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.
Women and Femininity ThemeTracker
Women and Femininity Quotes in A Lesson Before Dying
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.
“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’m not doing any good up there, Vivian,” I said. “Nothing’s changing.”
“Something is,” she said.
“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.’
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 ...