A Lesson Before Dying By Ernest J. Gaines Summary and Analysis Chapters 7-8

Summary

On Thursday, Dr. Joseph Morgan, a white man who is the school superintendent, makes his annual visit to Grant's school. In addition to drilling the students, he inspects their teeth, as if they were horses (or slaves). When Grant tries to tell Dr. Morgan that he needs books and supplies, Dr. Morgan ignores his request, focusing instead on the need for student hygiene.

The following week, the school receives its first load of wood, marking the beginning of winter. As he watches the men unload the wood, Grant reminisces about his own school days and thinks about his former teacher, Matthew Antoine, who advised him to leave Bayonne before it destroyed him.

Analysis

Dr. Morgan's visit and the delivery of the first load of wood are two annual highlights of the school year and establish a sense of continuity for Grant and his students. The events emphasize that little has changed over the years, and that Grant's primary role as a teacher is to follow in the footsteps of his predecessor, Matthew Antoine, and maintain the status quo. Note, however, that these rituals are set against the backdrop of the grinding season, a ritual that defines the rhythm of life for these poor Southern blacks. Note also that Grant's visits with Jefferson and Jefferson's impending execution are about to disrupt the day-to-day rituals of both the black community and the white community. Therefore, although Jefferson is imprisoned, he is destined to become a powerful catalyst for change.

In Chapter 7, Dr. Morgan's visit illustrates the disparity between black and white schools and the dismal lack of communication between black teachers and white administrators. It also illustrates the institutional racism rampant in the Southern educational system and the indifference of Southern whites to the plight of black students and teachers.

Dr. Morgan's approach to the school is heralded by "a thick cloud of gray dust." Later, as Grant watches Dr. Morgan inspect the students' teeth, he is reminded of how slave masters used to inspect their slaves' limbs and teeth. And although Grant resents Dr. Morgan's callousness, he realizes there is nothing he can do about it. Here again, Gaines' humor lends a welcome sense of comic relief to an otherwise painful situation — for example, note the description of Dr. Morgan, who communicates largely in terms of grunts and groans; Dr. Morgan's calling on the so-called worst student in the class; Dr. Morgan's lecture on "beans, beans, beans"; and his referring to Grant Wiggins as "Higgins," a possible allusion to Professor Henry Higgins, who turns a slum girl into a "lady" in George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion. The inability of the school superintendent to remember Grant's name also reflects blacks' loss of identity within the white community. Dr. Morgan does not really see or hear Grant during the visit; rather, he sees and hears only what he wants to.

Chapter 8 provides us with another glimpse into Grant's background. As he watches the two old men unloading the wood and the young boys chopping and stacking it, he recalls doing the same thing when he was a student, and he wonders if there is anything that he can do to break the cycle of poverty and violence which has claimed the lives of so many of his friends. He also recalls his former teacher, Matthew Antoine, and wonders if he was wrong in not taking Antoine's advice to leave Bayonne.

Antoine, the "big mulatto from Poulaya" who despised his mixed blood and felt superior to anyone darker than he, illustrates the problem of colorism in the black community, wherein some blacks themselves have advanced their status in their own minds based on having a lighter skin color in order to counteract the effects of frequently having been conceived in rape and oppression. Because mulattos were often the children of enslaved black women who had been raped by their white masters, Antoine's self-hatred, as well as his hatred for his own people who are unable to protect him from this racism, is another example of "the past being alive in the present" as the legacy of slavery continues to haunt black Americans. Antoine's background and treatment of Grant enable us to identify the source of Grant's cynicism and to understand how deeply he has internalized his teacher's advice: "Just do the best you can. But it won't matter."

Glossary

Hitler had his reasons Antoine's remark exemplifies the extreme alienation of blacks in Southern white America.

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