A Lesson Before Dying:Essay Questions
1. In what ways is the past both a burden and a gift to the novel’s characters?
The characters in the novel have both a cultural and a personal past. The centuries of slavery, the war fought to end it, and the decades of Jim Crow and discrimination continue to exert pressure on the people of Bayonne and the quarter, keeping whites and blacks largely segregated and forcing blacks into economic distress. In this sense, the past is a burden. Yet it is also a source of stories of strength in the face of adversity and unexpected alliances. Readers see one such alliance in the relationship of Henry Pichot and Emma Glenn. Though he is a white employer and she was once his black employee, their connection goes beyond this business arrangement. Emma feels that she can call on him in her time of need, and Pichot is deeply unhappy about what has happened to Jefferson.
Personal pasts, too, act both as burdens and gifts. Grant’s past—abandoned by his parents, mentored by a bitter teacher, and educated so that he is alone in the quarter intellectually—causes him to doubt whether he has a home and a future among the people of the quarter. Yet viewed differently, his past has advantages, too. His parents were strong enough to leave to find work and succeed in California; his aunt is a fiercely strong woman who has made his education possible and who still serves as (sometimes unwanted) a moral compass.
2. Who acts heroically in the novel, and by what definition of heroism?
Many characters make small gestures or choices that are heroic because they stand against injustice. For instance, Paul’s choice to become attached to Jefferson is not consistent with the attitude toward black inmates that he has been advised to take; but he goes against the department, learning to like and admire Jefferson at the cost of grief over his death. Emma, too, in returning to Jefferson’s cell repeatedly despite the pain she feels over his words and actions, acts heroically. She puts her pain beneath Jefferson’s fear. That, in fact, is a good working definition of heroism for the novel. Characters who are willing to pay a cost to themselves so that others will benefit are heroes. By that definition, both Grant and Jefferson are heroes, and so is Vivian. All decide, after considering the cost, to pay a price for the sake of others rather than taking the easy way out.
3. Discuss the significance of waiting in the novel.
In general, a character who has power, authority, or higher social rank feels free to make other characters wait. Pichot is an excellent example. He makes Grant wait over two hours before coming in to tell him that visits to Jefferson will be allowed—under conditions. The wait reminds Grant that Pichot and the sheriff are in charge, not him. In another instance, Grant must wait on a saleswoman before he can buy the radio. This woman is not a landowner or law enforcer, yet she enjoys exercising her power to hold Grant up.
Nor is Grant innocent of the charge of making people wait. During his conflict with Reverend Ambrose, he makes him, Emma, and Lou wait before going to visit Jefferson by going first to buy the notebook and pencil. Grant doesn’t explain why they had to wait; to do so would be to lose that little battle over authority in the relationship.
The character most affected by people who use their authority to make others wait is Jefferson, of course. He waits for his trial and his sentence; he waits to find out when the execution will take place; and then he waits for that day. At one point, Jefferson tells Grant, “I hope the time just hurry up and get here. Cut out all this waiting.” Considering that “the time” is the day of his death, this statement shows how destructive being forced to wait on those who have the authority to decide his fate is. Those in positions of power can control what the less powerful do with an hour or a lifetime in this unjust society.
4. How is status between whites and blacks and between older and younger adults demonstrated and enforced through small gestures and uses of language throughout the novel?
The novel is set in a time when not only race but also gender and age created distinct and culturally accepted social hierarchies. These are reinforced through many little details that readers may not even notice but that create the novel’s world. One example of a gesture that shows racial status is that whites sit while blacks stand. Grant stands, for instance, in Sheriff Guidry’s office, having been summoned there to hear one of the sheriff’s brief “Don’t you forget who’s in charge” speeches, while the sheriff leans back in his chair and props his booted feet on his desk. An exception to this social rule marks an important moment in the novel: When Pichot calls Grant and Reverend Ambrose in to tell them the execution date, he asks the men to sit down, while he stands. This striking reversal speaks to Pichot’s emotions during this scene.
Within the black community, such gestures enforce a different kind of status—one that concedes respect and authority to elders. For example, when Reverend Ambrose clashes with Grant on the subject of God, Grant turns away from him. Ambrose, furious, grabs Grant’s shoulder and turns him around, saying, “Don’t you turn your back on me, boy.” He uses the demeaning word “boy” to remind Grant who has the greater authority. Grant wants to push Ambrose’s hand away, but he does not—a subtle acknowledgement that he will abide by the unspoken social code that gives the older man a higher rank.
Occasionally in the novel, a small gesture indicates that a character wishes to reshape social rankings, as when Paul stops on the stairs to let Emma catch her breath or when Jefferson gives Paul the marble and Paul accepts it.
5. In what way is Jefferson a Christ figure—a character who is purposefully identified with Christ and his life?
The first subtle comparison between Jefferson and Jesus comes when Grant tries to distract Jefferson from his thoughts by discussing the children’s upcoming Christmas pageant. Jefferson sorts out his memories of Jesus’ story and recalls the words from an old hymn: “He never said a mumbling word.” Jefferson quotes the hymn twice again, most notably when he decides to face his death in the same way: “That’s how I want to go, Mr. Wiggins. Not a mumbling word.” As Jefferson thinks about how he’s “the one got to do everything,” he uses religious language—“Me to take the cross. Your cross, nannan’s cross, my own cross”—language that draws clear parallels between his death and Jesus’ crucifixion. Readers also know, though the novel doesn’t explicitly state the point, that in Jesus’ story, he is executed though innocent of the crimes he is charged with. Jefferson, too, is innocent—condemned for having been at the scene of other mens’ crimes. In effect, Jefferson is dying for the sins of Brother and Bear, as Jesus, in his story, dies for the sins of the people. And on the day of Jefferson’s death, Grant keeps vigil near the church and thinks, “My faith is in you, Jefferson.” Grant says that “Nothing will ever be the same after today,” as though Jefferson’s death will bring a great change to his community. And readers perhaps see the beginning of change in the friendship that Paul offers and Grant accepts at the end of the book.