A Lesson Before Dying

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Themes and Colors
Racism Theme Icon
Education Theme Icon
Religion, Cynicism, and Hope Theme Icon
Heroism and Sacrifice Theme Icon
Women and Femininity Theme Icon
Roots, Connections, and Morality Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in A Lesson Before Dying, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Heroism and Sacrifice Theme Icon

During one of Grant’s visits to Jefferson near the end of the novel, he gives Jefferson his definition of a hero: “A hero is someone who does something for other people.” The broader implication of Grant’s definition is that heroes sacrifice their own interests for the interests of other human beings. Grant insists that he himself is not a hero—in fact, he says that he’s only looking out for his own interests as an educated black man—but that Jefferson is capable of being a hero.

Gaines explores the ethics of heroism and sacrifice in A Lesson Before Dying. In his earliest encounters with Grant, Jefferson rejects heroism, personal sacrifice, and all morality—there’s no point in caring about others, he tells Grant, since he’s going to die soon. It’s up to Grant to convince Jefferson that he does have the desire and the ability to be a hero.

Throughout the novel, Gaines is careful to show us the small and large sacrifices the characters make for each other. The schoolchildren’s families donate wood in order to keep the school warm through the winter, and the entire community donates clothes, presents, and food for the annual Christmas play that Grant organizes. Emma and Tante Lou make enormous sacrifices for their children: Emma cooks and cares for Jefferson’s every need, and Tante Lou works harder than ever to pay for Grant’s college education, even after she sustains wounds on her feet and knees. Even Grant, who tells Jefferson that he’s a selfish man, has devoted his adult life to teaching children, for reasons he can’t entirely explain. The reason Grant does this, Gaines suggests, is the same reason that people donate their wood to the schoolhouse: humans have an innate, illogical desire to help others.

By showing sacrifice in its ordinary, everyday forms, Gaines steers us toward the conclusion that it’s human to care about others, and to sacrifice. If heroism is sacrifice, this would suggest that all people are capable of heroism. Indeed, Jefferson attains heroism by putting Miss Emma’s interests before his own and walking bravely to his death, making Emma happy and proud. It may be that all people are capable of such displays of heroism, even if only a few of them ever prove it.

Ultimately, Gaines implies that sacrifice and heroism aren’t lofty ideals; they’re acts that all humans can perform with the proper encouragement. Even if few of us will become martyrs, it’s possible to be a hero in other ways—with this in mind, Gaines points us to the quiet heroism of Emma, Lou, and even Grant.

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Heroism and Sacrifice Quotes in A Lesson Before Dying

Below you will find the important quotes in A Lesson Before Dying related to the theme of Heroism and Sacrifice.
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.


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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 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.