaves and keeping us in the condition we are in. As long as none of us stand they’re safe. They’re safe with me. They’re safe with Reverend Ambrose. I don’t want them to feel safe with you anymore.” (Page 192)

As Jefferson and Grant walk around the day room, out of ear-shot of Miss Emma and Reverend Ambrose, Grant explains what is expected of Jefferson in his last few weeks. He admits himself to be a slave, because he fails to challenge the white discrimination. But Jefferson can do a lot to defy the myth of white supremacy by going to the chair like a man.

9) “What did you learn (at college) about your own people? What did you learn her - her ‘round there?” he said, gesturing towards the other room and trying to keep his voice down.

I didn’t answer him. “No, you not educated, boy,” he said, shaking his head. “You far from being educated. You learned your reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic, but you don’t know nothing. You don’t even know yourself. Well?”

“You’re doing the talking, Reverend.” “And educated, boy,” he said, thumping his chest. “I’m the one that’s educated. I know people like you look down on people like me, but” - he touched his chest again - “I’m the one that’s educated.” (Page 215)

Reverend Ambrose explains to Grant the meaning of education. Grant may have a college degree, but an educated man knows himself, knows his people and their suffering. Reverend Ambrose’s understanding and empathy for his people is his education. In their conversation, Reverend Ambrose asks Grant if he knew about Tante Lou’s hands, scarred from cutting cane to pay for Grant’s college. Or her knees scarred from praying for Grant. Grant doesn’t know about any of this, she’d hid it from him. That makes him the dupe.

10) “Don’t tell me to believe. Don’t tell me to believe in the same God or laws that men believe in who commit these murders. Don’t tell me to believe that God can bless this country and that men are judged by their peers. Who among his peers judged him? Was I there? Was the minister there? Was Harry Williams there? Was Farrell Jarreau? Was my aunt? Was Vivian? No, his peers did not judge him, and I will not believe.”

“Yet they must believe. They must believe, if only to free the mind, if not the body. Only when the mind is free has the body a chance to be free. Yes, they must believe, they must believe. Because I know what it means to be a slave. I am a slave.” (Page 251)

As he waits outside the schoolhouse for word of Jefferson’s execution, Grant is understandably bitter. He has a simplistic version of religion: there must not be a God, because God would not allow injustices like Jefferson’s execution. Grant’s only faith was in Jefferson, and it dies when he dies. He has, however, begun to understand his own people a little better, which means he is beginning to be educated.

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