A Lesson Before Dying is structured around Grant. The novel traces his individual growth as he works with Jefferson, and this development gives shape to the work’s overall discussion of fatalism, individualism, heroism, and social injustice. From the start Grant is an angry, bitter, and self-absorbed person. He is angry at a society that, despite his university degree, will only allow him to teach other blacks. He blames his community for burdening him with unreasonable expectations and suffocating him instead of allowing him to leave Louisiana and pursue his own path. Most of all, he loathes himself for playing his role in a segregationist society and his own inability to somehow break free.

Grant does not attend Jefferson’s trial for two reasons. First, it does not directly affect him and so he sees no reason for it to interrupt his life. Second, in his fatalistic (or perhaps realistic) mind, he doesn’t need to attend because he already knows the outcome. When Miss Emma first approaches him about visiting Jefferson he wants nothing to do with it. He doesn’t believe his actions, or anyone else’s at this point, can make any difference in Jefferson’s life. Furthermore, he hates being committed to the school and doesn’t want to take on any added responsibilities. Grant wants to live for himself and Vivian, and no one else. But his relationship with Vivian also provides a glimpse into his selfish nature. He views her as an object, someone who makes him happy, but gives little thought to her own needs or his obligations to her. For example, he doesn’t seem at all interested in her children and they are never heard from during the story.

Before he changes himself, Grant plays an important role in Jefferson’s development. In Jefferson, Grant meets a person angrier more self-absorbed than himself. Both Jefferson and Grant have suffered injustice, but Grant struggles to help Jefferson understand that these attitudes are preventing him from achieving something remarkable. He teaches Jefferson the meaning of obligation, trying to convince Jefferson to eat some of Miss Emma’s food and make her happy. He teaches Jefferson about heroism, hoping Jefferson will realize the effect that standing up and walking to the chair like a man will have on people in the quarter. For his own part, Grant isn’t a very good example of duty or heroism, but teaching these values to Jefferson does impress their importance on him.

Grant’s own transformation involves the incorporation of values he has been teaching Jefferson into his own life. Just as he has taught Jefferson, Vivian and Reverend Ambrose become his teachers. After pulling him out of the bar fight at the Rainbow Room, Vivian explains that their relationship is doomed if he won’t ever think about anyone but himself. Grant is tempted to run away from the problem, but realizes he had nothing good in his life without Vivian. Next Reverend Ambrose informs him of his Aunt Tante Lou’s sacrifices so that he could go to university. He reminds Grant that he is not educated unless he understands himself and his people. On his next visit to Jefferson’s cell, Grant has undergone a type of conversion. He has new respect for Jefferson’s courage and his willingness to be strong for the sake of others. Yet Grant remains a flawed hero. In spite of everything they’ve been through together, Grant can’t make himself go to Jefferson’s execution.



Grant explains to Jefferson that a hero is above other men because he thinks of others before himself. Although he understands the definition, he does not live it. He wants to live for himself. He starts a barfight in the Rainbow Room, believing he was doing it in defense of Jefferson. In fact, Grant was only thinking of himself never noticing how he hurt others. Not only did he tear up the bar, Vivian had to leave her job early to come drag him out. Following Grant’s criterion, Rev. Ambrose is a hero, having put his entire congregation before himself. Jefferson also has the potential to do something for others that they could not do for themselves. He can make Miss Emma happy by eating her gumbo. He can chip away at the myth of white superiority and show everyone - both white and black - that he is a man.

Individualism vs. Fatalism

The characters in the novel are split between fatalists and individualists. Fatalists believe that our lives are dictated by external factors. Fate, destiny, or environment dictates what we will become or accomplish long before we are born. It is an extremely pessimistic view of human nature. In this case, the fatalists believe that race is the determining factor in whether or not a person can be successful. Mathew Antoine argues that he is better than Grant because his skin is lighter. He tells Grant it doesn’t matter how hard he tries with Jefferson or with the children at school, none of his efforts will help improve their lives. Sheriff Guidry believes that Jefferson was born a hog and will die a hog no matter what anyone does to help him. Jefferson accepts this view upon entering prison. He responds to Grant’s efforts to feed and help him by saying “It don’t matter.” As Grant watches his pupils chop wood during school, he is inclined to believe that all blacks are caught in a vicious cycle, and that all his efforts to help educate them can’t possibly overcome the deficiencies inherent in the race.

But there are others who believe in individualism, the idea that everyone is empowered to choose their own way. Our lives, for the most part, are a result of our own choices, talents, and perseverance. Vivian tries to convince Grant that his work with Jefferson can make a difference, that something is changing. Reverend Ambrose tries to explain the change that comes through accepting Jesus Christ. With their support, both Grant and Jefferson begin to realize it is heroic to defy expectations and resist the irresistible force. Jefferson does not have to lie down and die like a grunting hog, simply because that is what people expect of him. Grant finally understands he does not have to either run or be broken, simply because black men have chosen one of those two options in the past. They will each set their own course, which makes them both heroes.

Freedom as a State of Mind

Grant and Jefferson are both incarcerated in a type of prison. Steel bars surround Jefferson, but Grant is confined by racism, self-obsession, and cynicism. He believes himself caught in a dilemma where he must choose between fleeing the South and staying to be broken down by prejudice into a beast of burden. He also feels trapped in a job that he hates, believing that he can never make a difference in any of his student’s lives. Despite his education, he does not dare act educated in front of white people. His station requires him to seek the approval of men who disgust him, men like Dr. Joseph and Sheriff Guidry, and he hates himself as a result.

Jefferson, on the other hand, is freer than Grant despite his jail-cell accommodations. Since he has already been sentenced to die he has nothing to lose and nothing else to fear. They can’t punish him any worse than they already have, so he is free to act however he chooses. Moreover, he is free of the expectations that constantly burden Grant. The bar is set so low for Jefferson that anything above hog-like behavior would surprise everyone, which is why his show of bravery during his execution has such a profound effect. Both Jefferson and Grant are initially trapped by their fatalistic worldview. They believe there’s nothing they can do to change things. But when Grant watches Jefferson transform into someone who can go heroically to the chair, he realizes he can also make changes and defy what is expected of him.


Aunt Tante Lou sends Grant to university because she believes that an education will improve his life and allow him to help others. Instead, he returns from university completely self-absorbed and pessimistic. Theoretically, education should enlighten one’s mind, but in Grant’s case it only makes him more aware of his boundaries. Mathew Antoine even describes education as a ‘burden’ for black students, since they acquire skills white society will not allow them to use. While at university Grant stops believing in religion. This further isolates him from his aunt and others in the quarter.

Reverend Ambrose lectures Grant on what it means to be educated. Grant looks down on the Reverend because he’s a self-taught preacher; but he knows himself and he understands his people. He informs Grant that Tante Lou paid for his university by cutting cane, and she has the scrapes and scars on her hands to prove it. Like Vivian, Rev. Ambrose is disgusted with Grant because he only thinks of using his education to try and help himself. Since white society won’t allow him to do any job but teaching, Grant’s university degree will be useless until he understands how to use it to help others.

Cite this page:

Clapsaddle, Diane. "TheBestNotes on A Long Way Gone".