A Lesson Before Dying

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Religion, Cynicism, and Hope Theme Analysis

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
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Religion, Cynicism, and Hope Theme Icon

Throughout A Lesson Before Dying, Grant, a Catholic living in a largely Catholic community, grapples with questions of religion. Although nearly all of his peers and family members are Catholic, Grant distrusts organized religion, at least as the people around him practice it. In large part, this is because Grant distrusts the concept of Heaven: the notion that all misery and suffering is strictly short-term, because good people will receive an eternal reward for their good behavior. He distrusts this concept because he sees it as a way of keeping the poor and powerless in line. As he tells Jefferson during a visit to the jailhouse late in the novel, white people are comfortable with the black community’s Catholic priest, Reverend Ambrose, because Ambrose, by getting his congregation to focus on their reward in the next life, encourages his congregation to be docile and accept their inferior position to whites in this one.

In a sense, what Grant distrusts isn’t religion so much as hope. (Grant actually says that he believes in God, but not Heaven.) And yet, while Grant’s logic seems sound, the novel portrays the impact of Grant’s distrust for Catholicism/hope very clearly: he lives a lonely, cynical life. Even as a schoolteacher—a job that would seem to require the hopeful belief that one’s students will grow up to succeed—Grant is cynical. He can’t think of a good reason why he’s still in Louisiana teaching, and thinks about how few of his students—if any—will go on to use the knowledge he’s teaching them. Even though it’s his job to change his students, Grant himself refuses to change—and rues his life.

A turning point for Grant’s understanding of religion and hope comes when Reverend Ambrose confronts him after Grant has given Jefferson a radio. Ambrose tells Grant that, in fact, Grant is the uneducated fool and Ambrose the educated man. While Grant thinks that he understands the truth, Ambrose does something far more sophisticated: he lies. Ambrose lies in his sermons, in his conversations with members of his congregation, and even when he talks to Miss Emma about Jefferson. Ambrose tells these lies because lies can have value: they can inspire hope and optimism, while also bringing momentary peace and contentment to people who are in pain. Grant comes to see how such hope and optimism can provide a strength that Grant himself doesn’t have: while Grant is too afraid to attend Jefferson’s execution, Ambrose does go, and reads Jefferson the 23rd psalm.

At first, Grant believed that religion and the belief in heaven was a kind of trick, designed by people in power to make the powerless accept their suffering. He begins to see that heaven, even if it’s not literally true, has a kind of spiritual truth: it brings people the strength to overcome their suffering. By the end of the novel, while he never admits to believing in heaven himself, Grant’s experiences with Jefferson and Ambrose have convinced him that hope and belief aren’t to be scoffed at: they bring people peace and strength, both the strength to endure injustice and, perhaps, to take the small, slow steps to bring about change.

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Religion, Cynicism, and Hope Quotes in A Lesson Before Dying

Below you will find the important quotes in A Lesson Before Dying related to the theme of Religion, Cynicism, and Hope.
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.


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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 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 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 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 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.