A Lesson Before Dying

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Matthew Antoine Character Analysis

The Creole man who taught Grant when Grant was a child, Matthew Antoine is a bitter, remorseful man who secretly despises Grant for daring to believe that he could use education to better himself. At the end of his life, Antoine coldly concludes that education changes nothing. Throughout the novel, Grant is in danger of becoming another Antoine; in other words, descending into cynicism.

Matthew Antoine Quotes in A Lesson Before Dying

The A Lesson Before Dying quotes below are all either spoken by Matthew Antoine or refer to Matthew Antoine. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Racism Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Vintage edition of A Lesson Before Dying published in 1994.
Chapter 8 Quotes

It was he, Matthew Antoine, as teacher then, who stood by the fence while we chopped the wood. He had told us then that most of us would die violently, and those who did not would be brought down to the level of beasts. Told us that there was no other choice but to run and run. That he was living testimony of someone who should have run. That in him—he did not say all this, but we felt it—there was nothing but hatred for himself as well as contempt for us. He hated himself for the mixture of his blood and the cowardice of his being, and he hated us for daily reminding him of it.

Related Characters: Grant Wiggins (speaker), Matthew Antoine
Page Number: 62
Explanation and Analysis:

The old schoolteacher Matthew Antoine is one of the most interesting and complicated characters in this novel, and in this scene, Grant tells us about him. Antoine is a "mulatto" man, half-black and half-white. Although he’s been tasked with teaching black schoolchildren, Antoine doesn’t have any of the enthusiasm or affection one would usually associate with a schoolteacher. On the contrary, he thinks that his schoolchildren have nothing but misery and poverty ahead of them, and their education in his classroom won’t get them anything in life.

In a way, the “ghost” of Matthew Antoine haunts Grant throughout the entire novel. Grant is terrified of becoming like Matthew Antoine: becoming an old, bitter schoolteacher who hates himself and hates what he does. In part, Grant’s fear reflects his racial anxiety about his relationship to his community. Grant’s higher education and relatively privileged position as a schoolteacher distances him from the black community, without endearing him to white people like Dr. Joseph Morgan. In other words, one could argue that Grant thinks of himself as being “half black, half white,” just like Matthew Antoine; he's caught between two worlds, and doesn't fully belong to either one. Grant knows that he’s wrong to be so cynical about his profession and the future of his children, but he can’t help it—without a strong community behind him, or any evidence that things will actually improve for his students, he can’t help the fact that he’s growing more like his old teacher.

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“We got our first load of wood last week,” I told him. “Nothing changes,” he said. “I guess I’m a genuine teacher now,” I said. He nodded, and coughed. He didn’t seem to want to talk. Still, I sat there, both of us gazing into the fire. “Any advice?” I asked him. “It doesn’t matter anymore,” he said. “Just do the best you can. But it won’t matter.”

Related Characters: Grant Wiggins (speaker), Matthew Antoine (speaker)
Related Symbols: Fire, Heat, and Warmth, Wood
Page Number: 66
Explanation and Analysis:

In this scene, Grant interacts with Matthew Antoine, his old schoolteacher, and gets some pessimistic advice. Mathew Antoine has spent decades teaching schoolchildren how to read and write—by all rights, he should take more pride in his profession than almost anyone else in the world. And yet Matthew is deeply cynical about teaching: as he sees it, educating black schoolchildren simply doesn’t matter. No matter how much the children learn, they’re still going to grow up to be second-class citizens, oppressed by racist whites. As Gaines makes clear in this moment, Antoine’s advice has a deep impact on Grant’s behavior: Grant finds it impossible to shake the suspicion that his own work as a teacher matters no more than Antoine’s work did. By teaching Jefferson about dignity and self-respect, then, Grant is actually trying to prove Antoine wrong: he’s trying to prove that he can genuinely empower the weak and the poor, rather than just disappointing them.

Chapter 13 Quotes

There was no one thing that changed my faith. I suppose it was a combination of many things, but mostly it was just plain studying. I did not have time for anything else. Many times I would not come home on weekends, and when I did, I found that I cared less and less about the church. Of course, it pained my aunt to see this change in me, and it saddened me to see the pain I was causing her. I thought many times about leaving, as Professor Antoine had advised me to do. My mother and father also told me that if I was not happy in Louisiana, I should come to California. After visiting them the summer following my junior year at the university, I came back, which pleased my aunt. But I had been running in place ever since, unable to accept what used to be my life, unable to leave it.

Related Characters: Grant Wiggins (speaker), Tante Lou, Matthew Antoine
Page Number: 102
Explanation and Analysis:

In this section, Grant writes frankly about his relationship with God, Christianity, and his community. Although he was raised to believe in Jesus Christ, Grant has had a crisis of faith some time during the course of his adulthood. As he explains it, he became so concerned with his studies and academics that he simply didn’t have any more time or energy for religion. Furthermore, Grant's increasing education makes him doubt his relationship with his community, his friends, and his family.

Grant’s situation is tragically familiar for impoverished minorities. Because he’s been lucky enough to go to college, Grant doesn’t feel that he “belongs” to his own community—a place full of uneducated people. Yet Grant doesn’t feel that he belongs to any other place, such as California, either (in real life, Gaines studied at Stanford for a number of years before returning to his childhood town in Louisiana, where he still lives). As we can see, although Gaines’s novel seems to be about Jefferson’s struggle for dignity, it’s also about Grant’s struggle to find an identity and a community for himself. This quote helps us understand what the nature of his struggle has been so far.

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Matthew Antoine Character Timeline in A Lesson Before Dying

The timeline below shows where the character Matthew Antoine appears in A Lesson Before Dying. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 8
Racism Theme Icon
Education Theme Icon
Religion, Cynicism, and Hope Theme Icon
Heroism and Sacrifice Theme Icon
...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... (full context)
Racism Theme Icon
Education Theme Icon
Religion, Cynicism, and Hope 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... (full context)
Racism Theme Icon
Education Theme Icon
Grant continues to remember his visit with Antoine. He had just finished his college education, and wanted to learn “about life” by hearing... (full context)
Racism Theme Icon
Education Theme Icon
Religion, Cynicism, and Hope Theme Icon
Grant visited Antoine one more time before he died; Antoine was very sick at the time. Grant told... (full context)
Chapter 10
Racism Theme Icon
Education Theme Icon
Heroism and Sacrifice Theme Icon
Women and Femininity Theme Icon
...finish his dinner, being searched every time he enters the jail. He tells Lou that Antoine predicted he’d stay in his hometown and be broken down into “the nigger I was... (full context)