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A Lesson Before Dying

Ernest J. Gaines

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A Lesson Before Dying | Chapter 14 | Summary



Grant Wiggins, as narrator, describes his room, which has photos of Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and Booker T. Washington on the wall. He calls it "rustic," and Vivian Baptiste says its "pastoral." They go to the similarly rustic kitchen for coffee and cake. Grant remarks Sundays are "the saddest day of the week," and Vivian says he should go to church: "I know you believe ... You don't want to, but I know you do." He says he only believes in loving her. At her urging, they wash the dishes for Tante Lou.

They walk through the plantation, which is deserted and "deadly quiet, except for the singing coming from the church." They pass the overgrown cemetery where his ancestors are buried, and he tells her his "people ... worked these fields ever since slavery." They eat fresh sugarcane and pecans.

They make love in the cane fields. Afterward, Vivian says something happened during sex; he feels "happy," but frowns. He says he doesn't "want Paul to grow up here." They playfully discuss their future children.


Vivian Baptiste's first visit to the plantation comes right after Grant Wiggins relates Jefferson's horrifying behavior and expresses an urgent wish to run away. She is also the one to suggest they make love in the fields. Aware of Grant's deep attachment to her and his increasing flightiness, she is purposefully cementing him to the place where he should be—the plantation—by inserting herself there viscerally. She is attempting to undo Grant's conception of her as a symbol of perfection entirely separate from the place, community, and identity Grant wishes to flee.

Vivian, as a mulatto, automatically has higher social standing than Grant. In the days of slavery, someone like Vivian would likely have been free. Not only that, she is an educated, professional woman who dresses carefully and attractively. She puts all this aside by engaging in lovemaking in the same manner and place an enslaved, dark-skinned person would have. This act communicates her embrace of and solidarity with Grant and his community, as well as with blackness and black culture. This is a sharp contrast to the attitude of the novel's other mixed-race character, Matthew Antoine, who felt superior to "any man blacker" than he.

The photos on Grant's wall reveal he has heroes of his own. Grant's heroes, Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and Booker T. Washington, are men who made significant contributions to black empowerment. However, it is not the words of these men of hope and action echoing through Grant's psyche, but the bitter, weary opinions of Matthew Antoine.

Vivian describes the plantation as "pastoral," a word with several meanings. Originally referring to the grazing of herd animals, "pastoral" has come to describe a utopian conception of rural life. Grant implies that no matter how peaceful or beautiful the place looks, it is underpinned by a history of horrific exploitation and is full of pain both current and inherited. His use of the word "rustic" points to this: his quarters are no different from what a slave would have had. "Pastoral" also refers to—as in pastor—something giving spiritual guidance, a meaning underscored by the inescapable and singular sound of the singing from the church.

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