A Lesson Before Dying

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Food and Meals Symbol Analysis

Food and Meals Symbol Icon
A significant number of the key events in A Lesson Before Dying either happen directly because of food or happen while the characters are eating a meal: most of Miss Emma’s early interactions with Jefferson in jail consist of her offering Jefferson food; Grant shows (or denies) his love for Tante Lou by eating her cooking; Grant’s breakthrough with Jefferson occurs when Jefferson thanks Grant for the pecans he’s brought; Jefferson first shows love for Miss Emma by eating her gumbo; Jefferson eats his last meal the night before his execution and declares it the best he’s ever eaten.

Food and Meals Quotes in A Lesson Before Dying

The A Lesson Before Dying quotes below all refer to the symbol of Food and Meals. 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 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.

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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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Food and Meals Symbol Timeline in A Lesson Before Dying

The timeline below shows where the symbol Food and Meals appears in A Lesson Before Dying. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 4
Women and Femininity Theme Icon
Roots, Connections, and Morality Theme Icon
...house, and he thinks that he’s being very hurtful—he’s always supposed to eat his aunt’s food. Grant drives away from Emma’s house, thinking about all the schoolwork he has to do,... (full context)
Chapter 6
Racism Theme Icon
Women and Femininity Theme Icon
...says there’s nothing she needs help with, Edna pours herself a drink. She offers Grant food, but Grant refuses, even though he’s hungry—he’ll never eat at Pichot’s kitchen table again. Inez... (full context)
Chapter 9
Women and Femininity Theme Icon
...Bayonne, neither Grant nor Miss Emma says anything. Emma, who’s bringing Jefferson a basket of food, knows that Grant is reluctant to speak to Jefferson at all. (full context)
Racism Theme Icon
...that Jefferson has been very quiet lately. The other deputy goes through the basket of food and clothing that Emma has brought, and tells Grant to empty his pockets; Grant notes... (full context)
Racism Theme Icon
Heroism and Sacrifice Theme Icon
...to Jefferson’s cell. As they walk there, the other prisoners ask Emma and Grant for food and money. Emma says she’ll give them what Jefferson doesn’t take, and Grant gives them... (full context)
Religion, Cynicism, and Hope Theme Icon
Heroism and Sacrifice Theme Icon
Roots, Connections, and Morality Theme Icon
...quiet, and even when Emma strokes his hair he doesn’t speak. Emma shows him the food she’s brought him: fried chicken, yams, and tea cakes. Jefferson says that none of this... (full context)
Religion, Cynicism, and Hope Theme Icon
Heroism and Sacrifice Theme Icon
Women and Femininity Theme Icon
...opens the cell door. Emma tells Jefferson that they’ll be back soon. She leaves the food with him, and asks Paul to give whatever Jefferson doesn’t eat to the other inmates;... (full context)
Chapter 10
Education Theme Icon
Women and Femininity Theme Icon
...nothing; Emma weeps; Grant and Emma leave together, instructing the guards to leave the extra food for the other prisoners. (full context)
Racism Theme Icon
Education Theme Icon
Heroism and Sacrifice Theme Icon
Women and Femininity Theme Icon
...jail, but she insists that he go alone. Angry, Grant picks up the bag of food Emma has prepared; it contains enough food to feed the entire jail. He tells Lou... (full context)
Chapter 11
Education Theme Icon
Heroism and Sacrifice Theme Icon
...Jefferson, and Jefferson asks Grant if he brought him any corn, since corn is the food that hogs eat. Grant insists that Jefferson isn’t a hog, and asks him how long... (full context)
Religion, Cynicism, and Hope Theme Icon
Women and Femininity Theme Icon
...he and Jefferson sit in the cell in silence, and Grant stares at the half-eaten food. (full context)
Chapter 13
Religion, Cynicism, and Hope Theme Icon
...visit Jefferson on Monday, along with Emma and Lou; Grant recommends that they bring him food and clothing. When Ambrose asks about a Bible, he replies, “That would be nice, too.” (full context)
Chapter 16
Women and Femininity Theme Icon
Roots, Connections, and Morality Theme Icon
...him, insisting that Grant didn’t tell her the truth about Jefferson: he didn’t like the food or ask about Emma. Emma knows this because she had to hit Jefferson when she... (full context)
Chapter 17
Education Theme Icon
Roots, Connections, and Morality Theme Icon
...how Jefferson is doing; Paul replies that he’s doing all right, eating some of the food his family sends him. He introduces himself to Grant as Paul Bonin; Grant introduces himself... (full context)
Education Theme Icon
Heroism and Sacrifice Theme Icon
Women and Femininity Theme Icon
Roots, Connections, and Morality Theme Icon
Paul leaves Grant with Jefferson. Grant offers Jefferson food, but Jefferson says he isn’t hungry; Grant leaves the food for the other inmates. He... (full context)
Women and Femininity Theme Icon
...Instead, he tells Jefferson that Vivian cares about him deeply. Jefferson replies that manners and food are for the living. He kicks all the food off his bed and turns away... (full context)
Chapter 18
Women and Femininity Theme Icon
...brought him a feast of beef, rice, and biscuits. Jefferson doesn’t eat any of the food, even when Emma puts the food next to his mouth. Tante Lou sees the pain... (full context)
Chapter 21
Women and Femininity Theme Icon
...said after the two of them left Pichot’s house. She tells him that she left food for him at home, and then ignores him. Grant leaves the house after only ten... (full context)
Women and Femininity Theme Icon
At home, Grant heats up food for himself, and is surprised to hear Vivian arrive outside. She tells him that she... (full context)
Chapter 22
Heroism and Sacrifice Theme Icon
In the cell, Grant greets Jefferson and offers him food, but Jefferson shakes his head and refuses to eat. Jefferson asks Grant what day it... (full context)
Chapter 23
Heroism and Sacrifice Theme Icon
In the jailhouse, Grant greets Jefferson and offers him the food and entertainment he’s brought. Jefferson remains silent, but Grant sees that he’s listening to his... (full context)
Chapter 24
Education Theme Icon
Religion, Cynicism, and Hope Theme Icon
Heroism and Sacrifice Theme Icon
Women and Femininity Theme Icon
In the dayroom, Jefferson doesn’t respond when Miss Emma shows him the food she’s brought, but he answers Grant when Grant greets him. The group eats gumbo together,... (full context)
Chapter 26
Women and Femininity Theme Icon
Roots, Connections, and Morality Theme Icon
...unable to answer. He gets up to leave, slamming his towel on his plate of food. He opens the door and stares out into the darkness, thinking that he has nothing... (full context)
Chapter 28
Racism Theme Icon
Heroism and Sacrifice Theme Icon
Roots, Connections, and Morality Theme Icon
...greets Jefferson, and Jefferson tells him that he’s doing all right. Grant shows Jefferson the food he’s brought, and notices that the pencil he gave Jefferson on his last visit has... (full context)
Chapter 29
Racism Theme Icon
Education Theme Icon
Religion, Cynicism, and Hope Theme Icon
Heroism and Sacrifice Theme Icon
Roots, Connections, and Morality Theme Icon
...take Jefferson to clean himself, and when he’s returned to his cell, he finds the food waiting for him; he eats it, knowing it’s the best food Emma ever cooked. He... (full context)