A Lesson Before Dying

Ernest J. Gaines

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A Lesson Before Dying | Chapter 10 | Summary



The narrative skips in time to the day Grant Wiggins is preparing to make his fourth visit with Miss Emma to see Jefferson. The first three visits have all been about the same, with Jefferson refusing to eat and Miss Emma leaving in tears. Now, Grant goes to pick up Miss Emma but finds her inside her house, pretending to be sick: "Miss Emma coughed twice ... to let me know that she was on her deathbed." Grant realizes Miss Emma and Lou have intended him to go alone all along. Emma repeats Grant isn't obligated to go, while Tante Lou insists he is.

"Everything you sent me to school for, you're stripping me of it," he tells Lou. He speaks of the humiliation he experiences at Henri Pichot's house and when being searched at the jail. He says he didn't realize Lou would be the one to help "them" to "break [him] down to the nigger I was born to be." Emma cries, and Lou apologizes for "helping them white people to humiliate" him. She says "they ain't nobody else" who can do what Grant is being asked to do.


The lack of positive change in his students Grant Wiggins finds so frustrating as a teacher also characterizes his visits with Jefferson up until now. This is a manifestation of the vicious cycle entrapping the black community, and seems to support the claims made by Grant's mentor Matthew Antoine and the sheriff that to try to help the students is just a waste of time. While it seems like "nothing changes," there are in fact gradual changes, and Grant visiting Jefferson alone will likely produce a different response from Jefferson than when Miss Emma is there. The truth is change begins slowly, and major shifts do not occur, for individuals or for communities, without significant discomfort.

This introduces the idea of sacrifice. Tante Lou is telling Grant he must sacrifice his pride and allow himself to be humbled, even humiliated, because this is what is necessary if change is to occur. She has put him in an uncomfortable position. She insisted he become educated, so he would have a profound understanding of the nature and depth of the injustices endured by his community. Education has elevated Grant by giving him knowledge about the world, and it is this state of being elevated which makes him uniquely suited for the humiliating tasks he must now endure for the good of Jefferson and the community. Matthew Antoine told Grant there was nothing to do but run, but Lou will not let him, insisting through her terse speech he has no choice but to accept the responsibilities he is being given.

Grant's words reveal his hopelessness regarding Jefferson's situation. He does not see it as an opportunity to make a heroic sacrifice. Rather, he sees it as a foolish and painful waste. Just as Matthew Antoine claimed there was no way to overcome 300 years of ingrained ignorance, Grant feels there is no way to overcome Jefferson's dehumanizing life experiences in the few months remaining before his death. Tante Lou believes otherwise, and is calling on Grant to prove her correct, although he doesn't believe he can succeed.

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