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.)
An article in DIScovering Authors (Gale Group, 1999), states, "Gaines depicts the strength and dignity of his Black characters in the face of numerous struggles; the dehumanizing and destructive effects of racism; the breakdown in personal relationships as a result of social pressures; and the choice between secured traditions and the sometimes radical measures necessary to bring about social change."
Grant Wiggins is a product of the school in the Quarter, but because he has been to California, he has had the opportunity to go to high school and college. This has given him a point of view different from that of the people who have lived in the Quarter all their lives. This also makes him somewhat of an outsider, someone who does not quite understand or believe the same things the community does. The Black community respects him because of his education and the White community distrusts him because of it. The White people are not used to a Black man who has been to school. He is out of step, feels degraded when his actions must fit the mold expected by the White community, and dreams of escaping to another place. Vivian points out to him that he had escaped and asks why he came back. He has no answer. He ultimately becomes the student of the community, learning from both Reverend Ambrose and Jefferson what it means to be a part of the community and the history of the community. Jonathan Yardley, writing in the Washington Post Book...
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A twenty-one-year-old slightly retarded black man, Jefferson has always lived on the Pichot plantation with his godmother, Miss Emma, or “Nannan,” as he calls her. On his way to a bar one October day, Jefferson accepts a ride from two other young black men, Bear and Brother. Bear and Brother decide to stop to buy liquor but have no money between them. The two think the store owner, Mr. Grope, will allow them to get the liquor on credit. When they ask him, he disagrees, and they begin to argue. Already drunk, Bear starts around the counter. Mr. Grope gets his gun and begins to shoot. Before Jefferson knows what has happened, all three men are dead. Confused, he is still in the store when two white men find him. He gets blamed for robbing and killing the storeowner.
Jefferson’s attorney tries to use Jefferson’s mental disability as a defense, claiming he has no more intelligence than a hog. The white jury, however, finds Jefferson guilty, and the judge sentences him to the electric chair. Miss Emma resents Jefferson’s being labeled a hog, and implores Grant Wiggins to teach him enough that he can walk to the electric chair with some pride.
When Wiggins begins his visits, Jefferson greets him with silence, the whites of his eyes bloodshot. Jefferson later replaces his silence with talk full of self-disgust and a sense of hopelessness. After months of visits, though, Jefferson begins to question Wiggins about God and heaven, his nannan,...
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Grant Wiggins, the teacher, grew up on the Pichot plantation. Tante Lou, Grant’s aunt and the plantation’s washerwoman, raised him. Even though Tante Lou earned a living in the plantation’s main house, she did not want Grant to have to enter the house ever again through the back door, the servant’s entrance. Thus, she sacrificed to send him to the university to become a teacher, a respected member of society.
At the opening of the story, Grant has taught at the plantation school for six years. The school has not changed much since he left it ten years earlier, nor have the children changed. He knows the children and their families well. He knows which children will fail and which will succeed. He understands their family situations. He encourages the children to do the best they can and to help one another. The community, in turn, appreciates Grant’s returning to the plantation to teach reading and writing. It is because Grant remains one of them, yet has the education no one else has, that Miss Emma chooses him to visit and teach Jefferson. Jefferson has just been convicted of killing the white storeowner and awaits his death. Grant is to try to teach Jefferson to be a man—to try to instill in him a sense of self-worth and pride.
Grant doubts first, his ability to reach Jefferson, and later, his ability to teach him anything of value. He feels frustrated with himself and angry with the system. Grant sees the injustice around him...
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Reverend Mose Ambrose
As the plantation church’s pastor, Reverend Ambrose ministers to the laborers and their families. Even though he has no formal education, he serves his people with a true dedication to his vocation. He baptizes, marries, and buries them and offers words of hope and encouragement through his preaching and caring. He and Grant Wiggins share the privilege of visits to Jefferson. Devoted to God, Reverend Ambrose worries about not only Jefferson’s soul, but also Grant’s. He continually tries to talk to Grant about God and encourages Grant to discuss God with Jefferson. He wants to know if Grant has determined Jefferson’s deepest feelings about death and what it will mean for his soul. Grant, however, feels that Reverend Ambrose is responsible for preparing Jefferson’s soul for death. Reverend Ambrose accuses Grant of being selfish and uneducated because Grant will not accept that heaven exists and will not use his relationship with Jefferson to get Jefferson to accept salvation. Reverend Ambrose believes Grant is a lost soul.
Vivian is Grant Wiggins’s girlfriend, even though she is still married. A beautiful woman, she draws attention to herself wherever she goes. She has light skin, long black hair, high cheekbones, and greenish-brown eyes. She stands tall—about five foot seven—and dresses well. When Tante Lou and Miss Emma first meet her, they resent her light skin and the fact...
(The entire section is 1530 words.)