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A Lesson Before Dying

Ernest J. Gaines

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A Lesson Before Dying | Chapter 4 | Summary



After leaving Henri Pichot's house, Grant Wiggins refuses his aunt's cooking and drives 13 miles to Bayonne. His girlfriend, Vivian Baptiste, a beautiful mixed-race woman, meets him at the Rainbow Club, a bar and diner in "the colored section" of town, run by Joe and Thelma Claiborne. The Claibornes drive a fancy car, and Thelma's mouth is full of gold teeth.

Grant tells Vivian he loves her and tries to get her to leave with him that night. Vivian says they can't, because they have commitments as teachers. "Commitment to what—to live and die in this hellhole, when we can leave and live like other people?" Grant replies. Vivian points out Grant left once to be with his parents in California, but he doesn't answer when she asks why he came back.

Grant tells Vivian the details of the trial and of Miss Emma's plan: "I'm supposed to make him a man. Who am I? God?" he asks. He says he himself doesn't know how to live, and is therefore unable to ""tell someone how to die." Vivian cries when Grant says it's better to "let the hog die without knowing anything." She says she wants him to work with Jefferson, for her sake and for Grant's own sake. Grant is afraid he's not strong enough, but Vivian promises to support him.


For the people on the plantation, food is not just fuel but an expression of skill and love that builds and reinforces community. Gaines always gives careful attention to what the characters are eating and in what context. Tante Lou's offer of food is an olive branch, a wordless expression of her love for him and her gratitude that he went to Henri Pichot's house with them, which Grant refuses. Grant does not want to be reminded of his ties to the community; more than ever, he is consumed by the desire to escape.

Again, his escape is stopped by a woman, Vivian. Gaines's women are powerful, and their power is respected by the men. It is the women who set and maintain social norms and standards of morality and behavior, and it is the women in Grant's life who force him to confront what he would prefer to avoid. This is exactly what Vivian does in this chapter. Not only does she shut down Grant's fantasy of escape, under her influence he accepts the challenge Emma has put before him. Throughout the novel Vivian will function as Grant's moral compass, and the love he has for her will compel him to do what she wishes. Vivian wants Grant to make choices that honor and nurture his community and himself. Wiser than Grant, she understands he doesn't really want to escape, because he is too committed to his community.

Grant questions how he can offer anything to anyone when he himself is lost and confused. Grant has no faith in himself, in his ability to endure difficult situations or to help others, and there is something sarcastic about his mention of God. When he argues the futility of making a condemned hog into a man, he echoes the defense attorney's cruel devaluation of Jefferson's life. Witnessing the disdain and hatred Grant has internalized, Vivian understands that by making an effort with Jefferson, Grant will grow as a person and begin to heal. She doesn't say this explicitly; much of the significant and complex communication between Gaines's characters is found in the subtext, conveyed by tone, body language, and simple words loaded with deeper meaning.

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