The women that surround Grant in “A Lesson Before Dying” by Ernest Gaines are all catalysts for his eventual change away from the bitterness and doubts. Without Miss Emma or Tante Lou, it seems natural to conclude that Grant would have stagnated in his despair and spent his life feeling angry and irritable. However, since Emma and Tante Lou force Grant to go visit Jefferson and keep him motivated to stick with the task they’ve assigned him, they can be said to be the real force in the novel—rather than Grant.
The role of women in “A Lesson Before Dying” is quite significant as they are the foundations of community and family. Vivian, while an equal force in Grant’s eventual change in attitude that constitutes a form of double consciousness in “A Lesson Before Dying” by Ernest Gaines and seems to have a different effect. While Grant tends many times to shy away from interaction with his aunt and Emma throughout “A Lesson Before Dying”, and even in one of the most important events in “A Lesson Before Dying” he finally opens up to Vivian at the end and admits his weakness by laying his weary head in her lap.
Performing a character analysis of Grant in “A Lesson Before Dying” by Ernest Gaines is a complex task because his understanding of his community shifts. The first line of “A Lesson Before Dying” when Grant states offers one of the most important quotes from “A Lesson Before Dying” by Earnest Gaines, “I was there—but I wasn’t really there” (1) can not only be taken literally since he wasn’t actually at Jefferson’s trial, but in the metaphorical sense as well. Even though he part of the Tante Lou, Miss Emma, and Vivian’s lives, he seems to be only there in presence rather than in spirit. The first half of “A Lesson Before Dying”shows Grant always separating himself from the women in his life and the small gestures he makes of what he feels to be his “apartness” seem like they are keenly felt among these women, even if the author doesn’t delve too deeply into these women’s psyches and inner thoughts.
To highlight this theme in “A Lesson Before Dying” consider for example, both Tante Lou and Miss Emma are always trying to get Grant to eat their food, which for them is a symbolic way of taking care of their men, and just like Grant, Jefferson ends up doing the same thing when he refuses the food that the ladies brought for him. In some ways, this refusal on the part of both these men to accept this sign of love and care from the women binds them together and one can’t help but wonder if this mutual refusal (and finally acceptance) of the gift of food is what helps Grant begin to understand Jefferson. Also, perhaps this is one of the reasons that Miss Emma and Tante Lou were so convinced that Grant could help the condemned man—because they could see the link between them and the possibility for a learning experience.
Part of Grant’s bitterness in “A Lesson Before Dying” stems from his negative feelings about the black population in his hometown and as the novel continues, he experiences a double-consciousness about this matter. He feels that they are all bending to the will of the whites and seems very frustrated that so few of them don’t act out against those who are keeping them down. Along these lines, there is a big difference between Grant’s feelings and those of the women in his life since they are all actively involved in the community that Grant seems to have such a distaste for (even though he continues to stay). Everything seems repetitious to Grant, as is expressed in the important quote from “A Lesson Before Dying”, “After listening to one or two of the verses, I tuned out the rest of them. I had heard them all many times,” Grant says (p. 33). This church and community that the women around him are all involved in just seem to Grant to be the same thing, a vicious circle of submission. It is not until Grant learns to put some faith in these women who are trying to make him realize that he can change and become a fully realized man, even if he just thinks they are all bending to the pressures of white society.
“Without the hope that these women provide through their belief in redemption in the future, life would be intolerable.”(3) In essence, this means that without a few members of the black community taking pride in their actions and status as a cohesive unit, life would be even worse for all the African Americans living in Bayonne. Emma, Tante Lou, and Vivian are the forces in the black community this quote is referring to. Without them, Grant, with his feelings of disgust, would likely spend his life hating everything around him and this would be intolerable. These three women is Grant’s life cause him to take the first steps towards realizing his place in the community by forcing him (at first) to take up the issues of injustice surrounding the eventual execution of Jefferson.
The reason that the women in “A Lesson Before Dying” are so powerful in terms of Grant’s helping Jefferson is not only because they are involved with the church (Tante Lou and Emma in particular), but because they take pride in their heritage. Part of this heritage is directly related to Jefferson’s pending execution. They want to see him humanized, rather than compared to a mere animal and with their keen sense of community responsibility, they understand that it is necessary for Grant to take on this charge—both for the sake of halting his growing bitterness and the representation of the black community in Bayonne. Grant despises them for this at first and dislikes the way they still seem to be treated like slaves—especially when they are forced to enter through the back door of the Pichot house—something Grant swore he would never do once he came back to his small town. Still, it is these three women that force Grant, in differing ways, to confront his true self and recognize the potential power he has within him, if he would only take pride in his community.
Tante Lou and Emma are the main women in Grant’s life even if he doesn’t realize it. They are the two that push him to develop a relationship with Jefferson and thus discover his place not only in the community, but within his heritage as well. It might seem that Vivian is the main force in Grant’s change and although she has a big effect on him in the end, it took Miss Emma and Tante Lou to show him the path to finding himself before he could ever open up enough to have a meaningful relationship with Vivian. Throughout his growing friendship with Jefferson as brought about by these two women, Grant grows into a true man and is finally able to move forward in his life. Perhaps the stabilizing force that Miss Emma has on him is why she is said to be, at the beginning of the book a “tree stump”. This is meant to imply that she is something firmly rooted in the earth and not able to be swayed from her spot. At first Grant seems to resent this, but as he too grows more rooted in the community, he begins to understand his aunt and Miss Emma and relate to them as he should.
“His relationship with Vivian leads to a more earnest commitment to particular human beings, for after she becomes pregnant with his child, Grant’s relationship to the entire community gradually changes. As Vivian is forced by the terms of her divorce to remain within visiting distance of her ex-husband, Grant is now also tied to the area. His dream of escaping the South, perhaps moving back to California (and, in fact, of fleeing all connection with particular human communities), is replaced by the necessity to remain and to change the social conditions of a specific place.”(2) Again, even though these positive changes are taking place amidst the backdrop of a horrible execution, the women is Grant’s life have made this tolerable by showing him that what he did by helping Jefferson was right. When Grant is finally able to let go of his selfishness and see the whole picture of his experiences with the women in his life and how they connect to Jefferson and his community, he lays his head in Vivian’s lap, which is a sign that the teacher has finally learned a lesson.
In “A Lesson Before Dying” Gaines has painted us a picture of a man that is frustrated with what he feels like is the continued domination of the whites. While as this essay states, this is true in the sense that not all traces of racism have been wiped (especially in the courtroom) his experiences with these three women and Jefferson have shown him that he can plant roots of his own and be a great member of his community. By the end he realizes that without these strong women he would not have learned these lessons and even though it is fair to say that most of the descriptive emphasis is put on Grant himself, these women are more symbols of strength than anything else. Grant, who considers himself to be a teacher is taught the final lesson in this book which could not have been learned without Miss Emma, Tante Lou, and Vivian’s assistance in showing him what good he was capable of.
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1) Folks, Jeffrey. “Communal responsibility in Ernest J. Gaines‘s A Lesson Before Dying. Mississippi Quarterly 52.2 (1999): 253
2) Piacentino, Ed. “The Common humanity that is in us all”: Toward Racial Reconciliation in Gaines’s A Lesson Before Dying.” Southern Quarterly 42.3 (2004): 71
3) Vancil, David. “Redemption According to Ernest Gaines,” African American Review, 28 (Fall 1994), 490.