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A Lesson Before Dying

Ernest J. Gaines

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A Lesson Before Dying | Chapter 3 | Summary



Resentfully, Grant Wiggins drives Miss Emma and Tante Lou to Henri Pichot's "large white and gray antebellum" house, parking in back. Tante Lou insists Grant come in, despite Grant's objection: "It was you who said you never wanted me to go through that back door ever again." The maid, Inez Lane, welcomes them. Waiting in the kitchen while Pichot finishes speaking to a white guest, Grant recalls his childhood, when he helped Emma, then the Pichots' cook, and Lou, who did the Pichots' laundry. Grant hasn't been at the Pichots' since he went to college.

Pichot appears, annoyed, and Emma asks "Mr. Henri" to talk to the sheriff about allowing Grant to visit Jefferson: "I want the teacher make him know he's not a hog, he's a man." Suspicious that the idea is Grant's, who is "too educated" for Pichot's liking, Pichot tells Emma Reverend Ambrose should visit because she should be "more concerned about [Jefferson's] soul." Unwilling to be dissuaded, Emma reminds Pichot of her years of service to his family: "This family owe me that much ... I want somebody do something for me one time fore I close my eyes." Pichot says he is certain of Jefferson's guilt, but impatiently agrees to talk to the sheriff whenever it is convenient. He walks away just as Emma is vowing to return, "on [her] knees."


Henri Pichot's house symbolizes the continuation of the conditions of slavery, which didn't change much when slavery was outlawed. Pichot still has a black servant, and Miss Emma and Tante Lou spent their productive years working in Pichot's house. The back door is also symbolic because Pichot's black workers must use it, while white guests enter through the front. One thing that has changed since slavery is that blacks can leave the plantation, as Grant did to get his education. Education is one way of rejecting a subordinate status, which is why Lou insisted Grant Wiggins never again lower himself by using Pichot's back door. Not surprisingly, Pichot regards Grant as a threat. Not only does Grant see through the myth of white supremacy, he has the power to be a role model for others on the plantation. Grant could convince them to throw off their metaphorical chains, and Pichot would no longer be able to exploit them for his profit.

The theme of responsibility resurfaces when Emma boldly invokes Pichot's debt to her. Her request seems quite small, in light of her years spent caring for Pichot's family, but Pichot is annoyed and impatient. He implies Emma is a fool and that he, Pichot, knows better what Jefferson needs: religion. In the days of slavery, slaves relied on their faith in an afterlife to help them endure brutal conditions. Pichot prefers that blacks embrace a religion which encourages them to accept their station in life, rather than education, which makes them discontented with the status quo and empowers them to change it.

Nonetheless, Pichot clearly knows and resents his obligation to Emma. He agrees, but in the most disdainful and disrespectful manner possible. Pichot would be lowering himself by treating Emma, the woman who helped raise him, as an equal or displaying gratitude or respect. Gratitude and respect are what whites expect of blacks, but social norms—and the continuation of the white power structure—demand whites treat blacks with paternalism and rudeness.

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