A Lesson Before Dying By Ernest J. Gaines Character Analysis Vivian Baptiste and Matthew Antoine

Vivian Baptiste, Grant's girlfriend, and Matthew Antoine, Grant's former teacher at the plantation school, have much in common. Both are teachers; both are Creole; and both have a tremendous impact on Grant. But while Vivian embraces her culture and heritage and identifies with the black community, even though she could "pass" for white, Matthew rejects his culture and heritage and attempts to identify with the white community, a futile task that ultimately destroys him.

Although she is not as outspoken and overbearing as Miss Emma and Tante Lou, Vivian is definitely a strong black woman. In many instances, her strength emphasizes Grant's weakness. She has defied her family by marrying a dark-skinned black man, even though her action causes her to be ostracized from her family. In contrast, Grant is afraid to become involved with Jefferson, lest he be identified with him. Although she loves Grant, she does not hesitate to point out his shortcomings, tactfully, without challenging his male ego. Vivian is a lady, refusing to let Grant take advantage of her. After nursing his wounds following his barroom brawl, she gives him an ultimatum: Unless he is willing to show her some consideration, she will leave him.

Grant's relationship with Vivian appears to be rather one-sided. Grant expects her to be there for him, but he thinks of her only in terms of his wants and needs. Vivian is there to satisfy his need for sex and conversation. She is there to support him and to nurse his wounds. We never see him reciprocate. While Vivian is willing to accept her responsibilities as a mother, teacher, and lover, Grant is unwilling to assume the responsibilities that accompany his roles as nephew, teacher, and lover. For him, being a teacher means having a steady job and a measure of status in his community. For Vivian, it means being a leader and role model.

While Grant's attitude perpetuates the cycle of poverty and racism, Vivian takes an active role in trying to change the status quo. And while Grant is content to go through the motions of teaching, Vivian challenges her students and gives them hope for the future. Vivian's goal is to instill hope in her students for a brighter future and a life outside the limited plantation community. She does this by building their self-esteem and helping them become contributing members of the community, while Grant — as evidenced by his ever-present Westcott ruler — is primarily concerned with control and discipline.

A classic example that illustrates their divergent approach to teaching is their method of teaching students to write a simple sentence: While Grant ridicules and humiliates his student who can't write her simple sentence in a straight line, Vivian encourages her students, who are learning to write simple sentences in French. By teaching her students French, Vivian is embracing her Creole heritage. By helping her students transcend their cultural boundaries by learning a foreign language, she is also teaching them to transcend their geographic boundaries and their perceived personal limits. As she points out to Grant, "We're teachers and we have a commitment."

Note that Vivian is a graduate of Xavier University, a Catholic university in Lafayette, Louisiana. She has learned that the illusion of status and class is empty and meaningless. She has been disowned by her family for marrying a dark-skinned man, who eventually deserts her and her children. But Vivian is not bitter and disillusioned. Instead, she has learned to cope with her problems and move on, unlike Matthew, who allows others — and ultimately his own self-hatred — to destroy him.

Ultimately, Vivian has a greater influence on Grant than does Matthew. While Matthew appealed to Grant's baser instincts, Vivian brings out the best in him. She gives him love and support, whereas Matthew was so blinded by his hatred that he could not see beyond it in order to help develop his students' better selves.

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