A Lesson Before Dying

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A Lesson Before Dying Chapter 8 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
In the week following the superintendent’s visit, two old black men, Henry Lewis and Amos Thomas, bring a load of wood, carried by a mule, to heat the school through the winter. As they take the wood around the school, Grant continues teaching his class, scolding Louis Washington for staring at the men from the window. Washington protests that Grant was staring at them, too. Grant admits that he was, but punishes Louis for bad grammar anyway.
Washington has a point: Grant was staring out the window. This suggests that he’s no more committed to his lessons than his students, in the sense that he doesn’t think they have any value. Here we see Grant abusing his power as a teacher, punishing Washington for something other than what he originally wanted to punish him for.
Themes
Education Theme Icon
Henry Lewis knocks on the back door, telling Grant that they’re dropped off all the wood. Grant thanks him and Amos Thomas for their help, and then tells his students that he’ll let them out for forty-five minutes to chop the wood. The older boys complete this task, while the younger students stay inside, jealous that the others get to have fun outside. Grant watches the boys laughing as they work, and thinks that they’re behaving exactly like the two old men did. He wonders if his teaching will help any of them.
Grant is deeply cynical about his profession: the sight of old and young men doing the same menial tasks reminds him that education won’t help any of his students to grow up into better people. In a racist society, blacks aren’t allowed to take up a high-paying or intellectual profession: they’re forced to take low-paying menial jobs regardless of what they know or learn. Thus, education doesn’t do them much good.
Themes
Education Theme Icon
Grant remembers being a student in the classroom where he now teaches. He chopped wood then, surrounded by students his age who would grow up to live in other towns and often die violent premature deaths. When he was a child, his mulatto teacher, Matthew Antoine, had told the class that they would either die violently or spend their lives being treated like animals. Grant realizes that Antoine was largely correct: his friends and peers grew up to work in the fields or in cities. Nevertheless, Antoine told Grant that he wouldn’t grow up to be like his peers, because he was intelligent. Grant remembers the way Antoine taught him: Antoine would look at him almost contemptuously, as if Grant were a fool for wanting to learn. Perhaps Antoine continued to teach him, Grant thinks, because he wanted to pass on the burden of education to someone else.
Grant himself may be the best example of how little education matters—a fact that he himself recognizes, as his education has led him only to try to educate others who will never get to enjoy the fruits of that education by the racist society around them. Whether he recognizes it or not, the disdain with which Antoine looked at Grant when Grant was a child resembles the disdain with which Grant now views his own profession, and even his own students. (It’s also proof that Antoine hates himself: he sees a lot of himself in Grant, and thus hates Grant.) Grant paints a bleak picture of education: instead of leading to concrete changes, education is only good for producing new teachers to perpetuate the cycle of uselessness.
Themes
Racism Theme Icon
Education Theme Icon
Religion, Cynicism, and Hope Theme Icon
Heroism and Sacrifice Theme Icon
Even after Grant went to college and returned to the plantation community, he noticed that Antoine looked at him with hatred. Once, Grant visited Antoine in his home in Poulaya, telling him that he was planning on being a schoolteacher. Cryptically, Antoine replied that everyone—even Hitler and the Ku Klux Klan—had their reasons for doing evil things. When Grant disagreed, Antoine told Grant that he was wasting his time returning to his childhood home to be a schoolteacher: there was no way to save students from three-hundred years of ignorance in only five and a half months. He said that he was cold, and would always be cold; he added that God would take care of the black students. This surprised Grant, since he remembered Antoine treating Bible verses with barely-disguised hatred.
As Antoine grows older, he becomes even more cynical, accepting the injustices of the world to the point where he says that Hitler “has his reasons”—in a sense, that Hitler can’t be stopped. Antoine becomes cynical because as he grows older, he sees no evidence that education leads to improvement in the real world: thus, he hates his profession and he hates himself for devoting his life to teaching. It’s also disturbing to see Antoine turning to God for comfort, since Grant knows that Antoine despises religion. This may be Antoine’s bitter way of saying that no one will help the black students—only God, who doesn’t exist.
Themes
Racism Theme Icon
Education Theme Icon
Religion, Cynicism, and Hope Theme Icon
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Grant continues to remember his visit with Antoine. He had just finished his college education, and wanted to learn “about life” by hearing about Antoine’s experiences. He brought Antoine wine; Antoine drank it, giving the toast, “to flight,” but he said that the wine didn’t warm him up. It was here that Antoine revealed that he was Creole. He tells Grant that he is superior to him, because he has more white blood in his body. He predicts that Grant will stay in his plantation community for the rest of his life, trying to help his black students. When Grant grows older, Antoine predicts, he’ll come to Antoine’s grave and admit that he was right: change is impossible.
Antoine is the first Creole character in Gaines’s novel—Creole’s are half white and half black, putting them between two racial groups. In a sense, Grant is “creole,” too—he’s caught halfway between the world of education and university life and the world of religion and plantation culture. Just as Antoine hates blacks as much, if not more, than whites do, Grant despises black plantation culture more than whites do. Grant and Antoine’s cynicism is based on the common belief that change is impossible: nothing will ever upset the superiority of whites over blacks. Nevertheless, Grant hasn’t yet given up all hope, and this is why he continues to teach.
Themes
Racism Theme Icon
Education Theme Icon
Grant visited Antoine one more time before he died; Antoine was very sick at the time. Grant told Antoine that he had begun teaching and had just received the first shipment of winter kindling. Antoine replied that nothing ever changed. He told Grant to do his best, but also to accept that none of it made any difference.
Antoine leaves Grant with the paradox that teaching doesn’t matters, but that one should continue teaching. It’s possible to see this paradox as hopeless: Grant is caught in a pointless task where his students never learn anything and never make any real progress. At the same time, it’s possible to interpret the paradox in a more positive light. Antoine says that Grant should do his best because, deep down, he believes that change is possible, even if he’d never admit it. It’s this glimmer of hope that arguably inspires Grant to teaching— without hope, what’s the point?
Themes
Racism Theme Icon
Education Theme Icon
Religion, Cynicism, and Hope Theme Icon