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A Lesson Before Dying | Characters

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Character Description
Grant Wiggins Grant Wiggins, the plantation school's only teacher, is a deeply conflicted man whose education has given him the power to see the hopelessness of his people. He constantly wants to run away. Read More
Jefferson Jefferson is an uneducated, 21-year-old black man sentenced to die by electrocution for the murder of white shopkeeper Alcee Gropé, a crime Jefferson merely witnessed. Read More
Miss Emma Miss Emma Glenn, Jefferson's elderly godmother who raised him and whom he calls "Nannan," is determined to help Jefferson die with dignity by learning he is a man, as well as by achieving spiritual salvation in the time he has left. Read More
Tante Lou Tante Lou, Grant Wiggins's elderly aunt, is a powerful woman who forces Grant to do the right thing. Read More
Reverend Mose Ambrose Reverend Mose Ambrose is the pastor at the plantation church. Despite his lack of education, he is devoted to his faith and to the care of his community. Read More
Vivian Baptiste Vivian Baptiste, Grant Wiggins's girlfriend, is a mixed-race woman of strong moral character, who advises Grant to dedicate himself to the community she knows he loves, even if he says he wants to run away. Read More
Paul Bonin Paul Bonin, the younger of the two white deputies at the jail where Jefferson is incarcerated, is a good man, who treats Jefferson's visitors with kindness and respect, becoming an ally and friend to both Jefferson and Grant Wiggins. Read More
Mr. Anderson Mr. Anderson, Grant Wiggins's literature teacher in college, helps Grant obtain a James Joyce book when it is not available in the black school's library.
Aunt Agnes Aunt Agnes is part of the black community living on the plantation.
Matthew Antoine Matthew Antoine was Grant Wiggins's teacher when he attended the plantation school, and later his mentor. Antoine, now dead, was a racist mulatto who hated himself and his students. Antoine continually predicted Grant would find his efforts to raise up his people through teaching to be a futile waste of time.
Bank clerk On the day of Jefferson's execution, a white bank clerk tells a white customer that she assuaged her child's anxieties by telling him "the sheriff just had to put an old bad nigger away."
Bear Bear and Brother turn violent while Jefferson is with them in Alcee Gropé's liquor store, when Gropé realizes Bear intends to rob him and fires his gun. Brother fires back. Ultimately, Bear, Brother, and Gropé die, leaving Jefferson standing alone at the scene of the crime.
Mrs. Becky Mrs. Becky is Reverend Ambrose's wife.
Bok Bok is a developmentally challenged man who lives with his grandmother, Miss Rita Lawrence, on the plantation. He visits Jefferson in jail and his gift of a marble, an object he is obsessed with, moves Jefferson deeply.
Boo Boo is someone Jefferson writes about in his notebook. Jefferson describes how Boo would turn to alcohol in his spiritual despair and cry out to a God he believed only cared for white people.
Miss Eloise Bouie Miss Eloise Bouie is an elderly plantation woman and a friend of Tante Lou and Miss Emma, with whom she attends church.
Brother Bear and Brother turn violent while Jefferson is with them in Alcee Gropé's liquor store, when Gropé realizes Bear intends to rob him and fires his gun. Brother fires back. Ultimately, Bear, Brother, and Gropé die, leaving Jefferson standing alone at the scene of the crime.
Clarence Clarence is the student in Grant Wiggins's class who offers to try to find a real pine tree for the class Christmas tree this year.
Chief Deputy Clark Chief Deputy Clark is the older head deputy at the courthouse and jail. He is a racist, unkind man.
Joe Claiborne Joe Claiborne owns the Rainbow Club bar and café. When Grant Wiggins gets into a violent brawl with some racist mulatto bricklayers, he stops the fight by knocking Grant out with the butt of his gun.
Thelma Claiborne Thelma Claiborne is Joe's wife, who runs the diner at the Rainbow Club.
Irene Cole Irene Cole is Grant Wiggins's student teacher. Vivian Baptiste insists she has a crush on Grant.
Norman Cole Norman Cole is a member of the black community on the plantation and a relative of Irene Cole.
Sarah Cole Sarah Cole is Norman's wife, a member of the black community on the plantation.
Defense attorney Jefferson's court-appointed defense argues for his innocence on the basis of his stupidity. He dehumanizes Jefferson on the basis of Jefferson's black features and calls him a "hog."
Juanita de Jean Juanita de Jean is a white clerk at Edwin's department store. On the day of Jefferson's execution as the truck carrying the chair arrives, she taunts her black coworker Melvina Jack about the execution.
Sidney deRogers Sidney deRogers is a member of the black community living on the plantation. His experience of being turned away from Edwin's department store the morning of the execution as the chair arrives is recounted at the start of Chapter 30.
Dora Dora is Vivian Baptiste's babysitter.
Estelle Estelle is reprimanded by her teacher, Grant Wiggins, for uneven handwriting. Jefferson is her cousin, and she kisses him on the face when she visits him in jail, moving him deeply.
Esther Esther is Sarah Cole's sister, a member of the black community on the plantation.
Frank Frank, a sarcastic, fat man, is a friend of Sheriff Guidry's who gives Grant Wiggins a hard time at Henri Pichot's and the jail.
Harriet Freeman Harriet Freeman is Joe Freeman's wife, a member of the black community on the plantation.
Joe Freeman Joe Freeman is a member of the black community living on the plantation.
Odessa Freeman At the plantation school's Christmas program, Odessa Freeman gives a dramatic and moving recitation of "'Twas the Night Before Christmas."
Gable Gable is a member of the plantation community who becomes a father while Jefferson is incarcerated. The day of the murder, Jefferson had plans to go hunting with Gable, but ended up accepting a ride from Brother and Bear instead and became a witness to the murder of white shopkeeper Alcee Gropé.
Gilley When Grant Wiggins is violently brawling with a racist mulatto bricklayer at the Rainbow Club, Joe Claiborne calls out for Gilley to get his gun. After Gilley brings the gun, Claiborne uses it to knock Grant out and stop the fight.
Dr. Sid Gillory Dr. Sid Gillory is a local white doctor. The sheriff calls him to come care for Miss Emma when she becomes infirm when Jefferson's execution date is announced.
Alberda Griffin Alberda Griffin is a member of the black community on the plantation. She is grown-up and unmarried.
Harry Griffin Harry Griffin is a member of the black community on the plantation.
Lena Griffin Lena Griffin is a member of the black community on the plantation. She is Harry's wife and the mother of Alberda and Louberda.
Louberda Griffin Louberda Griffin is a member of the black community on the plantation. She is grown-up and unmarried.
Claude Guerin Claude Guerin is one of two special deputies the sheriff has present at Jefferson's execution. He oversees Jefferson being shaved in preparation for the chair, and cannot look him in the eye as Jefferson calmly and routinely inquires after his family's heath.
Oscar Guerin Oscar Guerin is one of two special deputies the sheriff has present at Jefferson's execution.
Edna Guidry Edna Guidry is the sheriff's wife. Miss Emma presents Edna with her request to be allowed to visit Jefferson in the dayroom rather than the cell, and Edna, shocked, finds the request astonishingly unreasonable but agrees to speak to her husband about it in the name of Miss Emma's long years of service to the family.
Sheriff Guidry Sheriff Sam Guidry, Henri Pichot's brother-in-law, the sheriff of Bayonne, and the overseer of the jail, is a racist man who demands his authority be respected at all times, but he gives permission for Emma and Grant to visit Jefferson in his jail. Suspicious of educated Grant Wiggins, he continually expresses a certainty that working with Jefferson is a waste of time and threatens to stop the visits if Jefferson becomes "aggravated."
Gusta When Grant Wiggins gets into a violent brawl with a racist mulatto bricklayer at the Rainbow Club, Joe Claiborne calls out for Gusta to summon Vivian Baptiste in hopes of stopping the fight.
Gloria Hebert Gloria Hebert, a timid young student of Grant Wiggins, is called to the front of the room for physical inspection and an interrogation about her Biblical knowledge by the white superintendent, Dr. Joseph, during his visit. When she recites part of the 23rd Psalm, Dr. Joseph expresses his approval.
Alcee Gropé Alcee Gropé is the shop owner who is killed by Brother and Bear when they try to rob Gropé's store, and Jefferson, who witnesses the murder, is blamed for Alcee Gropé's death.
Henry Henry, Esther's boyfriend, is a member of the black community on the plantation.
Melvina Jack Melvina Jack, a black clerk at Edwin's department store, is taunted by her white coworker, Juanita de Jean, when they watch the truck carrying the electric chair pass by the morning of Jefferson's execution. She becomes anxious and almost falls down when she sees the chair.
Odeal James Odeal James goes on the trip to Baton Rouge to buy the sweater and socks, for which the children contributed money, to give as a Christmas present to Jefferson.
Sarah James Sarah James is a member of the black community on the plantation. She arrives early to the school Christmas program and guards the food until it is time to eat.
Farrell Jarreau Farrell Jarreau is Henri Pichot's yardman and messenger.
George Jarreau George Jarreau is a member of the black community on the plantation. Sidney deRogers is doing work in Jarreau's yard the morning of Jefferson's execution.
Lucy Jarreau Lucy Jarreau is George's wife. On the morning of Jefferson's execution she sends Sidney deRogers, who is at her house doing yard work, to Edwin's to buy white thread.
Ofelia Jarreau Ofelia Jarreau is Farrell Jarreau's mulatto wife who attends church in Bayonne rather than on the plantation. She comes to the annual Christmas program for the first time.
Fee Jinkins Fee Jinkins is an inmate whose job is to clean the sheriff's office and the white-only restrooms. He watches the electric chair being carried into the jail and put in the storeroom, and a white man taunts him, saying he might end up in the chair if he's not careful.
Joseph The student who plays Joseph in the school Christmas program wears overalls and carries a hammer.
Judge The judge presiding over Jefferson's trial is an elderly white man. After praising the all-white jury "for reaching a quick and just verdict," he sentences Jefferson to death by electrocution, saying he must "pay for the part he played in this horrible crime."
LaCox LaCox is the black mortician in the town of Bayonne. Reverend Mose Ambrose plans to meet him after the execution to transfer Jefferson's body to the coffin.
Inez Lane Inez Lane, a middle-aged woman, is Henri Pichot's servant and a friend of Tante Lou. Crying, she tells Grant Wiggins that another white man, "Mr. Louis," (Louis Rougon) is currently trying to bet Henri Pichot a case of whiskey that Grant won't be able to do anything to help Jefferson before he dies.
James Lavonia James Lavonia is a mulatto who lives on the plantation with his wife Julia and their two children, who have parts in the school Christmas program. James does not attend the program, and Grant Wiggins recalls how James told him "he had better things to do than go to a coon gathering."
Julia Lavonia Julia Lavonia is a member of the black community on the plantation, where she lives with her mulatto husband James and their two children. She brings food to the Christmas program every year, although her husband does not attend because he does not want to attend "a coon gathering."
Miss Rita Lawrence Miss Rita Lawrence is a member of the black community on the plantation. Every year, she contributes a mismatched sheet to the Christmas program's improvised stage curtain. She takes care of her large grandson Bok, who is developmentally disabled.
Clay Lemon Clay Lemon is a black man working at a store in Bayonne who is at the bank on the morning of Jefferson's execution. He watches a white man comfort his wife when she is upset that the electric chair generator can be heard through town. The generator noise and the white people's reaction he observes make him forget what he came to do.
Henry Lewis Henry Lewis is one of two older men who deliver the load of firewood to Grant Wiggins's school. He is very respectful of educated Grant, although Grant watches Lewis critically as he works, taking the man's enjoyment of his labor as a sign that the black community will never rise above their subjugation.
Lillian Lillian is Sheriff and Edna Guidry's black maid.
Albert H. Martin III Albert H. Martin III writes an essay, "The Little Pine Tree," which he reads aloud at the school Christmas program. The essay talks about how the tree is the most beautiful Christmas tree, even though it is not an ideal specimen.
Henry Martin Henry Martin is one of the prisoners Grant Wiggins passes regularly on his way to Jefferson's cell. He calls Grant "Mr. Rockefeller" for bringing "chicken and biscuits" to the jail, but complains about Grant giving no money for cigarettes.
Viola Martin Viola Martin is a member of the black community on the plantation. Married to a violently abusive man, she is the mother of twelve children, including a pregnant young daughter and an "idiot boy." She attends the school Christmas program.
Mary The girl who plays Mary in the school Christmas program, dressed in a "wrinkled blue denim dress," is the daughter of Julia and James Lavonia. Her father is a mulatto and racist against blacks and does not attend the program, although her mother does.
Dr. Joseph Morgan Dr. Joseph Morgan is the obese, lazy, racist superintendent of the parish schools. When he visits Grant Wiggins's school on the plantation, he treats the students as objects or animals, inspecting them physically and drilling them on their patriotism and religious fervor. He then tells Grant to focus more on hygiene and patriotism, after lecturing them all about how working in the fields is good exercise and eating lots of beans is healthy.
Murphy Murphy is the inmate who is made to shave Jefferson in preparation for the electric chair.
Peggy Peggy is a teacher who works at the same school as Vivian Baptiste.
Henri Pichot Henri Pichot is the owner of the plantation, and lives in a large antebellum house there. Miss Emma, who was his cook for many years, goes to him to ask him to speak to his brother-in-law the sheriff for permission to see Jefferson. Henri is unsympathetic and rude, but reluctantly consents to speak to the sheriff after Edna reminds him of how Miss Emma cared for his family for years.
Prisoner wearing letter "P" The teenaged prisoner is instructed by the sheriff to do maintenance on the filthy outhouse at the jail, which is where black people must use the bathroom.
Prosecutor The prosecutor at Jefferson's trial argues he planned the murder and robbery with Brother and Bear ahead of time. He argues aggressively and characterizes Jefferson as an animal who "celebrated" the crime.
Louis Rougon Louis Rougon owns a bank in a town near Bayonne. He bets Henri Pichot a case of whiskey that Jefferson won't show any growth while in jail.
The Ruffins The Ruffins are a family that is part of the black community on the plantation.
Samson The biblical Samson is someone Jefferson writes about in his journal. Samson questions God's love since his wife died and wonders why God takes from "po ol foks who aint never done nothin but try an ... serv him."
Shepherd 1 There are two students playing shepherds in the Christmas program at the plantation school.
Shepherd 2 There are two students playing shepherds in the Christmas program at the plantation school.
Shirley Shirley is the waitress at the Rainbow Club.
Short mulatto bricklayer There are two mulatto bricklayers whom Grant Wiggins overhears saying hateful things about Jefferson at the Rainbow Club. He challenges them to a fight, and Joe Claiborne ends up contending with the short one.
Stella Stella is a member of the black community on the plantation who just had a baby with Gable, the man Jefferson was supposed to go hunting with the day of the crime.
Student who does math on fingers Grant Wiggins hits one of his students with his ruler for doing computation on his fingers. Grant brings him to tears as he forces the boy to do the equation in front of the class.
Student who plays with bug Grant Wiggins hits one of his first-grade students on the head with a ruler for playing with a bug during class, bringing him to tears.
Tall mulatto bricklayer Grant Wiggins fights two mulatto bricklayers at the Rainbow Club after he overhears both of them saying nasty things about Jefferson. The tall one is doing most of the instigating, and Grant fights him with fists and chairs until Joe Claiborne stops him by knocking him out with the butt of his gun.
Henry Vincent Henry Vincent is the executioner brought in to oversee Jefferson's execution. He emphasizes that Jefferson must be carefully shaved, because hair could turn the execution into a torture session, something he has witnessed before.
Louis Washington Jr. Louis Washington Jr., one of Grant Wiggins students, is called by the superintendent to recite the pledge of allegiance, which he does in a heavily vernacular dialect. Louis is not afraid to talk back to Grant or other authority figures.
Lelia Wells Lelia Wells is one of the members of the black community on the plantation.
Harry Williams Harry Williams is one of the witnesses at Jefferson's execution.
The Williamses The Williamses are part of the black community on the plantation.
Wise man 1 There are three students playing wise men at the Christmas program at the school. They wear robes made out of red, green, and yellow crepe paper.
Wise man 2 There are three students playing wise men at the Christmas program at the school. They wear robes made out of red, green, and yellow crepe paper.
Wise man 3 There are three students playing wise men at the Christmas program at the school. They wear robes made out of red, green, and yellow crepe paper.
Amos Thomas Amos Thomas is one of two older men who deliver wood to Grant Wiggins's school.
Thomas Thomas is one of Grant Wiggins's students, who gives him a message that Miss Emma wants to see him.
White woman at bank On the morning of Jefferson's execution, a white woman going into the bank in Bayonne is disturbed by the sound of the electric chair's generator and is comforted by her husband.
White man at bank On the morning of Jefferson's execution, a white man going into the bank in Bayonne comforts his wife, who is disturbed by the sound of the electric chair's generator.
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