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 educated man who has known the world beyond the quarter, while Jefferson may seem to represent Grant’s worst fears of what the quarter may normally be expected to produce. The design of the novel demands that these two touch each other at a very deep level, and that can happen convincingly only if it becomes evident that the two men share some quality that will permit that touching to occur. What both men need, as gradually becomes clear, is a recognition and acceptance of their own humanity. The circumstances of Jefferson’s life and of his impending death make this immediately evident in his case. Grant, however, lives in a psychological prison. He is helpless to bring about a satisfactory resolution to his relationship with Vivian, and he is convinced that his efforts to educate the children of the quarter are an exercise in futility. That he is required by social convention to conceal the signs of his own education when talking to white people intensifies his sense of hopelessness. He lives therefore from moment to moment, in a constant, barely repressed awareness of his impotence. What he does not at first recognize is that his call to teach Jefferson will allow him to find his own dignity and humanity. Thus, he and Jefferson share a lesson, the lesson, perhaps, all people must learn before dying.
The interaction among these principal characters is enriched by an abundance of sharply drawn minor characters, both black and white. As is customary in Gaines’s work, there are no stereotypes or caricatures to be found in this novel. He treats all of his characters, even those of whose conduct he must disapprove, with imaginative sympathy and generosity.
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 of what she perceives as both his Christian and communal responsibility. His education has led him to question her beliefs, but Grant’s residual sense of guilt is tapped by his aunt, for whom he has both affection and grudging reverence. She, of course, is bound to the community by traditional ties based in an abiding faith that Grant, in his modern enlightenment, has almost entirely rejected. He cannot, however, refuse her on a personal level. Vivian is the other important catalyst. Her love offers Grant solace and hope in his darker moments, when the pointlessness of trying to help seems confirmed by Jefferson’s actions. She also keeps Grant anchored to his job, because she is not free to leave with him until she obtains her divorce. Her own strong sense of responsibility, rooted in more private feelings of pride and dignity, nicely balances Tante Lou’s.
While Grant’s main conflict lies within, it is to an important degree objectified in the person of Jefferson, the novel’s victim. To raise him up, Grant must overcome Jefferson’s self-loathing, inculcated by whites who have repeatedly told him that he is no better than an animal. It is that same self-effacement and contempt from which Grant has tried to run, evading rather than coping with it. In helping Jefferson, he is at last forced to face up to and triumph over it. Jefferson, going to his death with manly dignity, provides an outer measure of Grant’s own spiritual growth.
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 achieves self-awareness when he is encouraged by his former teacher, Grant Wiggins, to write his thoughts. As a result, after responding detachedly to his godmother and Grant for months and literally wallowing in home-prepared food, Jefferson speaks eloquently, in his diary, of his humanity.
Aunt Lou, Grant’s God-fearing aunt, who is challenged to rise above private agitation to confront a brutal character assault. She possesses attributes of the author’s maternal aunt, Miss Augusteen Jefferson. Aunt Lou and Miss Emma Glenn, as elders, provide the bedrock of family life that sustains the “quarters.” Through Jefferson’s months of suffering, Aunt Lou’s adaptability serves as a contrast to Grant’s lackluster vacillation. Behaving as a role model, however imperfectly, Aunt Lou does not succumb to past fears and immobility when a resident of the “quarters” is defamed. Her wish is that Jefferson meet his execution like a man, not the unthinking “hog” he was called by the white lawyer.
Miss Emma Glenn
Miss Emma Glenn, the godmother of the accused man. She persuades Grant to impart something of himself (as a teacher and symbol) to Jefferson in an effort to prove the lawyer wrong. Miss Emma moves through the trial episodes and the world of the narrative with a calm and control that seem always on the verge of eruption. Through Miss Emma, Jefferson becomes a concern of the entire community—“quarters” occupants, the Bayonne residents, even Grant’s students in the church school.