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A Lesson Before Dying

Ernest J. Gaines

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A Lesson Before Dying | Chapter 2 | Summary



Grant Wiggins lives on the plantation in his aunt's (Tante Lou) house. The afternoon of Jefferson's trial, he comes home to find Miss Emma and his aunt in the kitchen. He sneaks into his room, but Tante Lou forces him out and he has to look at the pain on Miss Emma's face, which "came from many years past." Miss Emma says, "I don't want them to kill no hog ... I want a man to go to that chair, on his own two feet." Silence follows, and Grant realizes they expect him to mentor Jefferson. Miss Emma keeps saying, "He don't have to," while Tante Lou insists, "He go'n do it." Grant objects: "What can I do?" Miss Emma replies, "You the teacher." Grant says he only teaches "what the white folks around here tell me to teach—reading, writing, and 'rithmetic."

Grant tries to leave. He says Jefferson is "already dead" and "all [he] can do is try to keep the others from ending up like this." The women will ask the plantation owner, Henri Pichot, to speak to his brother-in-law, the sheriff, for permission to visit Jefferson in jail. Tante Lou says if Grant doesn't accompany them to Pichot's, he can't sleep at the house. Grant is "screaming inside." He hates teaching and living on the plantation because he feels he is "just running in place," but he knows his aunt doesn't understand.


As the sole teacher, Grant Wiggins is an integral part of the plantation community, but this also sets him apart. The social gap between Grant and the rest of the community is evident in his educated manner of speech; Grant doesn't use the local vernacular. The subtext reveals that Grant left the plantation to attend college and then returned, likely hoping to effect real social change by empowering his students. But his students struggle to master basic academic material, and Grant is deeply frustrated and conflicted, not just with his students, but with the lack of progress in the entire black community.

This chapter develops the novel's major themes. Troubled by the attorney's dehumanization of Jefferson, Miss Emma is determined Jefferson become a man—a person with self-worth, confidence, and dignity—before he dies. The subtext, revealed by Emma's face bearing years of pain, implies that Jefferson's situation is symbolic of the oppression and exploitation endured by his people since the days of slavery. The entire black community must develop confidence and agency to find the strength to demand equal rights—something that will happen during the civil rights movement of the 1960s. The importance of personal growth is Gaines's primary theme, which he underscores with repeated examples of how racism dehumanizes individuals, thwarting their growth and self-actualization.

Miss Emma and Tante Lou have faith Grant, as the teacher, can and must help Jefferson. Emma's repeated insistence "he don't have to do it" is verbal irony, a performed politeness underscoring Lou's insistence Grant has no choice in the matter. Since Grant is the only person who can be a role model for Jefferson, it is his duty. The power of faith, the responsibility to the community, and the importance of role models are major themes, as is Grant's desire to escape. Grant repeatedly attempts to avoid or escape his discomfort by hiding in his room, trying to leave the kitchen, and convincing the women their plan is futile. In fact, Grant admits he wants to escape his entire life. However, Tante Lou repeatedly stops Grant from leaving, symbolizing the ways Grant is bound to the community. Escape is impossible, for despite his disillusionment and frustration, he is inextricably intertwined with the plantation and his people.

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