But he didn't tell me that my aunt would help them do it'" (Gaines, 79). Grant believes at this point that dignity is something he can only find -- and is supposed to find -- outside of his community and away from the relationships and ties that he has there, including his maternal bond to his aunt.
As the novel progresses, however, Grant begins to realize how necessary the community is to his own happiness, if not his very survival. This transformation is not complete by the end of the novel, but Grant has begun to change or at least question many of his beliefs, including his attitude towards God and religion, and certainly in his attitude, hopes, and feelings for Jefferson. Perhaps most telling in Grant's search for dignity and identity within his community is his relationship with Vivian. Though she is still married and the relationship is therefore quite clandestine as it would be morally unacceptable to the community, she is also what Grant credits for drawing him back into the community. It is interesting that even in this relationship, he is unable to truly define his own role -- Vivian's attachment to her children and her not-quite-ex-husband forces restraints and a certain lack of dignity even in the area of love. But Grant finally admits that the benefits he receives from Vivian's love more than outweigh the burdens it comes with. This mirrors his shifting attitude towards Jefferson.
Grant initially resists helping Jefferson because he has given up on his community. His former teacher told him that the South would only break him down as it does all black people born there, and this is a lesson he carried with him throughout college and an aborted move to California. The longer Grant spent out of his community, the more detached he became from its principles and the less he cared about its future -- or so he thought. During this time, he also became the selfish, bitter, and sometimes even brutal man we see by turns...
There are other details in the novel that suggest that his personality change did not occur until his departure from Bayonne, and that it likely has been on the increase since. A major part of this change is Grant's atheism. After recollecting his gradual loss of faith and growing disinterest in the church he used to attend, Grant feel as though in Bayonne he's "been running in place...unable to accept what used to be my life, and unable to leave it" (Gaines, 102). Only when he again begins to accept his community as his community does Grant begin to see dignity and hope for himself and those around him.
Grant and Vivian's positions as teachers in the community are also indicative of the group effort that creates dignity within this novel. Despite seeing Grant struggle with inferior textbooks and an unfair examination by the superintendent -- both of which smack of a complete lack of dignity -- he appears to be largely successful in achieving his goal of turning his students into responsible and dignified adults. He believes at first that there is no way of achieving dignity for a black man in the South, but he learns that the community as a group can hold its head up in a way that defies their individual treatment by the system.
Throughout the novel, the only time a change in perspective, attitude, or dignity occurs is after an interaction between people. Neither Grant nor Jefferson is able to hold their head up without each other; by the end of the novel, they have both grown to love and learn from each other in ways that each though impossible at the beginning of the story. More than any of the other characters, these two men though themselves alone; separate form the others in their community. Their early relationship is marked by this feeling, which emanates intensely from both men. When they learn to open up to others, however, both finally find the dignity they have been searching for. Learning to love and depend on others is a lesson we all need to learn before dying.
Gaines, Ernest J. A Lesson Before Dying. New…
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