A Lesson Before Dying

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Wood Symbol Icon
In addition to the kindling the old men bring to the church to warm the schoolhouse through the winter, wood makes one other symbolically loaded appearance in A Lesson Before Dying. When Grant visits Jefferson in the dayroom, accompanied by Tante Lou, Reverend Ambrose, and Miss Emma, he tells Jefferson that he must become a better man, and compares the process of self-improvement to that of polishing a rough piece of wood. While the wood may seem ugly and splintered at first, the woodworker’s care and attention reveals the beautiful object trapped beneath a rough exterior. In this analogy, we can assume that Grant is the woodworker and Jefferson is the rough piece of wood. It’s important to keep in mind that the woodworker in the analogy doesn’t add anything to the wood; by the same logic, Grant doesn’t give Jefferson new information about good and evil. Instead, Grant reminds Jefferson what Jefferson already has: the ability to be courageous and moral, for the sake of Miss Emma and for his entire community. Polishing a rough piece of wood, then, represents the process of education and self-discovery that Jefferson embarks on in Gaines’s novel.

Wood Quotes in A Lesson Before Dying

The A Lesson Before Dying quotes below all refer to the symbol of Wood. 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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Wood Symbol Timeline in A Lesson Before Dying

The timeline below shows where the symbol Wood 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
...he teaches, 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... (full context)
Chapter 8
Education Theme Icon
...superintendent’s visit, two old black men, 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... (full context)
Education Theme Icon
Henry Lewis knocks on the back door, telling Grant that they’re dropped off all the wood. Grant thanks him and Amos Thomas for their help, and then tells his students that... (full context)
Racism Theme Icon
Education Theme Icon
Religion, Cynicism, and Hope Theme Icon
Heroism and Sacrifice Theme Icon
Grant remembers being a student in the classroom where he now teaches. He chopped wood then, surrounded by students his age who would grow up to live in other towns... (full context)
Chapter 24
Education Theme Icon
Religion, Cynicism, and Hope Theme Icon
Heroism and Sacrifice Theme Icon
Roots, Connections, and Morality Theme Icon
...for himself. He makes an analogy: in his spare time, Farrell takes rough pieces of wood and polishes them until they are smooth and beautiful. Human beings are like these rough... (full context)