A Lesson Before Dying | Study Guide

Ernest J. Gaines

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A Lesson Before Dying | Chapter 13 | Summary

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Summary

The following Sunday Grant Wiggins struggles to concentrate on grading because the singing from the church is loud and distracting. Tante Lou has "quit looking at [him] when she was on her way to church" ever since he renounced his faith after college. It's "Determination Sunday," when the congregation sings and announces "where they were determined to spend eternity."

He recalls Friday when he returned late to find Reverend Mose Ambrose, Miss Emma, and Tante Lou waiting, in silent disapproval, for news of his visit with Jefferson. Grant kept saying "he was all right," and finally offered a vague, unconvincing lie. Suddenly, the reverend asked him, "Deep in you, what you think? ... Him? ... What's he thinking deep in him?" His question is whether Jefferson has "grasped the significance of what it's all about." Reverend Ambrose is "a simple, devoted believer," who "heard the voice and started preaching." He remarks with disapproval that both Jefferson and Grant have lost their faith, and is taken aback they "didn't get around to [talking about] God." He says he will bring Jefferson a Bible, and gives Grant a hard stare.

Grant used to worship and believe, but lost faith in college. This change pains Lou, and her pain hurts Grant. Since then, he's "been running in place ... unable to accept what used to be [his] life, unable to leave it."

Vivian Baptiste arrives. The surprise visit is her first to the plantation.

Analysis

The plantation is dominated by the sounds of worship on Sunday, illustrating the degree to which religious faith and expression are interwoven with the life of the community. As someone who has lost the faith, Grant is something of an outsider. Interestingly, he renounced his belief not because of trauma or philosophical conclusions, but merely because school kept him too busy to think about worshipping. This shift in priorities is another way Grant's education makes him different from the rest of the community, whose priority is, and has always been, limited to work, family, and church.

It is of symbolic importance that the church is a constant physical and sensory intrusion into Grant's attempts to engage in intellectual or academic work. He goes there every day to teach, and even on Sunday when he is at home, the church is with him in the form of singing that makes it impossible for him to focus on anything else. His habitual response is to walk away into nature. It is in nature, not in church, where Grant connects with something larger and more powerful than himself, something with the power to soothe and balance his suffering. Symbolically, nature is Grant's church—a place of refuge and comfort from a mean world—although he doesn't conceptualize it that way. But even nature, on the plantation, is not free of the odor of injustice. The cane fields that soothe Grant on his walks are the same ones where his ancestors toiled as slaves.

Grant's education is a source of tension not only between him and white power but between him and Reverend Ambrose. Reverend Ambrose, an uneducated believer, acts as a foil for Grant, the educated nonbeliever. Like Grant, Reverend Ambrose is a thinking man, but his powerful vernacular speech, sparse, lyrical, and direct, contrasts strongly with Grant's educated English. Reverend Ambrose heard "the voice," and his faith compelled him to become a community leader. Grant has had no vision and heard no voice other than Tante Lou's. Yet he, too, is being called to leadership—not from a place of faith, but from a place of disillusionment.

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