A Lesson Before Dying | Study Guide

Ernest J. Gaines

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A Lesson Before Dying | Chapter 8 | Summary

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Summary

The school receives its first load of wood for the woodstove. Henry Lewis and Amos Thomas, who work with obvious enjoyment, deliver the firewood. When Grant Wiggins reprimands his rebellious student Louis Washington, Jr. for watching them out the window, he punishes Louis for replying with improper grammar. The students, too, enjoy the work of splitting and stacking the wood, and as Grant watches them he senses a vicious cycle: "Am I reaching them at all? They are acting exactly as the old men did earlier." He remembers chopping wood for the school when he was a student, and how many of his friends who worked alongside him had gone "to the fields, to the small towns, to the cities—where they died."

He recalls his own teacher, a hate-filled mulatto named Matthew Antoine, who told his students they would die violently or "be brought down to the level of beasts." In such a situation, running was the only option. Grant reflects how "she told" him he would be different, because he would learn from Antoine and then "go away to learn from someone else." Antoine and Grant had a tense but mutually necessary relationship. Grant sums up Antoine's attitude: "I will help you learn. Maybe in that way I will be free, knowing that someone else has taken the burden." When Grant returned from college, Antoine predicted his teaching career would be a waste of time, as it would not be enough to remove the ignorance "plastered and replastered over those brains in the past three hundred years."

Antoine considered himself a "lying cowardly bastard" for his mixed blood and for staying on the plantation, where he felt superior. "I am superior to any man blacker than me," he told Grant. Grant asked for teachings on life, and Antoine said, "You have to go away to know about life ... There's nothing but ignorance here." Therefore, Grant should "forget about life" and "be the nigger [he was] born to be." Just before he died in 1942, Antoine told Grant, "Nothing changes ... Just do the best you can. But it won't matter."

Analysis

Grant Wiggins learned cynicism and racial despair from Antoine Matthews, the only mentor he ever had. The tension in their relationship is exacerbated by the difference in their skin color. Antoine is not white; neither is he black. He occupies the intermediate part of the spectrum. In many parts of the United States he would have been considered black and of the same status as Grant, but in Louisiana's more complex racial caste system, mixed blood persons occupied an intermediate social rank. They had more opportunity and fewer disadvantages than black people, but were still viewed as inferior by whites, and were often the offspring of nonconsensual relations between slaves and masters. As a man fully accepted neither by the black nor the white communities, Antoine hates Grant both for his blackness and for his intellectual prowess.

Grant's recall of Antoine's message has the weight of prophecy come to pass. The futility, impotence, and humiliation Antoine spoke of are the things preoccupying Grant, who specifically sought out Antoine's counsel because he could tell him things nobody else would say. Now, just a few years into his teaching career, Grant is disillusioned and burned-out. It is clear Grant internalized Antoine's message, because the urge to run is his clearest desire—yet he cannot even manage to do that. As a result, he becomes increasingly ineffective in the classroom. He is preoccupied, hostile, and easily angered when his students fail to meet his expectations. He uses his ruler, a symbol of education and knowledge, to hit his students, as if to beat away the layered ignorance Antoine spoke of.

The "she" who tells him his education will set him apart is not named, but is certainly Tante Lou. Although she has spent her life as Henri Pichot's washerwoman and devoted herself to her Catholic faith, her subservient position and her belief in salvation do not blind her to the realities that torture Grant. Like Grant, she longs for change and sees education as Grant's opportunity to escape the bitter fate of his peers. Tante Lou, not Antoine, is the true architect of Grant's life. Gaines depicts the novel's women as the true bearers of social power. Tante Lou is so fundamental to Grant's life he does not even name her. She instructed him to take Antoine as his mentor, as well as to go to college—defining experiences of Grant's life. Now, she insists he undertake the work of mentoring Jefferson. The reader may guess this relationship will be as fundamental to Grant's identity as the other experiences Tante Lou has chosen for him.

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