During one of Grant’s visits to Jefferson near the end of the novel, he gives Jefferson his definition of a hero: “A hero is someone who does something for other people.” The broader implication of Grant’s definition is that heroes sacrifice their own interests for the interests of other human beings. Grant insists that he himself is not a hero—in fact, he says that he’s only looking out for his own interests as an educated black man—but that Jefferson is capable of being a hero.
Gaines explores the ethics of heroism and sacrifice in A Lesson Before Dying. In his earliest encounters with Grant, Jefferson rejects heroism, personal sacrifice, and all morality—there’s no point in caring about others, he tells Grant, since he’s going to die soon. It’s up to Grant to convince Jefferson that he does have the desire and the ability to be a hero.
Throughout the novel, Gaines is careful to show us the small and large sacrifices the characters make for each other. The schoolchildren’s families donate wood in order to keep the school warm through the winter, and the entire community donates clothes, presents, and food for the annual Christmas play that Grant organizes. Emma and Tante Lou make enormous sacrifices for their children: Emma cooks and cares for Jefferson’s every need, and Tante Lou works harder than ever to pay for Grant’s college education, even after she sustains wounds on her feet and knees. Even Grant, who tells Jefferson that he’s a selfish man, has devoted his adult life to teaching children, for reasons he can’t entirely explain. The reason Grant does this, Gaines suggests, is the same reason that people donate their wood to the schoolhouse: humans have an innate, illogical desire to help others.
By showing sacrifice in its ordinary, everyday forms, Gaines steers us toward the conclusion that it’s human to care about others, and to sacrifice. If heroism is sacrifice, this would suggest that all people are capable of heroism. Indeed, Jefferson attains heroism by putting Miss Emma’s interests before his own and walking bravely to his death, making Emma happy and proud. It may be that all people are capable of such displays of heroism, even if only a few of them ever prove it.
Ultimately, Gaines implies that sacrifice and heroism aren’t lofty ideals; they’re acts that all humans can perform with the proper encouragement. Even if few of us will become martyrs, it’s possible to be a hero in other ways—with this in mind, Gaines points us to the quiet heroism of Emma, Lou, and even Grant.
Heroism and Sacrifice ThemeTracker
Heroism and Sacrifice Quotes in A Lesson Before Dying
“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?”
“Do you know what a hero is, Jefferson? A hero is someone who does something for other people. He does something that other men don’t and can’t do. He is different from other men. He is above other men. No matter who those other men are, the hero, no matter who he is, is above them.” I lowered my voice again until we had passed the table. “I could never be a hero. I teach, but I don’t like teaching. I teach because it is the only thing that an educated black man can do in the South today. I don’t like it; I hate it. I don’t even like living here. I want to run away. I want to live for myself and for my woman and for nobody else. That is not a hero. A hero does for others.”
“Do you know what a myth is, Jefferson?” I asked him. “A myth is an old lie that people believe in. White people believe that they’re better than anyone else on earth—and that’s a myth. The last thing they ever want is to see a black man stand, and think, and show that common humanity that is in us all. It would destroy their myth. They would no longer have justification for having made us slaves and keeping us in the condition we are in. As long as none of us stand, they’re safe. They’re safe with me. They’re safe with Reverend Ambrose. I don’t want them to feel safe with you anymore.
“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.
“I don’t know what you’re going to say when you go back in there. But tell them he was the bravest man in that room today. I’m a witness, Grant Wiggins. Tell them so.”