A Lesson Before Dying

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Tante Lou Character Analysis

Grant’s maternal grandmother, though he calls her his aunt. Tante Lou raised Grant’s mother, and after Grant’s parents moved to California, she raises Grant, as well. She is a pious woman and a devoted churchgoer, and Grant’s refusal to attend church with her gives her great pain. Her frequently stubborn insistence that Grant visit Jefferson in his jail cell is Grant’s sole reason for doing so during the first half of the novel.

Tante Lou Quotes in A Lesson Before Dying

The A Lesson Before Dying quotes below are all either spoken by Tante Lou or refer to Tante Lou. 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 3 Quotes

Before I left for the university, my aunt sat me down at the table in our kitchen and said to me, “Me and Emma can make out all right without you coming through that back door ever again.” I had not come through that back door once since leaving for the university, ten years before. I had been teaching on the place going on six years, and I had not been in Pichot’s yard, let alone gone up the back stairs or through that back door.

Related Characters: Jefferson (speaker), Tante Lou, Miss Emma Glenn, Henri Pichot
Page Number: 19
Explanation and Analysis:

As a young man, Grant had to work for Henri Pichot, a bigoted, unfriendly white man who treats all black people with condescending disrespect. Like so many African Americans of the era, Grant resents his employer’s racism, but has no choice but to continue working for him: his financial neediness is a prison. It’s for this reason that Grant’s aunt encourages and helps him to educate himself. As his aunt Tante Lou sees it, education is a way out for Grant; a way for Grant to support himself without sacrificing his dignity or suffering the humiliation of working for a man like Pichot.

It’s hard to deny that Tante Lou has a point: as a schoolteacher, Grant has more autonomy and dignity than he would as Pichot’s servant (although, as we see, he still has to be subservient to white superiors). But the irony of Grant’s situation is that he’s only able to become an educated man because of his family’s hard, humiliating work for Pichot: in other words, he’s only able to become semi-independent because his loved ones become especially dependent on Pichot.

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Chapter 10 Quotes

“Everything you sent me to school for, you’re stripping me of it,” I told my aunt. They were looking at the fire, and I stood behind them with the bag of food. “The humiliation I had to go through, going into that man’s kitchen. The hours I had to wait while they ate and drank and socialized before they would even see me. Now going up to that jail. To watch them put their dirty hands on that food. To search my body each time as if I’m some kind of common criminal. Maybe today they’ll want to look into my mouth, or my nostrils, or make me strip. Anything to humiliate me. All the things you wanted me to escape by going to school. Years ago, Professor Antoine told me that if I stayed here, they were going to break me down to the nigger I was born to be. But he didn’t tell me that my aunt would help them do it.”

Related Characters: Grant Wiggins (speaker), Tante Lou
Related Symbols: Fire, Heat, and Warmth, Food and Meals
Page Number: 79
Explanation and Analysis:

In this scene, Grant lays out the paradox of his mission to educate Jefferson. Grant has worked very hard under the assumption that education will “save” him—that it will free him from his dependence on racist white people like Henri Pichot. But now, Grant’s training as an educator has once again made him subservient to Pichot and his racist friends: Grant is forced to beg before Pichot in order to continue visiting Jefferson in his cell. Furthermore, Grant’s aunt, who’d always worked hard to make Grant independent, is now pressuring Grant to be submissive to Pichot once again.

While it’s certainly possible to see this situation from Grant’s point of view (it is unfair that Grant has to behave this way just to help his friend) it’s also clear why Lou is pressuring Grant. Humiliating though it is, begging is the only way Lou can accomplish the greater good of educating Jefferson. Furthermore, Grant's speech suggests that he's learned to value independence too highly: he thinks he can be independent not just from white people but also from his friends and family. By pressuring Grant to talk to Pichot, Lou is reminding Grant that nobody is truly independent: Grant owes a tremendous debt to the black people in his community. Strangely, begging before Pichot once again is the price Grant must pay for rediscovering this important truth.

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.

Chapter 26 Quotes

I went to the front door and jerked it open, and there was the screen. And through the screen I could see outside into the darkness, and I didn’t want to go out there. There was nothing outside this house that I cared for. Not school, not home, not my aunt, not the quarter, not anything else in the world. I don’t know how long I stood there looking out into the darkness—a couple of minutes, I suppose —then I went back into the kitchen. I knelt down and buried my face in her lap ...

Related Characters: Grant Wiggins (speaker), Tante Lou, Vivian Baptiste
Page Number: 213
Explanation and Analysis:

Grant is furious to learn that Vivian's husband, from whom she's separated, won't agree to a divorce unless she lets him see their children on weekends. Technically, Grant has been having an affair with Vivian, and he's been looking forward to the time when he can spend time with his girlfriend without the fear of legal repercussions. The fact that Vivian will be locked in divorce proceedings for longer than she thought infuriates Grant, and he seems to be considering leaving Vivian, both tonight and possibly forever. In spite of Grant's anger, he's smart enough to realize that he has nowhere else to go: he doesn't feel any deep connection to his family, his community, or his job. Because of Grant's cynicism about his community, as well as his education, Vivian is the only person with whom he feels he can be himself.

Grant is torn between two options: remaining in Louisiana or abandoning his community for somewhere new. Grant's behavior in this scene suggests that he's finally reaching a decision. Although he continues to have his doubts about his church, his neighbors, and his family, Grant refuses to conform to the stereotypes of the absentee black male: he refuses to run away from his problems. Instead, Grant chooses to remain with the woman he loves. In this way, Grant finds a compromise: he continues to question his community without turning his back on it altogether.

Chapter 27 Quotes

“She been lying every day of her life, your aunt in there. That’s how you got through that university—cheating herself here, cheating herself there, but always telling you she’s all right. I’ve seen her hands bleed from picking cotton. I’ve seen the blisters from the hoe and the cane knife. At that church, crying on her knees. You ever looked at the scabs on her knees, boy? Course you never. ’Cause she never wanted you to see it. And that’s the difference between me and you, boy; that make me the educated one, and you the gump. I know my people. I know what they gone through. I know they done cheated themself, lied to themself—hoping that one they all love and trust can come back and help relieve the pain.”

Related Characters: Reverend Moses Ambrose (speaker), Grant Wiggins , Tante Lou
Page Number: 221
Explanation and Analysis:

Throughout the novel, Grant has treated the Reverend Moses Ambrose—the head of the black church in Grant's community—as a figure of ridicule; an impossibly naive man who encourages his churchgoers to accept their status as second-class citizens in the delusional hope that their submissiveness will get them into Heaven. But in this scene, Grant begins to see that Ambrose isn't as naive as he'd believed. In fact, in some ways, Ambrose is much more perceptive and cynical than Grant. Even though Ambrose doesn't know Tante Lou remotely as well as Grant does, he knows that she sacrificed her health and happiness while working hard to send Grant to college. Ironically, Ambrose is more "educated" about the realities of life than Grant the college boy.

Grant's clash with Ambrose is important because it dispels the myth of independence, a myth that Grant has subscribed to for most of his adult life. Grant believes that he survive on his own; that he doesn't need a family, a church, or a network of friends. As Ambrose makes clear, however, Grant's attitude of rugged independence is only possible in the first place because his aunt worked for years to send him to school. Grant has been lying to himself, patting himself on the back while trying to forget that he was totally dependent on his aunt. Tante Lou is then also a testament to the strength of black women: without drawing attention to themselves, they work hard for their loved ones.

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Tante Lou Character Timeline in A Lesson Before Dying

The timeline below shows where the character Tante Lou appears in A Lesson Before Dying. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 1
Racism Theme Icon
...in the first degree. The day is Friday. On Monday, at ten o’clock, the narrator’s aunt sits in the courthouse with Miss Emma, Jefferson’s “nannan,” and Reverend Moses Ambrose, the pastor... (full context)
Chapter 2
Education Theme Icon
Women and Femininity Theme Icon
Roots, Connections, and Morality Theme Icon
The narrator comes home from school on Monday afternoon and sees his aunt sitting in his kitchen with Miss Emma, the last person he wants to see. He... (full context)
Education Theme Icon
Women and Femininity Theme Icon
Roots, Connections, and Morality Theme Icon
The narrator’s aunt, who he addresses as Tante Lou, enters the room. She asks him why he hasn’t... (full context)
Education Theme Icon
Heroism and Sacrifice Theme Icon
Women and Femininity Theme Icon
The narrator, who Lou addresses as Grant, goes to the kitchen to talk to Miss Emma. Emma’s full name... (full context)
Racism Theme Icon
Education Theme Icon
Women and Femininity Theme Icon
Roots, Connections, and Morality Theme Icon
...white people have taught him to teach, the “three R’s”: reading, writing, arithmetic. Nevertheless, his aunt tells Miss Emma that he’ll help Jefferson. Lou and Emma tell Grant that they must... (full context)
Chapter 3
Heroism and Sacrifice Theme Icon
Women and Femininity Theme Icon
...that he not only has to talk to Henri Pichot but also act as his aunt’s chauffeur. He drives Tante Lou and Miss Emma past the school where he teaches, and... (full context)
Racism Theme Icon
Heroism and Sacrifice Theme Icon
...is large, painted white and grey, and built in an antebellum (pre-Civil War) style. He, Lou, and Emma walk to an entrance on the house; normally, only tractors and wagons go... (full context)
Racism Theme Icon
Education Theme Icon
In the kitchen, Grant, Lou, and Emma meet the maid, Inez Lane, dressed in white. She tells them that she... (full context)
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Henri Pichot arrives in the kitchen, followed by Louis Rougon; both men are white, Grant notes. Pichot is in his mid-sixties, carries a drink,... (full context)
Racism Theme Icon
Education Theme Icon
...educated to be of any use to Pichot anymore, but that Pichot respects him because Lou worked for Pichot for many years. Pichot urges Emma to forget her plans, worry about... (full context)
Chapter 4
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Roots, Connections, and Morality Theme Icon
Grant drives Emma and Lou away from Pichot’s house. He drops off Emma at her house, and his aunt gets... (full context)
Chapter 6
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...Inez greets him and Grant sees that she has been crying. She tells him that Louis Rougon has made a lavish bet—a case of whiskey—with Pichot. When Grant asks what the... (full context)
Racism Theme Icon
Education Theme Icon
Women and Femininity Theme Icon
...in the hall thinking about his afternoon. He returned from school to find Emma and Lou shelling pecans. He told them he was going to Pichot’s house, and neither woman volunteered... (full context)
Racism Theme Icon
Women and Femininity Theme Icon
...woman in her early fifties and the sheriff’s wife, greets Grant and inquires about Tante Lou. She tells Grant that she’s very sorry about Jefferson, and tells him that he can... (full context)
Chapter 9
Women and Femininity Theme Icon
...Emma to Bayonne—they are visiting Jefferson for the first time since he was sentenced. Tante Lou doesn’t go with them, but she tells Emma to let her know if Jefferson needs... (full context)
Chapter 10
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Roots, Connections, and Morality Theme Icon
...and drives to Emma’s house as usual. When Emma doesn’t come out, Grant sees Tante Lou emerge from the house. Lou tells Grant that Emma is unable to go, though she... (full context)
Racism Theme Icon
Education Theme Icon
Heroism and Sacrifice Theme Icon
Women and Femininity Theme Icon
...times: Grant doesn’t have to go if he doesn’t want to. Grant tries to convince Lou to come with him to the jail, but she insists that he go alone. Angry,... (full context)
Chapter 13
Education Theme Icon
Religion, Cynicism, and Hope Theme Icon
...home, correcting student papers, and hears a local woman, Miss Eloise Bouie calling for his aunt. Tante Lou goes to church every Sunday, but Grant hasn’t gone to church since he... (full context)
Education Theme Icon
As Lou proceeds to church and Grant grades papers, he thinks back to Friday, when he visited... (full context)
Religion, Cynicism, and Hope Theme Icon
...to talking about God. Ambrose plans to visit Jefferson on Monday, along with Emma and Lou; Grant recommends that they bring him food and clothing. When Ambrose asks about a Bible,... (full context)
Education Theme Icon
Religion, Cynicism, and Hope Theme Icon
Roots, Connections, and Morality Theme Icon
On Sunday, as Grant grades papers, he hears Emma, Ambrose, and Lou singing in the church. He thinks about losing his faith during his time in college;... (full context)
Chapter 15
Religion, Cynicism, and Hope Theme Icon
Women and Femininity Theme Icon
Grant and Vivian walk back to his house and see that his aunt and her friends are returning from church. Grant introduces Vivian to his aunt and Miss... (full context)
Religion, Cynicism, and Hope Theme Icon
Women and Femininity Theme Icon
As Grant makes more coffee for everyone, Tante Lou asks Vivian if she’s Catholic. Vivian replies that she is. Lou asks Vivian if she’s... (full context)
Chapter 16
Women and Femininity Theme Icon
Roots, Connections, and Morality Theme Icon
...had to hit Jefferson when she visited today. A few days later, Grant overhears his aunt telling Miss Eloise what happened: Jefferson pretended to be asleep when Emma arrived, and when... (full context)
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Women and Femininity Theme Icon
Roots, Connections, and Morality Theme Icon
On Monday, Grant sits at Miss Emma’s kitchen table with Reverend Ambrose and his aunt. Emma bursts into tears and asks God what she’s done to deserve this; Reverend Ambrose... (full context)
Chapter 17
Racism Theme Icon
Religion, Cynicism, and Hope Theme Icon
Women and Femininity Theme Icon
Roots, Connections, and Morality Theme Icon
...and Grant answers that he isn’t. Guidry reveals that Miss Emma, Reverend Ambrose, and Tante Lou went to Edna Guidry and asked for her help in convincing Guidry to put some... (full context)
Chapter 18
Racism Theme Icon
...sheriff, but eventually he agrees to send Jefferson to the dayroom when Ambrose, Emma, and Lou and next visit the jailhouse. (full context)
Women and Femininity Theme Icon
When Ambrose, Emma, and Lou next see Jefferson, they’re shown into the dayroom of the jail. Then, Paul goes to... (full context)
Chapter 19
Education Theme Icon
Religion, Cynicism, and Hope Theme Icon
...that things are changing. A Hebert girl gives him some fried chicken, sent from Tante Lou. Grant eats the chicken, sitting near the Christmas tree he has had his class procure.... (full context)
Chapter 20
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...he declines. Reverend Ambrose is already waiting in the hall; he asks Grant how his aunt is, but isn’t sure what else to say to Grant. Grant hears Sheriff Guidry arrive... (full context)
Chapter 21
Women and Femininity Theme Icon
...Ambrose. Grant walks inside, where he sees Inez sitting with Miss Emma, along with Tante Lou and Ambrose. Grant sees Tante Lou, and can tell from her face that Reverend Ambrose... (full context)
Religion, Cynicism, and Hope Theme Icon
Women and Femininity Theme Icon
...walks into Miss Emma’s and introduces Vivian to those who haven’t already met her. Tante Lou is very polite to Vivian and offers her coffee, though she continues to ignore Grant.... (full context)
Women and Femininity Theme Icon
Roots, Connections, and Morality Theme Icon
...is in love with him; Grant acknowledges that she probably is, but so is his aunt. Vivian, refusing to drop the matter, insists that Irene has a crush on him; Grant... (full context)
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Roots, Connections, and Morality Theme Icon
Grant continues to explain his theory of women to Vivian. Lou, he reveals, is his grandmother’s sister; she raised Grant’s own mother, and when his mother... (full context)
Chapter 23
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On Monday, Tante Lou, Miss Emma, and Reverend Ambrose go to the jailhouse to visit Jefferson. At the jailhouse,... (full context)
Religion, Cynicism, and Hope Theme Icon
Heroism and Sacrifice Theme Icon
...informs Miss Emma that Jefferson refuses to go to the dayroom without his radio; Emma, Lou, and Ambrose decide that they will speak to Jefferson in his cell instead, even though... (full context)
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After returning from the jailhouse, Tante Lou, Miss Emma, and Ambrose visit Grant and tell him that he’s caused a problem by... (full context)
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Grant continues to argue with Ambrose, Miss Emma, and Tante Lou. He tells them that his previous visit to the jailhouse was the first time that... (full context)
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Grant asks Jefferson about Lou, Emma, and Ambrose’s last visit. He asks Jefferson to promise that when they next visit... (full context)
Chapter 24
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Religion, Cynicism, and Hope Theme Icon
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Miss Emma proposes that Grant go to the jailhouse with Lou and Ambrose as often as possible, and though Grant doesn’t want to spend time with... (full context)
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Women and Femininity Theme Icon
...in Bayonne. Grant and Jefferson don’t say “Amen” to any of this, but Emma and Lou do. The meal begins, but Jefferson doesn’t eat, although he at least says “no” to... (full context)
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...must become a better man, and in the process bring joy and pride to Emma, Lou, Ambrose, and the entire black community. As Grant explains all this, Jefferson continues to cry.... (full context)
Chapter 25
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Women and Femininity Theme Icon
Roots, Connections, and Morality Theme Icon
After visiting Jefferson, Ambrose, Lou, and Emma drive back to their homes, and Grant goes to the Rainbow Club to... (full context)
Chapter 27
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Women and Femininity Theme Icon
It is a Sunday, and Grant is sitting in his bed. Emma, Lou, and Ambrose have just arrived at his house, having come from church. He thinks about... (full context)
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...them that they will get better. When Grant was away at university, he goes on, Lou worked hard in the fields to support him, often cutting her hands and knees in... (full context)
Chapter 29
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Religion, Cynicism, and Hope Theme Icon
...Miss Emma one more time before he’s executed. He has heard from Reverend Ambrose and Lou that Emma is ill; he hopes that he can see her one more time on... (full context)
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...and that she need not worry about him. Emma only lets go of Jefferson when Lou gently tells her to do so. (full context)
Chapter 30
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Tante Lou spends the night with Miss Emma, as do many other members of the community. Lou... (full context)