A Lesson Before Dying

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Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Vintage edition of A Lesson Before Dying published in 1994.
Chapter 1 Quotes

Why, I would just as soon put a hog in the electric chair as this.

Related Characters: The defense attorney (speaker), Jefferson
Page Number: 8
Explanation and Analysis:

In this scene, Jefferson's defense attorney offers an incredibly cynical argument in a last-ditch effort to keep Jefferson from being sentenced to the electric chair for the crime of killing a shopkeeper. Basically, the attorney is saying: "He's guilty, but he's not even human, so it's not right to execute him for the crime he committed." In the end, the attorney's arguments have no effect on the result of the case: Jefferson is sentenced to death, setting in motion the events of the novel. As Gaines shows us later on, Jefferson is deeply traumatized by his own attorney's words: he comes to think of himself as a mere "hog," unworthy of any love or respect.

It is crucial for us to notice that Jefferson's own defense attorney, not his prosecutor, is the one who makes such a racist argument and has such a negative impact on Jefferson's self-esteem. This suggests an even bigger point: during this era, the institutions that are supposed to support all Americans, such as courts, schools, etc., actually wind up keeping Black Americans in an oppressed state and suppressing their dignity.

In general, this is the single most important quote in the novel; the one to which Grant and Jefferson will keep returning. Grant's project is to convince Jefferson that the attorney is wrong: i.e., Jefferson is more valuable than a hog, because he is a human being with dignity, self-respect, and responsibility. Furthermore, by establishing the depth of racism in Louisiana at this time, the quote reminds us of the deeply-ingrained prejudices that Grant and Jefferson are fighting against.


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Chapter 2 Quotes

“What can I do? It’s only a matter of weeks, a couple of months, maybe. What can I do that you haven’t done the past twenty-one years?”
“You the teacher,” she said.
“Yes, I’m the teacher,” I said. “And I teach what the white folks around here tell me to teach— reading, writing, and ’rithmetic. They never told me how to keep a black boy out of a liquor store.”

Related Characters: Grant Wiggins (speaker), Miss Emma Glenn (speaker), Jefferson
Page Number: 13
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote establishes the setup for the plot of Gaines's novel:  Emma is trying to convince Grant to teach Jefferson, recently sentenced to death, self-respect in the face of societal racism and dehumanization. At this point in the novel, Grant is pessimistic about his project: he doesn't think he can possibly bring Jefferson any kind of enlightenment or self-respect. In part he believes that it is impossible to impart such lessons in just a few weeks, but more profoundly Grant believes that he himself is unable to teach such lessons, or that such lessons can be taught at all.

Grant is sure that he'll have little success with Jefferson, because he doesn't really believe in the power of education to begin with: years of working in a poor black school have convinced him that none of his lessons really matter in the end, because none of these lessons address the root causes of the black community's pain and suffering. Instead of genuinely helping his students, Grant's work as a schoolteacher just reinforces his subservience to the racist white establishment in Louisiana. Even when Grant is teaching his students how to read and write (empowering them, one might think), he feels that he's just obeying "white folks," and may be preparing his students for a lifetime spent obeying "white folks," too.

Grant's cynicism here shows us that the arc of the novel is twofold: on one hand, Jefferson will have to learn to respect himself; on the other, Grant will have to learn that he can make a difference with his teaching—in other words, he'll have to learn some self-respect, too. 

“He don’t have to do it,” Miss Emma said ...

Related Characters: Miss Emma Glenn (speaker), Grant Wiggins
Page Number: 13
Explanation and Analysis:

Miss Emma wants Grant to try to teach Jefferson, her beloved grandson (who is, for all intents and purposes, her child), to respect himself before he's executed. But she's also too proud to ask Grant, point-blank, if he'll do so. For this reason, she begins a passive-aggressive battle of wills with Grant. She never actually asks Grant for his help, but she says of him "He don't have to do it" so often that it's perfectly clear that she does want Grant to do it, and that Grant himself will either have to explicitly agree or refuse to do so.

While Grant finds Miss Emma's "catchphrase" irritating in its passive aggressiveness (and perhaps it is, a little), we also recognize that there's something noble about Emma's refusal to beg Grant for his help. She's a proud woman, who's lived a long, independent life. She's not about to beg anyone for anything, even at the point where her grandson is about to die. And ironically, Miss Emma's persistence in enlisting Grant's help—even if the way she goes about asking for this help seems unusual—proves that she really does care about Jefferson.

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.

Chapter 4 Quotes

“Suppose I was allowed to visit him, and suppose I reached him and made him realize that he was as much a man as any other man; then what? He’s still going to die. The next day, the next week, the next month. So what will I have accomplished? What will I have done? Why not let the hog die without knowing anything?”

Related Characters: Grant Wiggins (speaker), Jefferson
Page Number: 31
Explanation and Analysis:

Grant is still reluctant to do what Miss Emma and Tante Lou are urging him to do: he doesn’t see the point in teaching Jefferson about the importance of self-respect and dignity, because Jefferson's going to die, anyway. As Grant sees it, it would be better to keep Jefferson “blissfully ignorant” until the day he dies: teaching Jefferson the importance of life, family, and friendship would only cause him additional pain, since, he’ll soon be unable to enjoy these pleasures in any form.

This is a revealing quote, because it suggests very strongly that Grant doesn’t really believe in God or an afterlife. As far as Lou and Emma are concerned, it’s vital to teach Jefferson some things about self-respect so that he can enter Heaven as a pure, righteous man. Grant seems not to share these assumptions, and partly for this reason he sees Jefferson’s education as a fool’s errand. Of course, this doesn’t mean that you’d have to believe in God to think that it's worthwhile to educate Jefferson: as Grant will later realize, it's worthwhile to teach Jefferson self-respect, even if there isn't a Heaven. After all, everyone is destined to die eventually, and so knowing the date of one's demise doesn't make it any less worthwhile to educate and improve oneself. Furthermore, Jefferson's dignity can act as an example for other depressed, suffering black men and women, and his courage can inspire others to behave courageously.

Chapter 6 Quotes

Edna turned back to me. “Grant, please tell Emma how sorry I am about Jefferson. I would do it myself, but I’m just too broken up over this matter. I ran into Madame Gropé just the other day; Lord, how sad she looks. Just dragging along. Poor old thing. I had to put my arms round her.” Edna drank from her glass.

Related Characters: Edna Guidry (speaker), Grant Wiggins , Jefferson
Related Symbols: Food and Meals
Page Number: 45
Explanation and Analysis:

In this scene, Gaines gives us a window into the personality of Edna Guidry, one of the few white characters in the novel who shows sympathy for black people. Edna knows that Jefferson is going to be executed for his supposed crimes, and she seems to grasp at least some of the injustice in this: she recognizes that Jefferson’s death is going to affect the lives of other people, such as Miss Emma and Tante Lou. It’s surely not a coincidence that Edna, one of the only compassionate white characters in the novel, is also a woman: Gaines implies that Edna’s own position of subservience to white men makes her sympathetic to black men and women who are also subservient to white men.

And yet, in spite of Edna’s sympathy for Jefferson, she’s not nearly as compassionate as we might expect her to be: note that Emma is still drinking from her glass as she speaks to Grant, and that she’s supposedly too “broken up” to talk to Miss Emma herself. Put another way, Edna is concerned, but her concern also seems a bit like a performance to make herself feel like a good person. Her concern doesn't drive her to action; it's just a condescending concern. Perhaps it’s fair to say that Edna is a naturally kind and loving woman, who’s nonetheless partly blinded by the bigotry of her society. No matter how hard she tries, she can’t quite conceive of Jefferson as a full human being who’s deserving of her sympathy.

Chapter 7 Quotes

Besides looking at hands, now he began inspecting teeth. Open wide, say “Ahhh”—and he would have the poor children spreading out their lips as far as they could while he peered into their mouths. At the university I had read about slave masters who had done the same when buying new slaves, and I had read of cattlemen doing it when purchasing horses and cattle. At least Dr. Joseph had graduated to the level where he let the children spread out their own lips, rather than using some kind of crude metal instrument. I appreciated his humanitarianism.

Related Characters: Grant Wiggins (speaker), Dr. Joseph Morgan
Page Number: 56
Explanation and Analysis:

Dr. Joseph Morgan, the school superintendent, is an old, grumpy white man who plainly dislikes black people, and regards black students as second-class citizens, barely human beings at all. Here, he’s inspecting the black children in Grant’s classroom. But instead of spending lots of time examining the children for their intelligence or creativity, Morgan chooses to focus on their physical healthiness. Morgan's behavior immediately implies that black children are subpar thinkers, and that they’re more like animals who need to be examined for physical defects—in other words, playing into some of the oldest and most offensive stereotypes about minorities.

The scene is narrated from Grant’s perspective, meaning that the indignity and absurdity of the moment are crystal clear. (It doesn’t get any more sarcastic than Grant complimenting Morgan for his “humanitarianism.”) But Grant isn’t just being sardonic: by comparing Morgan to a slave master, he’s also making a serious point: very little has changed for black people in the United States since the days of slavery 100 years ago. Although the black community has gained the semblance of freedom and independence in this time (for example, black children can go to school), it’s still under the thumb of powerful white people, like Morgan, who consider blacks to be barely human.

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.

“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 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 17 Quotes

“I don’t know when I’m going to die, Jefferson. Maybe tomorrow, maybe next week, maybe today. That’s why I try to live as well as I can every day and not hurt people. Especially people who love me, people who have done so much for me, people who have sacrificed for me. I don’t want to hurt those people. I want to help those people as much as I can.”
“You can talk like that; you know you go’n walk out here in a hour. I bet you wouldn’t be talking like that if you knowed you was go’n stay in here.”
“In here or out of here, Jefferson, what does it benefit you to hurt someone who loves you, who has done so much for you?”

Related Characters: Grant Wiggins (speaker), Jefferson (speaker), Miss Emma Glenn
Page Number: 129
Explanation and Analysis:

In this moving scene, Grant discusses the prospect of death with Jefferson. Grant’s speech is simple, unadorned, and free of any mentions of Christ or an afterlife. Grant is trying to convince Jefferson that the two of them aren’t so different: even though Jefferson is going to die much sooner than Grant (probably), they’re both going to die soon (in the grand scheme of things). For this reason, Grant tries to argue, the two of them (and all human beings) have a responsibility to be kind and respectful to the people around them.

Grant is making one of the oldest arguments in Western thought: the argument that virtue is its own reward. For the time being, however, Jefferson refuses to believe this. He refuses to believe that humans have any “reason” to be good in the face of death, and even suggests that Grant himself wouldn’t be so moral if he too was about to die. It's revealing that Grant doesn't have a good response to Jefferson's challenge: at this point in the novel, Grant is conscious of not being a particularly moral person himself. Later, Grant will learn to embody the values he's trying to teach Jefferson, rather than merely listing these values.

Chapter 18 Quotes

“I’m not doing any good up there, Vivian,” I said. “Nothing’s changing.”
“Something is,” she said.

Related Characters: Grant Wiggins (speaker), Vivian Baptiste (speaker), Jefferson
Page Number: 142
Explanation and Analysis:

Throughout Grant’s quest to teach Jefferson about dignity, he has the support of a group of strong, compassionate women, including Emma, Lou, and Vivian, his girlfriend. In this scene, Grant has come from a particularly challenging session with Jefferson: he’s tried to impress upon Jefferson the importance of being good, but Jefferson has refused to believe him. Grant is genuinely frustrated that Jefferson refuses to listen to his advice—and this is what Vivian is referring to when she says that “something” is changing. Although Vivian has never met Jefferson before, she can see that Grant’s attitude toward Jefferson is changing very quickly: while at first Grant was cynical and indifferent to his new pupil, he’s become genuinely interested in trying to help. Ironically, whether or not Grant is succeeding in teaching Jefferson a thing, the very fact that Grant is beginning to care about teaching means that he’s making some progress of his own: he’s becoming a more compassionate, caring person. Furthermore, the fact that Grant himself is becoming more compassionate might suggest that he really is going to sway Jefferson’s opinion: instead of just talking about virtuous behavior, Grant is modeling it. In short, Grant is becoming a better man and therefore a better moral teacher.

Chapter 19 Quotes

I was not happy. I had heard the same carols all my life, seen the same little play, with the same mistakes in grammar. The minister had offered the same prayer as always, Christmas or Sunday. The same people wore the same old clothes and sat in the same places. Next year it would be the same, and the year after that, the same again. Vivian said things were changing. But where were they changing?

Related Characters: Grant Wiggins (speaker)
Page Number: 152
Explanation and Analysis:

Even at this late point in the novel, Grant is still having doubts about  his work as a schoolteacher and a teacher for Jefferson. In this scene, for example, Grant surveys the annual Christmas pageant that he organizes for his community. Every year, the pageant is exactly the same: the same cheap decorations, the same inane carols, etc. While some in the community might think that the “sameness” of the pageant is a comforting tradition, Grant finds this tradition depressing. The carols and decorations remind Grant that, for the vast majority of his schoolchildren, nothing will ever change—they’ll always be treated poorly by their society's elite, no matter how well-educated they become. Plainly, Grant wants to believe that things are changing, whether for Jefferson or for his schoolchildren, but he still finds it difficult to do so.

Chapter 21 Quotes

“We black men have failed to protect our women since the time of slavery. We stay here in the South and are broken, or we run away and leave them alone to look after the children and themselves. So each time a male child is born, they hope he will be the one to change this vicious circle—which he never does … What she wants is for him, Jefferson, and me to change everything that has been going on for three hundred years. She wants it to happen so in case she ever gets out of her bed again, she can go to that little church there in the quarter and say proudly, ‘You see, I told you—I told you he was a man.’

Related Characters: Grant Wiggins (speaker), Jefferson, Miss Emma Glenn
Page Number: 169
Explanation and Analysis:

In this chapter, Grant gives Jefferson an eloquent and disturbing account of the relationship between men and women in the black community. Because of the impoverishment and misery of this community, Grant explains, black men often face a tragic dilemma: they can either stay behind to take care of their children and their families, or they can “run away,” leaving their loved ones to fend for themselves. Some black men choose to leave their children uncared for, meaning that in the end their children sometimes grow up to become neglectful fathers themselves.

Because of this tragic cycle, many black women are left caring for their children without a father’s help—and sometimes caring for their nephews or grandsons as well, like Lou and Emma. Emma thinks that by convincing Grant to remain in Louisiana and help Jefferson, she can put an end to the cycle of neglect and abandonment in her community (much as Grant, as a schoolteacher, is trying to put an end to the cycle of ignorance and disenfranchisement). This shows that Emma, just like Grant, is trying to improve life in the black community. Moreover, Emma seems more optimistic than Grant: in spite of witnessing more “go-arounds” of the cycle than Grant, she continues to try to make life better.

Chapter 23 Quotes

“Last Friday,” I continued, “was the first time, the very first time, that Jefferson looked at me without hate, without accusing me of putting him in that cell. Last Friday was the first time he ever asked me a question or answered me without accusing me for his condition. I don’t know if you all know what I’m talking about. It seems you don’t. But I found a way to reach him for the first time. Now, he needs that radio, and he wants it.

Related Characters: Grant Wiggins (speaker), Jefferson
Page Number: 185
Explanation and Analysis:

Grant has gone out of his way to improve Jefferson's quality of life in jail: he's purchased a radio for Jefferson, so that Jefferson can have some contact with the outside world during his lonely hours. Lou, Emma, and Ambrose think that Grant was wrong to have bought Jefferson the radio, since Jefferson has now been spending all his time listening to it, rather than talking to his relatives when they visit.

Grant's passionate defense of Jefferson and the radio is illuminating for a few reasons. First, by advocating for Jefferson's use of the radio, Grant is painting a picture of what it means to be a human being. Humans need some contact with the outside world—contact that the radio provides. But even more importantly, Grant argues that humans need possessions and luxuries if they're to feel completely normal. Jefferson has spent his entire life living in poverty, and there have been times when he's been forced to steal just to survive. This constant sense of not being able to afford food—let alone entertainment—is a huge part of Jefferson's feeling of subservience to the white community. By giving Jefferson a radio, then, Grant is "liberating" Grant from his feelings of dependency and poverty, and possibly some of his feelings of racial inferiority.

It's also important to realize how greatly Grant has changed his own attitude toward Jefferson. A few months ago, it would have been hard to imagine Grant arguing so forcefully for Jefferson, let alone buying him a radio. Over the course of his lessons, Grant has grown from a reluctant tutor to a passionate, inspirational teacher.

“Well, I guess I’ll be taking off,” I said. “Anything you want me to tell your nannan?” I had stood. Now he looked up at me. There was no hate in his face—but Lord, there was pain. I could see that he wanted to say something, but it was hard for him to do. I stood over him, waiting. “Tell—tell the chirren thank you for the pe-pecans,” he stammered. I caught myself grinning like a fool. I wanted to throw my arms around him and hug him. I wanted to hug the first person I came to. I felt like someone who had just found religion. I felt like crying with joy. I really did.

Related Characters: Grant Wiggins (speaker), Jefferson (speaker)
Page Number: 189
Explanation and Analysis:

This is one of the major turning points" in the novel. Grant has just had (what he believes to be) another futile lesson with Jefferson. He's brought his pupil a sack of pecans that his students at the schoolhouse have offered. Just as Grant is about to leave, Jefferson asks Grant to pass on his thanks to the children.

Why is this such an important moment for Grant and Jefferson? First, Grant can tell right away that Jefferson's behavior has changed. He's no longer being sullen or cynical: on the contrary, he's stammering and trying to speak carefully, suggesting that for once he's genuinely concerned with passing on the right message to other people.

The scene is also a key moment in Jefferson's development as a human being, because it shows that he's finally come to recognize the importance of respect, kindness, and politeness. Throughout Grant's lessons with Jefferson, Grant has tried to convince Jefferson that he owes it to his family and friends be a virtuous, respectful person; in other words, that Jefferson should return the love and respect other people give him. After weeks of receiving (and ignoring) gifts, letters, and care packages, Jefferson's gift from the schoolchildren finally sets him over the edge. He gives into his natural human instinct to return the schoolchildren's gift with a show of thanks. For Grant, Jefferson's gratitude is a miracle: it proves to Grant that his lessons haven't been in vain, and that his teaching can make a difference.

Chapter 24 Quotes

“Do you know what a hero is, Jefferson? A hero is someone who does something for other people. He does something that other men don’t and can’t do. He is different from other men. He is above other men. No matter who those other men are, the hero, no matter who he is, is above them.” I lowered my voice again until we had passed the table. “I could never be a hero. I teach, but I don’t like teaching. I teach because it is the only thing that an educated black man can do in the South today. I don’t like it; I hate it. I don’t even like living here. I want to run away. I want to live for myself and for my woman and for nobody else. That is not a hero. A hero does for others.”

Related Characters: Grant Wiggins (speaker), Jefferson
Page Number: 194
Explanation and Analysis:

During a visit to Jefferson's cell, Grant paints a picture of the kind of man he wants Jefferson to become before being executed: a hero. The key part of Grant's definition of heroism is self-sacrifice: Grant believes that a hero must be a model to other people, "performing" generosity and integrity as an example to others. As we've seen, Grant—along with Tante Lou and Miss Emma—wants Jefferson to be a role model for the black community in Louisiana, and a symbol of the strength of this community. By being strong and "noble" during his execution, Jefferson can act as a beacon of hope for black people by proving that blacks are not weak, childish, or animalistic: on the contrary, they're strong, determined, and even heroic.

The explanation Grant gives of himself is just as important as the definition of heroism he offers to Jefferson. Grant is modest about his own abilities: he claims that he's too selfish and scattered to ever be a hero. He even tells Jefferson something he'd previously been unwilling to admit to anyone: he hates being a schoolteacher. While there's some truth in what Grant is saying (he's certainly had fantasies of running away from Louisiana for good), it's important to recognize that Grant is being modest. He claims that he's selfish, but Grant has become increasingly selfless and kindhearted as he spends more time with Jefferson. He willingly sacrifices his time for Jefferson, and even buys his pupil a radio. In the process of teaching Jefferson how to be a hero, Grant has become heroic himself. 

“Do you know what a myth is, Jefferson?” I asked him. “A myth is an old lie that people believe in. White people believe that they’re better than anyone else on earth—and that’s a myth. The last thing they ever want is to see a black man stand, and think, and show that common humanity that is in us all. It would destroy their myth. They would no longer have justification for having made us slaves and keeping us in the condition we are in. As long as none of us stand, they’re safe. They’re safe with me. They’re safe with Reverend Ambrose. I don’t want them to feel safe with you anymore.

Related Characters: Grant Wiggins (speaker), Jefferson
Page Number: 195
Explanation and Analysis:

During his visit to Jefferson's cell, Grant tells Jefferson that he must act as a role model and a beacon of hope for the black community in Louisiana. But in this section, Grant goes further and tells Jefferson that he has another job. By standing proudly for his execution, Jefferson will prove to the racist white society of Louisiana that blacks aren't animals or second-class citizens.

Grant's explanation suggests that white racism in the South is a constant process, during which executions are a reminder of the black community's subservience and inferiority. Jefferson's execution, Grant implies, is designed to prove to whites that blacks are weak, thereby preserving a myth of white superiority. As a result, Jefferson can challenge white racism simply by standing proudly and going to his death without displaying fear.

Grant's explanation of the "myth" effectively answers the question that Grant himself posed earlier in the novel: What's the point of educating Jefferson? As Grant now recognizes, educating and empowering Jefferson has tremendous value for the entire black community. As a strong, empowered man, Jefferson can act as a "warrior" against racism, proving that whites' assumptions about his race are vicious lies.

Chapter 25 Quotes

I knew that like so many of the mulattos in this part of the state, they did bricklaying or carpentry, and possibly some housepainting. All this by contract. And all this to keep from working in the field side by side with the niggers. Since emancipation, almost a hundred years ago, they would do any kind of work they could find to keep from working side by side in the field with the niggers. They controlled most of the bricklaying business in this part of the state. Even took that kind of work from the white boys, because they would do it so much cheaper than the white boys would. Anything not to work alongside the niggers.

Related Characters: Grant Wiggins (speaker)
Page Number: 201
Explanation and Analysis:

At a bar, Grant notices a group of "mulatto" (mixed-race) men and muses about their relationship with the black community and the white community. Ironically, he notes, mixed-race people often despise black people even more than white people do. And yet "mulattoes" are just as alien to the white community as fully black people are: as far as someone like Henri Pichot is concerned, there's no real difference between someone who's half-black and someone who's full-black.

Grant's observations about the mixed-race men are important to the novel because they reflect Grant's own uncertain relationship with his community in Louisiana. One could even say that, metaphorically, Grant is racially-mixed. As an educated black man, he's been given access to resources usually reserved for the white community (such as higher education). Grant's education and training make him dislike his  black community in Louisiana: he considers his church ignorant and foolish, and he often treats his family with barely-disguised contempt. And yet in spite of his education and dislike for aspects of his black community, Grant certainly doesn't belong alongside white people in Louisiana. College education or not, he's identical to any other black man, as far as Pichot is concerned. Grant is trapped between two worlds, and he's not entirely comfortable with either one.

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.

Chapter 30 Quotes

Jefferson continued to look at Paul, a long, deep look, and the deputy felt that there was something else he wanted to say. Murphy and the other deputy were still waiting. “Well,” Paul said, and started to walk away. “Paul?” Jefferson said quietly. And his eyes were speaking, even more than his mouth. The deputy looked back at him. Murphy and Claude did too. “You go’n be there, Paul?” Jefferson asked, his eyes asked. Paul nodded. “Yes, Jefferson. I’ll be there.”

Related Characters: Jefferson (speaker), Deputy Paul Bonin (speaker), Claude Guerin, Murphy
Page Number: 248-49
Explanation and Analysis:

With only a few hours left before his execution, Jefferson prepares himself by asking Paul, the kind, white prison guard, if he'll be present for Jefferson's death. Jefferson's behavior in this scene of the novel illustrates just how far he's come since being sentenced to death. Although Jefferson's question, by itself, could be interpreted as frightened (he's scared of dying, and wants the support of a friend, Paul), Jefferson doesn't betray any outward signs of cowardice; on the contrary, he is calm and quiet. Based on how Murphy and Claude (who'd previously been rude to Jefferson) treat Jefferson in this scene, it's plain that Jefferson projects an image of pride and strength. Murphy and Claude are described as looking deep into Jefferson's eyes, suggesting that, in spite of their racist attitudes, they're viewing Jefferson as a human being for the first time. Murphy and Claude's behavior suggests that Grant's point about "myths" is true: by teaching Jefferson to be brave, Grant is fighting the dehumanizing effects of racism.

Chapter 31 Quotes

Several feet away from where I sat under the tree was a hill of bull grass. I doubted that I had looked at it once in all the time that I had been sitting there. I probably would not have noticed it at all had a butterfly, a yellow butterfly with dark specks like ink dots on its wings, not lit there. What had brought it there? There was no odor that I could detect to have attracted it. There were other places where it could have rested—there was the wire fence on either side of the road, there were weeds along both ditches with strong fragrances, there were flowers just a short distance away in Pichot’s yard—so why did it light on a hill of bull grass that offered it nothing? I watched it closely, the way it opened its wings and closed them, the way it opened its wings again, fluttered, closed its wings for a second or two, then opened them again and flew away. I watched it fly over the ditch and down into the quarter, I watched it until I could not see it anymore.

Related Characters: Grant Wiggins (speaker)
Page Number: 255-56
Explanation and Analysis:

As Jefferson is executed, Grant notices a butterfly flying near his schoolhouse. The butterfly has all sorts of symbolic overtones, and symbolizes different, contradictory things at once. First, the butterfly seems to symbolize Grant himself. The butterfly has come to "rest" in a place that offers it nothing; in much the same sense, Grant has returned to an impoverished, uneducated Louisiana community that, at least in his view, offers him almost nothing. And yet when Grant describes the butterfly, he's not in the least bitter or cynical, perhaps suggesting that he's come to terms with his own community. And just as the butterfly continues flying away instead of remaining on the little patch of grass, Grant may one day leave his Louisiana home—his future is still uncertain.

In another sense, the butterfly may symbolize Jefferson's soul "flying to Heaven" after his execution. Gaines seems to be suggesting that Grant has put aside some of his objections to Christianity and his church. While Grant doesn't necessarily subscribe to any one organized religion, he seems to believe that there is a God who has a plan for him; i.e., a God who directs him through life like the butterfly, moving from flower to flower.

“I don’t know what you’re going to say when you go back in there. But tell them he was the bravest man in that room today. I’m a witness, Grant Wiggins. Tell them so.”

Related Characters: Deputy Paul Bonin (speaker), Grant Wiggins , Jefferson
Page Number: 260
Explanation and Analysis:

After Jefferson's execution, Paul goes to Grant to tell him about the event. The fact that Jefferson was proud and brave throughout the ordeal proves that Grant has succeeded as a teacher. Grant has not only taught but embodied bravery and self-respect, thereby giving Jefferson the dignity he needed to "stand tall," acting as a hero and a symbol for the black community.

In this scene, Paul's behavior takes on religious overtones. Paul—one of the few white characters in the novel who's portrayed positively—has always treated Jefferson with respect and even friendliness. But after Jefferson's execution, Paul will play the part of a messenger: first witnessing Jefferson's death, then spreading the news of Jefferson's strength and courage across town. In this sense, Jefferson comes to resemble Jesus Christ, and Paul comes to resemble his own Biblical namesake, who spread word of Christ's strength and divinity across the world. In this way, the novel ends on an optimistic note. Grant wanted Jefferson to act as an example of African-Americans' courage and humanity: Jefferson was supposed to be a warrior, fighting racist whites' assumptions about blacks. Now that Jefferson has died with dignity, Gaines implies, it becomes Paul's duty to spread word of Jefferson's heroism through his own white community. With Paul's help, Jefferson will continue to fight racism even after he's dead.

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