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.
Women and Femininity Theme Icon

Dozens of times in A Lesson Before Dying, we hear Emma and Tante Lou say that Grant must teach Jefferson to die “like a man, not a hog.” This suggests that A Lesson Before Dying is about how a man should die, and more importantly, what a man should be. This raises the question: what’s Gaines’s idea of what a woman should be? More to the point, how should a woman live?

Especially in the first half of the novel, Gaines shows us how women live in 1940s Louisiana. Black women like Emma and Lou selflessly care for their family members. Even though Jefferson and Grant aren’t their maternal children, they treat them like their children, cooking for them, sheltering them, working to pay for them, and, in Lou’s case, paying for their education. Edna Guidry, the sheriff’s wife, sympathizes with Miss Emma’s pain after Jefferson is sentenced to death, and convinces her husband to let Emma, Lou, Grant and Reverend Ambrose visit Jefferson in the dayroom. Edna is white, but her sympathy for Jefferson seems closely tied to her understanding of his grandmother’s pain and anguish. This suggests that gender, for women, while not overcoming racial allegiance, at least creates bridges across it. Vivian cares for her schoolchildren far more than Grant cares for his. There are many times when Grant is willing to move away from his home, taking Vivian with him, and Vivian convinces him to stay for the sake of their students. Though we never see Vivian with her children, we know that she has continued taking care of them after her husband left her, and wants to continue caring for them after she finalizes her divorce. Taken together, these examples of feminine behavior fit Grant’s definition of heroism: Emma, Lou, Vivian, and Edna sacrifice their own happiness for the sake of others. Women seem to be more in touch with the innate human instinct to help others than the men in the novel.

But it’s not enough to classify women’s behavior as heroic; while it certainly is, their behavior is motivated both by the desire to help specific people and by the more abstract desire to keep their communities stable. At one point in the novel, as Grant sits with Vivian at the Rainbow Club, he tells her that women are terrified that the men in their lives—their husbands, boyfriends, children, and grandchildren—will leave them for a new life somewhere else. We see ample evidence of this in A Lesson Before Dying: Vivian’s husband leaves her, Emma’s husband leaves her, Jefferson’s father leaves him, etc. Thus, it becomes extremely important for women to take care of those who remain behind: they’re trying to ensure that their communities won’t be fractured any more than they already have been. When Grant explains this to Vivian, he’s being dismissive of women—he finds it obnoxious and suffocating that they’re trying to keep him and other men from moving away. But he gains more respect for women when he learns that Tante Lou, who’s raised him since he was a child, actually injured herself working extra hours to pay for his food and college education, but never complained to him about her pain.

What Grant comes to understand, and what A Lesson Before Dying portrays, is the way that women sacrifice themselves for the benefit of others without even the promise of being recognized as a hero, or at all. In this way, the heroism of women in the novel is revealed as truly selfless, truly heroic.

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Women and Femininity Quotes in A Lesson Before Dying

Below you will find the important quotes in A Lesson Before Dying related to the theme of Women and Femininity.
Chapter 2 Quotes

“He don’t have to do it,” Miss Emma said ...

Related Characters: Miss Emma Glenn (speaker), Grant Wiggins
Page Number: 13
Explanation and Analysis:

Miss Emma wants Grant to try to teach Jefferson, her beloved grandson (who is, for all intents and purposes, her child), to respect himself before he's executed. But she's also too proud to ask Grant, point-blank, if he'll do so. For this reason, she begins a passive-aggressive battle of wills with Grant. She never actually asks Grant for his help, but she says of him "He don't have to do it" so often that it's perfectly clear that she does want Grant to do it, and that Grant himself will either have to explicitly agree or refuse to do so.

While Grant finds Miss Emma's "catchphrase" irritating in its passive aggressiveness (and perhaps it is, a little), we also recognize that there's something noble about Emma's refusal to beg Grant for his help. She's a proud woman, who's lived a long, independent life. She's not about to beg anyone for anything, even at the point where her grandson is about to die. And ironically, Miss Emma's persistence in enlisting Grant's help—even if the way she goes about asking for this help seems unusual—proves that she really does care about Jefferson.


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Chapter 6 Quotes

Edna turned back to me. “Grant, please tell Emma how sorry I am about Jefferson. I would do it myself, but I’m just too broken up over this matter. I ran into Madame Gropé just the other day; Lord, how sad she looks. Just dragging along. Poor old thing. I had to put my arms round her.” Edna drank from her glass.

Related Characters: Edna Guidry (speaker), Grant Wiggins , Jefferson
Related Symbols: Food and Meals
Page Number: 45
Explanation and Analysis:

In this scene, Gaines gives us a window into the personality of Edna Guidry, one of the few white characters in the novel who shows sympathy for black people. Edna knows that Jefferson is going to be executed for his supposed crimes, and she seems to grasp at least some of the injustice in this: she recognizes that Jefferson’s death is going to affect the lives of other people, such as Miss Emma and Tante Lou. It’s surely not a coincidence that Edna, one of the only compassionate white characters in the novel, is also a woman: Gaines implies that Edna’s own position of subservience to white men makes her sympathetic to black men and women who are also subservient to white men.

And yet, in spite of Edna’s sympathy for Jefferson, she’s not nearly as compassionate as we might expect her to be: note that Emma is still drinking from her glass as she speaks to Grant, and that she’s supposedly too “broken up” to talk to Miss Emma herself. Put another way, Edna is concerned, but her concern also seems a bit like a performance to make herself feel like a good person. Her concern doesn't drive her to action; it's just a condescending concern. Perhaps it’s fair to say that Edna is a naturally kind and loving woman, who’s nonetheless partly blinded by the bigotry of her society. No matter how hard she tries, she can’t quite conceive of Jefferson as a full human being who’s deserving of her sympathy.

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 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 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 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.