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As I put this book down, I felt both sad and enlightened.
As I sat there having completed A Lesson before Dying, I thought to myself that inner strength and faith cannot be taught, it comes from within.
1. Historical Context:
The story takes place in a small Cajun town in Louisiana in the 1940's. The story mainly takes place in the Quarter, area on the plantation where the black people who work there reside, and in Bayonne, the town nearest the plantation. Life for African American people in this era was one of segregation. Though slavery was over, they still were not treated with respect or equality.
2. Antebellum A period before war. Usually associated with the Civil War.
Relating to the story, the term antebellum, I would think, is referring to this period of time before the civil rights movement began in the 50's and 60's. I believe this because of Jefferson being wrongly accused and sent to a trial of "his peers" which were all white men, his defense lawyer portraying him as non-human and unintelligent, and Jefferson being sentenced to death. I believe that this era of injustice, inequality, and prejudice is the precursor to the civil rights movement or the war against prejudice, injustice, and inequality.
3. The closing argument made by Jefferson's lawyer consisted of him telling the jury to just look at Jefferson, examine him. He goes on to say that he is not a man, even though he has reached the age of 21 which when "we" (meaning white people) civilized men are considered to become men. His lawyer called him a boy and a fool who doesn't know right from wrong. He asks the jury to look in Jefferson's eyes to prove his point that no intelligence lies there. He also refers to Jefferson as a cornered animal, a trait inherited from his African Ancestors. The lawyer's defense is that Jefferson is too stupid to have planned a robbery and murder. He asks what justice would be served by taking Jefferson's life; it would be like putting a hog in that chair.
4. My response to this argument is that I am disgusted. If Jefferson were a white man in this same situation, the defense lawyer would be looking into actual evidence to proclaim the innocence of his client. Because Jefferson is black, his lawyer doesn't bother to bring up any evidence that could get him off, he doesn't bring any character witnesses for Jefferson, he doesn't do anything that a good and non-prejudice lawyer would.
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5. The relationships between and among Miss Emma, Jefferson, Grant, Tante Lou, Mrs. Henri Pichot, Edna and Sam Guidry, and Vivian:
Miss Emma Jefferson's godmother and guardian, friend of Tante Lou, former employee of Mr. and Mrs. Henri Pichot. Lives on Pichot's plantation.
He appears to be a rather soft spoken old woman who loves her god son very much. All she desires is for Grant to make Jefferson a man. She doesn't want Jefferson to die like an animal; she wants Grant because he is the teacher to teach Jefferson how to walk to his death like a man. She goes to Mr. Pichot and asks him to ask his brother in law, the sheriff, to allow Grant, his aunt, herself, and the reverend to visit Jefferson. Miss Emma tells Mr. Pichot and the sheriff, Sam Guidry that she has done a lot for both their families and they owe this to her. She seems to have a way of getting what she wants without being pushy. Further into the story, Miss Emma talks Edna Guidry about there being no place to sit when they all go to visit Jefferson, Edna talks to Sam and he allows them to visit in the day room.
Jefferson - the god son of Miss Emma, who resided with her before he was put in jail. Jefferson cares for his godmother very much and deep down does want to make her happy. He realizes after a while, with the help of Grant, that he is hurting Miss Emma when he doesn't speak to her or eat her food that she brings. Later on Jefferson does talk to her and eat her food when she comes to visit. Jefferson ends up becoming friends with Grant after a rocky start. He began to open up to Grant when Grant showed him time after time that he really did care and that he thought Jefferson was a good human being.
Grant Wiggins nephew to Tante Lou, boyfriend of Vivian.
Grant's relationship with his Aunt was tolerable. His Aunt would force him to do things, like going to see Jefferson, which he did not like. He loved her, but it was not an affectionate relationship. Grant's love was directed at Vivian, another school teacher who had kids and was separated from her husband. He expressed his need to have her in his life and that she was the reason he kept going to see Jefferson. His relationship with Miss Emma consisted of politeness, but nothing too deep. Grant didn't care too much for Henri Pichot or Sam Guidry. He remembers being a boy on Pichot's plantation and going no further than the kitchen growing up while his aunt and Miss Emma worked for Pichot. He vowed never to go back there, but he did for his Aunt and Miss Emma. Grant initially did not want to go to Jefferson, he didn't think he could change him. After a while, he was able to get through to Jefferson and he would bring him things, like a radio and paper and pencil. Grant became close to Jefferson.
Tante Lou Grant's aunt, friend and comforter of Miss Emma, previous worker for Mr. Pichot.
Tante Lou cared for her nephew, but was very demanding of him. She was always around to comfort Miss Emma and go to church with her, she stuck by her throughout the story.
Mrs. Henri Pichot wife of Henri, owner of the plantation
Mrs. Pichot seemed to be sympathetic toward Miss Emma and Tante Lou.
Edna and Sam Guidry Sam is the Sheriff of Bayonne and Edna is his wife.
Sam makes it obvious that he does not respect black people. The only reason he allowed Miss Emma, Tante Lou, and Grant to see Jefferson is because of the influence of Edna. She was sympathetic towards the whole situation, though she understood that she could only influence her husband and not make the changes herself.
Vivian Grant's girlfriend, a school teacher
Vivian loves Grant and urges him to do the right thing by going to speak with Jefferson. She takes care of him, but also speaks her mind. Upon meeting Tante Lou and Miss Emma, she wishes for them to like her and to make a good impression. Though, Tante Lou is especially critical of her.
6. Miss Emma wants her godson to die with some dignity, to die like a man and not like the hog the lawyer made him out to be. She wants Grant, because he is a teacher, to go to Jefferson and teach him that he is a man.
7. Grant is a school teacher at the church school on the plantation. He wants to leave the plantation with Vivian and run away somewhere where he doesn't have to deal with the limited opportunities and prejudices of this area. Grant views his aunt as opinionated and domineering. He usually ignores her, but has occasionally talked back to her. Regarding the expectations put on him by Miss Emma, Grant doesn't want to go, and becomes aggravated, but knows he has to.
8. Grant request to Sam Guidry was asking to be allowed to visit Jefferson. This was because of Miss Emma's wishes and his aunt telling him that he must do this. When he visited the house, he was waiting nearly 2 hours because Sam and Henri and the wives were drinking, socializing and eating dinner.
9. The relationship between Grant and Jefferson grew over time. As the relationship developed, Jefferson became aware that he was not an animal and was in fact a man. Grant, who didn't want to do this at first, wanted to keep visiting Jefferson. He wasn't teaching him math or reading, but just by taking to Jefferson he was able to help him realize his inner strength. They both became attached to eachother and developed a friendship among men.
10. God was a huge part in Emma and Tante Lou's life. Both went to church and sang the hymns and prayed for God to forgive Jefferson and welcome him into heaven. Grant on the other hand was not a church going man, he believed in God, but not to the extent that Emma and his aunt did. His faith in God became lost. Jefferson's faith grew in God as his execution was coming nearer. Though Grant didn't discuss religion with him, Reverend Ambrose did, and it helped give him the strength he needed to stand tall and die a man.
11. Everyone wanted Jefferson to find his faith and strength to be a man. They also wanted him to simply eat with Miss Emma when she came to visit and speak to her. She needed this because it was all she had left. The one thing she wanted before she died was for her godson to be a man.
12. Jefferson's suffering was that he had to come to terms with the fact he was going to be put to death for something he didn't do.
Miss Emma's suffering was that she would see her godson die, she hoped like a man.
Tante Lou's suffering was felt by seeing Miss Emma's pain, but also because of Grant. One of her major sufferings she felt was because Grant would not go to church and she feared for his soul.
Grant's suffering was mostly internal. He so desperately wanted to leave, but he was stuck. He wanted to marry Vivian but he couldn't because she technically wasn't divorced yet. Grant, I think, realized that strength doesn't come from other people, like he claimed came from Vivian. He learned this through Jefferson.
13. The Lesson before Dying here is for Jefferson to walk to his death with dignity and die a man. Digging deeper, I believe the lesson is to realize who you are and realize that you have the strength and the faith to get through; these can't be taught.