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.
Roots, Connections, and Morality ThemeTracker
Roots, Connections, and Morality Quotes in A Lesson Before Dying
“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?”
“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.”
“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?”
“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.’
“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.
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 ...
“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.”
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.”
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.