A Lesson Before Dying

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Roots, Connections, and Morality 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
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.
Roots, Connections, and Morality Theme Icon

Many times in A Lesson Before Dying, Jefferson and Grant are told that they should help other people, or that they owe other people their respect and service. These “other people” include family, members of the plantation community, and even strangers. In the novel, Gaines explores the way that interpersonal connections compel people to behave morally to one another.

For Gaines, the interpersonal connection begins with the family. Both Grant and Jefferson are impacted by those who fail to live up to this bond—they are both abandoned by their parents—and benefitted by those who take the bond seriously: Grant is taken in and raised by his aunt Tante Lou as if he was her own, while Jefferson is similarly taken in by his grandmother. As Grant and Jefferson grow up, their families try to instill in them a more abstract feeling of connection with their community and their “roots.” In many cases, this feeling takes a religious form. Tante Lou takes Grant to church until he goes to college, and Miss Emma raises Jefferson as a Catholic; they do so to make their children better people, but also to connect them with the other people in the plantation community.

As the novel begins, both Grant and Jefferson resent the connection between themselves and their families and roots—they treat it like a burden they must drag with them. Their resentment (and in Grant’s case, his sense of being “trapped” in his obligations) makes them feel lonely and cynical. Grant has gone off to college and when he returned to Louisiana, felt no connection to his church or community. When Tante Lou urges him to talk to Jefferson, he’s irritated to have to get involved in what he sees as a lost cause. His cynicism about his family and community is so great that he dreams of leaving Louisiana altogether. Much the same is true of Jefferson. Though Emma showers him with maternal affection, cooking him his favorite foods and visiting him frequently, Jefferson doesn’t return this affection, and certainly doesn’t show any affection to Grant.

While moral connections begin with a familial, even biological bond, Gaines suggests that feeling of connection to one’s family and one’s roots is ultimately a choice. Grant reluctantly chooses to help Jefferson because of his obligation to Tante Lou. Yet as Grant spends more time with Jefferson, he begins teaching him out of a desire to help him, not a sense of obligation. At the same time, he begins to feel a stronger connection to other members of his community, such as the students at his school. Ultimately, he also comes to feel a bond of friendship with the white prison guard Paul Bonin, who isn’t a member of his community at all. Much the same is true of Jefferson. Over the course of the novel he freely chooses to be a moral being, telling Grant to thank his children for their pecans, and later embracing Miss Emma, his godmother, before he’s executed. By extending their sense of moral connection to their families, their communities, and to strangers, both Grant and Jefferson battle their own cynicism. Grant captures the relationship between morality, emotion, and connection immediately after Jefferson breaks down in tears with Miss Emma: Grant says that Jefferson is crying because he feels that he’s part of a whole.

The novel suggests that the moral bond begins with the family, but ultimately it doesn’t stay there: the moral person must freely choose to get in touch with his family, his roots, and with unfamiliar people. Gaines ends A Lesson Before Dying with a poignant image of the connection between unlike people: Grant and Paul shake hands, showing how people can move beyond the boundaries of race, class, and experience.

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Roots, Connections, and Morality Quotes in A Lesson Before Dying

Below you will find the important quotes in A Lesson Before Dying related to the theme of Roots, Connections, and Morality.
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 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.

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.

Chapter 21 Quotes

“We black men have failed to protect our women since the time of slavery. We stay here in the South and are broken, or we run away and leave them alone to look after the children and themselves. So each time a male child is born, they hope he will be the one to change this vicious circle—which he never does … What she wants is for him, Jefferson, and me to change everything that has been going on for three hundred years. She wants it to happen so in case she ever gets out of her bed again, she can go to that little church there in the quarter and say proudly, ‘You see, I told you—I told you he was a man.’

Related Characters: Grant Wiggins (speaker), Jefferson, Miss Emma Glenn
Page Number: 169
Explanation and Analysis:

In this chapter, Grant gives Jefferson an eloquent and disturbing account of the relationship between men and women in the black community. Because of the impoverishment and misery of this community, Grant explains, black men often face a tragic dilemma: they can either stay behind to take care of their children and their families, or they can “run away,” leaving their loved ones to fend for themselves. Some black men choose to leave their children uncared for, meaning that in the end their children sometimes grow up to become neglectful fathers themselves.

Because of this tragic cycle, many black women are left caring for their children without a father’s help—and sometimes caring for their nephews or grandsons as well, like Lou and Emma. Emma thinks that by convincing Grant to remain in Louisiana and help Jefferson, she can put an end to the cycle of neglect and abandonment in her community (much as Grant, as a schoolteacher, is trying to put an end to the cycle of ignorance and disenfranchisement). This shows that Emma, just like Grant, is trying to improve life in the black community. Moreover, Emma seems more optimistic than Grant: in spite of witnessing more “go-arounds” of the cycle than Grant, she continues to try to make life better.

Chapter 23 Quotes

“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 26 Quotes

I went to the front door and jerked it open, and there was the screen. And through the screen I could see outside into the darkness, and I didn’t want to go out there. There was nothing outside this house that I cared for. Not school, not home, not my aunt, not the quarter, not anything else in the world. I don’t know how long I stood there looking out into the darkness—a couple of minutes, I suppose —then I went back into the kitchen. I knelt down and buried my face in her lap ...

Related Characters: Grant Wiggins (speaker), Tante Lou, Vivian Baptiste
Page Number: 213
Explanation and Analysis:

Grant is furious to learn that Vivian's husband, from whom she's separated, won't agree to a divorce unless she lets him see their children on weekends. Technically, Grant has been having an affair with Vivian, and he's been looking forward to the time when he can spend time with his girlfriend without the fear of legal repercussions. The fact that Vivian will be locked in divorce proceedings for longer than she thought infuriates Grant, and he seems to be considering leaving Vivian, both tonight and possibly forever. In spite of Grant's anger, he's smart enough to realize that he has nowhere else to go: he doesn't feel any deep connection to his family, his community, or his job. Because of Grant's cynicism about his community, as well as his education, Vivian is the only person with whom he feels he can be himself.

Grant is torn between two options: remaining in Louisiana or abandoning his community for somewhere new. Grant's behavior in this scene suggests that he's finally reaching a decision. Although he continues to have his doubts about his church, his neighbors, and his family, Grant refuses to conform to the stereotypes of the absentee black male: he refuses to run away from his problems. Instead, Grant chooses to remain with the woman he loves. In this way, Grant finds a compromise: he continues to question his community without turning his back on it altogether.

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.