A Lesson Before Dying

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Fire, Heat, and Warmth Symbol Analysis

Fire, Heat, and Warmth Symbol Icon
Throughout A Lesson Before Dying, there are images that mention heat, warmth, and fire. The most obvious such image is that of the schoolhouse, which can only remain open during the coldest months of the year when everyone in the community donates firewood to power the church heater. In general, Gaines associates warmth and heat with optimism, hope, and inspiration: when Grant is on the point of abandoning Jefferson, he visits his girlfriend Vivian Baptiste and feels the warmth of her body, inspiring him to remain where he is. Conversely, when Jefferson visits his old schoolmaster, Matthew Antoine, he learns that Antoine has lost all the heat in his body—a process that parallels Antoine’s complete lack of optimism about the future of the schoolchildren and the black community. Hope, then, is the fuel that drives Grant’s community. The fact that Grant continues to arrange for the classroom to be heated suggests that he still has some hope for his children’s futures—perhaps they’ll be able to use their knowledge and education to improve their lives, and the lives of others.

Fire, Heat, and Warmth Quotes in A Lesson Before Dying

The A Lesson Before Dying quotes below all refer to the symbol of Fire, Heat, and Warmth. 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

“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.

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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.

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Fire, Heat, and Warmth Symbol Timeline in A Lesson Before Dying

The timeline below shows where the symbol Fire, Heat, and Warmth appears in A Lesson Before Dying. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 3
Heroism and Sacrifice Theme Icon
Women and Femininity Theme Icon
...and thinks about all the work he has to do, in particular, finding wood to heat the school. He teaches about twenty families’ children, and he asks each family to send... (full context)
Chapter 8
Education Theme Icon
...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... (full context)
Racism Theme Icon
Education Theme Icon
Religion, Cynicism, and Hope Theme Icon
...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... (full context)