A Lesson Before Dying

by

Ernest Gaines

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A Lesson Before Dying: Chapter 3 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Grant starts his car, a ’46 Ford, thinking irritably that he not only has to talk to Henri Pichot but also act as his aunt’s chauffeur. He drives Tante Lou and Miss Emma past the school where he teaches, and thinks about all the work he has to do, in particular, finding wood to heat the school. He teaches about twenty families’ children, and he asks each family to send wood throughout the year.
Grant is petty once again: he’s thinking about driving when he should be mourning the death of his aunt’s friend’s godson. Yet at least Grant isn’t thinking about nonsense: he has duties to his schoolchildren and his school, and these involve organizing other families in the community.
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Grant arrives at Pichot’s house, which is large, painted white and grey, and built in an antebellum (pre-Civil War) style. He, Lou, and Emma walk to an entrance on the house; normally, only tractors and wagons go this way. As they walk to the back of the house, Grant reminds Lou that she told him never to go through Pichot’s back door again, but Lou insists that this is a special occasion, and the three of them walk through the back door. Miss Emma says that Grant didn’t have to come with them, but Grant can see that she wants him to come inside.
The pre-Civil War design of Pichot’s house symbolizes his pre-Civil War thinking: for Pichot, Black people are still inferior beings, effectively slaves, fit only to work on his land. Though we don’t understand exactly why, we see that Grant is humiliated to have to walk through the back door: already, then, Grant is debasing himself for the sake of others. And Lou’s comment that they should go through the back door captures the way that the Black people here realize that if they act in the way Pichot believes they should—as inferiors—they may be able to get him to do what they want him to.
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In the kitchen, Grant, Lou, and Emma meet the maid, Inez Lane, dressed in white. She tells them that she heard about Jefferson, and, when Emma asks to speak to Pichot, goes to call Pichot from the library. Grant remembers killing chickens and gathering fruit for Pichot as a child. In those days, Miss Emma worked as a cook in Pichot’s house; indeed, she cooked for Henri, his siblings, and his nieces and nephews—Henri has no children of his own. When Grant was older, he went to university, and Lou told him never to come through the back door of Pichot’s house ever again. Grant has been a schoolteacher for the last six years, and in that time never returned to the house.
Inez’s white uniform symbolizes the white environment in which she must work, even though she’s Black. We get a clearer idea of why Grant hates Pichot’s house: he was treated like a slave when he was younger. Since then, he’s used education to better himself and improve his quality of life: the implication is that Grant teaches children so that they may do the same and never have to work for racist people like Pichot themselves. And yet, at the same time, here is Grant once again entering Pichot’s house by the back door.
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Related Quotes
Henri Pichot arrives in the kitchen, followed by Louis Rougon; both men are white, Grant notes. Pichot is in his mid-sixties, carries a drink, and wears a grey suit with a white shirt. Rougon is slightly younger, wears a black suit, and also carries a drink. Grant notes that Rougon’s family owns a bank in a nearby town, and Pichot owns a plantation. Pichot asks Emma what he can do for her, but seems annoyed at being interrupted. Rougon and Pichot finish their drinks and hold them out, signaling Inez to refill them. As she does so, Emma asks Pichot for a favor: to talk to the sheriff, so that Grant can visit Jefferson in the days leading up to his execution and convince Jefferson that he is a man, not a hog.
While Grant shows some signs of not caring about Jefferson’s death, Pichot and Rougon seem completely unconcerned—they’re even drinking when Emma tells them about Jefferson. The way Pinchot casually extends his glass for Inez to fill without acknowledging her shows how he thinks of her as his inferior. Meanwhile, Emma shows her bravery by asking Pichot for a favor, knowing that he'll probably turn her down.
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In response to Emma’s pleas, Pichot tells her that he can’t promise anything; he looks at Grant. Grant thinks that he’s too educated to be of any use to Pichot anymore, but that Pichot respects him because Lou worked for Pichot for many years. Pichot urges Emma to forget her plans, worry about Jefferson’s soul, and let Reverend Ambrose visit Jefferson before he dies. Emma refuses, though she acknowledges that Ambrose will visit him—Jefferson is going to die, but he must die a man. Pichot gives in to Emma’s requests, saying impatiently that he’ll speak to the sheriff but that it’s the sheriff’s decision, not his own. When Emma asks when Pichot will speak to the sheriff, Pichot replies that he’ll speak to him whenever he next sees him, and walks away with Rougon, seemingly oblivious to Emma’s words of thanks.
Because Pichot encourages Emma to leave Jefferson to Reverend Ambrose, it’s tempting for us to think of religion as a tool of racist oppression (and Grant does think of it that way for much of the novel). There’s a plausible argument for this: religion teaches Black people to accept their fate in this world and look forward to their eternal reward in Heaven. This makes it easier for racists like Henri Pichot to assert their power over Black people. Pichot continues to show his disdain for and disinterest in Black people, irritably excusing himself to talk to his guests when Emma asks him reasonable questions about Jefferson.
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