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A Lesson Before Dying

Ernest J. Gaines

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A Lesson Before Dying | Chapter 15 | Summary



Church is over, and Vivian Baptiste is hesitant to meet Tante Lou, whom she wants to like her. Her own family rejected her and her children after she married a black man.

Tante Lou, Miss Emma, and Inez Lane greet Vivian curtly. Despite Lou's refusal, Grant insists he will make them coffee, and she asks accusingly, "You taking over my house?" He replies he intends to marry Vivian one day, "So you might as well start getting along right now." He describes Lou as "a boulder in the road, unmovable."

Lou questions Vivian about her hometown, Free LaCove, where "they don't like dark-skin people." Vivian implies she doesn't feel that way and assures Lou she attends church regularly. Lou says disapprovingly of Grant, "This one ... he don't have a church" and asks Vivian if being with Grant, she would leave her church "and just become—nothing?" She tells Vivian, "I hope you know what you're doing, young lady."

Grant has Vivian serve the ladies coffee, and Grant knows Lou's exaggerated politeness designed "to make you feel that she was of a lower caste and you were being too kind to her," conceals her true feelings. On the porch, Vivian tells Grant she's uncomfortable. When she tells them goodbye, Lou calls her "a lady of quality," and tells her not to "give up God ... No matter what." Inez and Emma compliment her manners and looks.


This chapter fleshes out Vivian Baptiste's character by relating her past. In the previous chapter Vivian lay down in the fields without a second thought; now, we learn the racist caste system in Louisiana has deeply and negatively affected her own life. That her family would disown their daughter and want nothing to do with her children because they had more black blood than white speaks to the degree with which some mixed-race individuals regarded blackness as a taint and strove to eliminate it from their line. She met her husband in college, but to her family, his university education meant nothing compared to the darkness of his skin. But unlike Matthew Antoine, Vivian hasn't been hardened and embittered by the experiences her mixed race has brought her. Despite her suffering, she is hopeful, empathetic, and committed.

Lou's passive-aggressive reception of Vivian is because of her race. In this way, it is racist; but what underlies it is a resentment of the caste system that accords privilege and opportunity on a sliding scale—the less black, the more privileged—as well as, perhaps, an assumption Vivian will treat her condescendingly because she is blacker than Vivian. Grant reads his aunt's nonverbal communication like a familiar book and speaks frankly of his commitment. Lou's attitude shifts once she realizes Vivian is not racist, symbolized by Vivian's serving the food. She then becomes concerned Grant's irreligiousness would imperil Vivian's salvation by spreading to her like a contagion. Lou's words demonstrate her values: faith and religious participation are more important than anything else, to the extent not to have a church is to be "nothing."

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