The Characters (Masterplots II: African American Literature, Revised Edition)
The strong will of two women provides the energy that sets the action of A Lesson Before Dying in motion. The tension between two men who both have something to learn about what it is to be a man provides the central structural principle of the novel.
Miss Emma and Tante Lou are old women in 1948, the year in which the action of the novel takes place. Both were born not long after emancipation, and both have been servants in the homes of white people. They have learned the practice of humility, as required by their position in a racially ordered society, and they also know the deeper humility that is part of their Christian faith. They also know their own worth, and they know how important that knowledge is. That is, in part, what motivates their determination that Jefferson will not go to his death thinking himself less than a man. They know what they can claim for themselves within the place society has defined for them. They employ this knowledge when they present their project to Henri Pichot, whose influence in the region makes his approval a necessity. He must acknowledge that Miss Emma has a right to ask for special consideration, for even this insane social system has its rules, but the women must in turn ask in the tones required by their position within the system. Fortunately, Miss Emma, Tante Lou, and Henri Pichot know how the game is played.
Grant and Jefferson form at first glance an obvious contrast. Grant is an...
(The entire section is 542 words.)
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The Characters (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series, Revised Edition)
Grant Wiggins, the protagonist, is also the novel’s primary narrator, so it is chiefly his thoughts that the reader audits. He is a seeker cut adrift from his communal moorings by his education, which, ironically, seems to limit rather than expand his options. Given his time and place, he can be little other than a teacher, but his doubts about the value of trying to help the quarter children make him harsh and perfunctory, almost a martinet. Initially, he seems destined to fulfill the fate that Matthew Antoine has told him is in store for him, to become “the nigger” he was “born to be.” For Grant, Jefferson’s plight is all too typical of what a young, ignorant black male might expect in a white man’s world, and Grant sees little point in trying to help him. He gradually warms up to his charge, however, not so much from the moral cross Tante Lou has tried to make him shoulder as his desire to prove Sheriff Guidry and others wrong. Blinded by pride, palpable resentment, and doubt, Grant does not fully understand that, in helping Jefferson, he has set out on his own spiritual odyssey, one that finally proves Matthew Antoine wrong. The reader understands, however, and knows that Paul’s visit to the quarter, made from respect and admiration for Grant, signals an enduring, hopeful change.
Although Grant is hostile to Tante Lou’s moral arm-twisting, she is the first important catalyst in his transformation. She will not let Grant wheedle out...
(The entire section is 507 words.)
Characters Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Grant Wiggins, who grew up in the “quarters” and has returned from a California university to teach “reading, writing, and ’rithmetic” in the plantation school. As a first-person narrator in a plot progression that is both bitter and humorous, Grant is not altogether admirable. Struggling with individual and communal concerns, he behaves from a perspective of superiority. In tragic and comedic episodes, he exhibits an ironic detachment that is neither naïve nor dispassionate but perplexingly veiled. His self-deprecatory and contemptuous voice disguises skepticism and uncertainty. Only reluctantly does he attempt the role of secular priest to a convicted man.
Jefferson, a reluctant participant in a liquor store shoot-out in which three persons are killed: Brother and Bear (the robbers) and Alcee Grope (the white owner). As the lone survivor, Jefferson is accused of planning the robbery and of murder. At his trial, the defense attorney contends that Jefferson is incapable of premeditated murder even though he behaved “like a fool” or “a cornered animal.” To the outrage of Jefferson’s godmother and significant others in the “quarters,” the lawyer further argues, “Why, I could just as soon put a hog in the electric chair as this.” Jefferson is sentenced by a panel of twelve white men to death by electrocution. Enduring the drab conditions of incarceration, Jefferson...
(The entire section is 468 words.)