A Lesson Before Dying By Ernest J. Gaines Summary and Analysis Chapters 13-15

Summary

After Miss Eloise Bouie stops by to pick up Tante Lou for church, Grant sits in his room grading papers and reflecting on his conversation with Miss Emma and Rev. Ambrose the previous Friday. His daydreams are interrupted by a knock at his door, and he is pleasantly surprised to find that Vivian has come to visit. Grant and Vivian talk, have coffee and cake, then slip off to the cane fields to make love. When they return, they find that the "church ladies" — Tante Lou, Miss Emma, Miss Eloise, and Inez — have gathered in Tante Lou's kitchen. When Grant introduces Vivian, the women, taking their cues from Tante Lou, give her a cool reception. While Grant makes fresh coffee, Tante Lou interrogates Vivian about her social and academic background and her religious beliefs. Relieved to discover that Vivian is not the snob whom she had envisioned, Tante Lou declares her to be "a lady of quality," signaling Vivian's acceptance into the community of women.

Analysis

Set in the quarter, this section focuses on the events that transpire on Termination (Determination) Sunday, the third Sunday of each month when church members "would [ritually] sing their favorite hymns and tell the congregation where they were determined to spend eternity." One of the primary rituals in this section concerns Tante Lou's preparation for church, as she sings her 'Termination song. Music — in the form of spirituals — permeates this section, emphasizing the vital part that music and the black church play in the lives of Tante Lou and her friends. Spirituals are the basis of the blues, another traditionally African-American musical form, and blues are the secular equivalent of spirituals. Consequently, we begin to appreciate the powerful role of music in the characters' lives: Music provides spiritual sustenance in times of trouble and offers a means of expressing and exorcising physical and emotional suffering, a theme that is further developed in subsequent chapters. Music is also a form of language and expression, pointing to the creative impulses of the black community that could not be silenced. The selection of the song "Were You There When They Crucified My Lord" can be seen as foreshadowing Jefferson's execution and Grant's decision not to be a witness.

This section also refers to two other rituals: the visits with Jefferson (which have disrupted the former rituals of several community members, including Grant, Miss Emma, Tante Lou, and Rev. Ambrose) and the ritual of baptism. In Chapter 13, when Miss Emma asks Grant about his visit with Jefferson, he tells her what he thinks she wants to hear in order to spare her feelings. But when Rev. Ambrose asks Grant if they "talked about God," Grant's blunt response indicates his contempt for the reverend, even though he addresses him as "sir." The conversation between Grant and Rev. Ambrose also reveals a major difference between the two men's beliefs and value systems: Grant is educated, but his education has caused him to lose touch with his people and his heritage; consequently, he is not prepared for any "deep" thinking. Rev. Ambrose lacks formal education, but his innate wisdom and compassion, coupled with his spiritual faith, enable him to cope with life's challenges. Note that Grant, who considers himself superior to both Jefferson and Rev. Ambrose due to his education, emphasizes the differences between himself and the reverend. But Rev. Ambrose, in pointing out that he baptized both Grant and Jefferson, emphasizes the similarities between the two. Note also that while Grant considers only Jefferson's physical needs (food and clean clothes), Rev. Ambrose is concerned with his spiritual needs (the Bible). This chapter also draws attention to the universal conflict between faith and reason.

Grant is an agnostic, not an atheist. Although not convinced that there is no God, Grant has been so battered by the harsh realities of life that he doubts God's existence. This doubt — a direct result of his education — causes him to experience existential pain: What is the purpose of his life, and where can he best fulfill that purpose while staying true to himself and his heritage? For Tante Lou, the church defines her existence. For Grant, it represents white oppression. Grant's ambivalence toward the church is revealed by his statement that, ever since his graduation from the university and a brief trip to California to visit his parents, he has been "running in place . . . unable to accept what used to be my life, unable to leave it." Although he rejects God, a part of him longs to experience the peace and spiritual strength experienced by Miss Emma and Tante Lou, as expressed in his comment, "Sunday is the saddest day of the week." As one critic has pointed out, "The problem . . . Grant Wiggins faces is the plight of an educated man who feels trapped in his community. He could stay and be beaten down or run away and be lost."

Chapter 14 focuses on two key scenes that mark pivotal points in the novel: Grant and Vivian's conversation in Tante Lou's cabin, and their slipping away to make love in the cane fields.

Note that instead of taking pride in his home, which, although modest, reflects his family's background and heritage, Grant apologizes for his surroundings. Also note that while Grant describes the cabin as "rustic," Vivian describes it as "pastoral." Although both terms refer to a simple country life, they have very different connotations: While "rustic" connotes a lack of elegance or sophistication, "pastoral" suggests an idealized, natural lifestyle marked by peace and tranquillity. Here again, the author's meticulous use of language and dialogue are critical to the narrative and reveal the characters' very different perspectives of life. Also significant is Vivian's remark concerning the cleanliness of Tante Lou's kitchen. Through the use of this seemingly unremarkable comment (coupled with a later reference to the women's "sweet smelling powder"), Gaines dispels the racial myth that blacks are dirty and have an objectionable body odor. This theme is also emphasized in subsequent chapters.

Although the love scene between Grant and Vivian is somewhat unremarkable, the fact that it takes place in the cane field is significant, as is the lovers' subsequent conversation. The powerful nature imagery of the cane fields establishes the relationship of black Americans to the land that made them what they are. The concept of a people intimately connected to the earth is often traced to the biblical Creation story, which states that man was created from the earth and tells the story of Adam and Eve and their sons, Cain and Abel.

Following the love scene in the cane fields, Gaines uses a variety of techniques to suggest that Grant has been transformed, gaining strength from his "mother" earth, and is now better prepared to cope with life and to "go deeper" (that is, look beyond the surface). For example, as he and Vivian dream about their future family, he says that he wants to name his son "Paul." Here again, a seemingly unremarkable detail is extremely significant. Recall that "Paul" is the name of the young white deputy who has befriended Grant. Consequently Grant, who in previous chapters revealed his hatred of whites, has decidedly had a change of heart. In literature, and especially in African-American literature, names often provide insight into a character's soul. In this novel, Gaines places special emphasis on Paul's name. According to the Bible, Paul was the first great missionary and theologian in Christian history. As a devout Jew notorious for his persecution of Christians, Saul of Tarsus (later renamed Paul) heard the voice of Jesus and was blinded by a bright light from heaven. After several days, his sight was restored by a Christian. As a result of his profound experience, Paul became a devout Christian. He was eventually imprisoned for his faith and died a martyr. To countless Christians, Paul's life exemplifies hope and illustrates not only the changes that can be wrought in a life based on faith, but also the profound impact that one individual can have on the lives of others. Like the biblical Paul, Grant is struck by the realization that his life has been moving in the wrong direction and that Jefferson's transformation is necessary for his own transformation. Grant's change of heart is also evident in his behavior upon returning to Tante Lou's, where, for the first time, he stands up to his aunt and insists on making the coffee (thereby challenging — and breaking — another ritual). Instead of waiting to be served or simply complying with "the way it's always been," Grant begins to change his behavior which, in turn, affects the people around him.

Chapter 15, which focuses on the women gossiping in Tante Lou's kitchen, mirrors a scene in Chapter 12, in which the men talk about their heroes at the Rainbow Club. But whereas the men talked about the past and dreamed about the accomplishments of their heroes, the women talk about the future and the dreams they have for their families. A significant scene in this chapter is Tante Lou's interrogation of Vivian concerning her Creole background and her religion. Tante Lou's eventual acceptance of Vivian indicates that she is willing to see Vivian as an individual, not simply as a Catholic or a Creole. Through the women's interaction, Gaines teaches us an important lesson that Grant has also begun to learn: Who we are is far more important than what we are.

This chapter, which marks the midpoint of the novel, also marks the beginning of Grant's transformation as a man and a teacher.

Glossary

Creole a person of black and French or Spanish lineage that formed the elite backbone of early New Orleans society. From the French "creole," meaning native to the region, or born at home.

Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and Booker T. Washington men associated with the struggle for civil rights and black liberation. Douglass (1817-95), a former slave (born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey), became a famous orator who spoke out against the horrors of slavery; Lincoln (1809-65) signed the Emancipation Proclamation freeing the slaves, although he admitted doing so not primarily because he believed that slavery was morally wrong but because he sought to preserve the Union; Washington (1856-1915) is best known for his conservative, conciliatory views concerning the role of blacks in America.

A swarm of black birds flew across the road. Birds are a common symbol for the soul. Grant's sighting the black birds moments before he and Vivian pass the cemetery suggests that the birds are the souls of his ancestors.

derrick a large apparatus for lifting and moving heavy objects.

Free LaCove Vivian's hometown, inhabited mostly by Creoles and light-skinned blacks.

Xavier University a university located in New Orleans and named for Saint Francis Xavier (1506-52), a Spanish Jesuit missionary. Xavier University is a historically black and Catholic affiliated university.

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