The man and nothing less and when he

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The fictional town of Bayonne in A Lesson Before Dying is based on a plantation where the author
Ernest J. Gaines was born. This novel took place in the late 1940s a time when
radical discrimination was a major problem, and the Jim Crow laws validated
segregation and discrimination. Although the major personalities are males,
there are three female characters that influence the males to solve the difficulties
in their life they would usually ignore. Each female character persuades and
motivates Jefferson and Grant from running away from their responsibilities. Tante
Lou and Miss Emma convince Grant to make Jefferson die like a man and not a hog,
and Vivian makes Grant stay in the quarter and not run away from his purpose in
his life.

One of the first female characters introduced is Miss Emma,
Jefferson’s godmother. The first description of Miss Emma is in the courtroom
where she is described as a heavy-set woman weighing approximately two-hundred
pounds. We know she is a caring woman because while in the courtroom she never
got up to use the bathroom or get a glass of water. Even though she may not be
strong enough to sway the juries mind or protect Jefferson of the unfair
sentencing of death by electrocution. She is strong enough to stay in the
courtroom and give the support that Jefferson needs. Everyone by now knew what
the outcome would be for Jefferson. Gaines illustrates the reason why Miss Emma
and the other blacks were upset was because his defense attorney called him a
hog. “I don’t want them to kill no hog,” she said. “I want a man to go to that
chair, on his own two feet” (Gaines 13). In this quote Miss Emma knows the hurt
that Jefferson is feeling, and she is hurt as well after he is called a hog.
So, she makes it her mission for Jefferson to understand that he is a man and
nothing less and when he walks to the chair walk like a man with his head held
high. She is poor, old and losing her only family member unethically and just
wants someone to make a change in her life before she is dead.

Working as a cook and housekeeper on a plantation her whole
life Miss Emma just wanted one favor to be done for her. “I done done a lot for
this family and this place, Mr. Henri,” she said. “All I’m asking you talk to
the sheriff for me. I done done a lot for this family over the years” (21). Miss
Emma went to Henri Pichot because he was her former slave master and the
sheriff that was in charge of Jefferson was his brother-in-law.

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Miss Emma is very religious and is always going to church. Tante
Lou is continuously by Miss Emma’s side because they are good friends and she wants
to help in any way she can. Miss Emma knew that Grant was smart enough and
capable of helping Jefferson. Grant is reluctant and wants no part of it. Of
course, Grant gets convinced into going into the jail and talking to Jefferson.
Every visit so far has been with Miss Emma and Tante Lou. One day when Grant
goes to pick up Miss Emma he believes she is playing sick:

I had the feeling
that Miss Emma was not nearly as sick as she was pretending to be. For one
thing, I had seen her that morning picking up chips in the yard, and she didn’t
look sick at all. And now I could smell fried chicken and baked potato, and I
knew she could not have done all that if she was dying. (77)

Miss Emma plays sick because she
wants Grant and Jefferson to establish a bond without anyone interfering. She
wants Grant to get used to her not being there all the time because she is old
and cannot visit Jefferson every day.  

Tante Lou is Grant’s aunt. She is a tough cookie and does
not know how to show her love with hugs and kisses but with her culinary skills
and scolding at him. “I slammed the door and went around to the other side and
got in. I could feel my aunt’s eyes on the back of my neck for shutting the
door as I did” (16). Grant knows his aunt so well that sometimes he does not
even have to look at his aunt and he could just feel her scolding. The most
hurtful thing Grant can do to Tante Lou is to skip one of her meals. She feels
that feeding him is her basic expression of love and keeping him alive. When he
skips a meal, and eats at the Rainbow Club she portrays that she is not significant
to him anymore. Even though she gets upset, in the morning she will still cook
breakfast and show Grant that he has someone in his life that cares for him
even if he does not appreciate it.  

Having a religion is everything to Tante Lou. She and Grant
always get into confrontations about religion, because he is not in touch with
believing in God anymore. Grant said, “I don’t know a thing about the soul.”
And, Tante Lou replied, “Yes you do.” … “Cause I raised you better” (182). While
raising Grant Tante Lou installed in him her Christian faith. She is always
praying for Grant to reconcile with the Lord to know his grace again. When
Grant introduces Vivian to Tante Lou she is immediately distrustful towards
her. She becomes satisfied when Vivian tells her she is a catholic. Tante Lou
advises Vivian to not give up her beliefs just because of Grant, which she
assures her that she will not.

Sometimes Grant does not realize and takes for granted all
the hard work his aunt Lou has done for him. “You ever looked at the scabs on
her knees, boy? Course you never. Cause she never wanted you to see it” (218).
Tante Lou spent years cutting sugar cane so that she can have enough money so
Grant can get a decent education. Tante Lou also wanted Grant to never have to
work as a servant or step foot in Henry Pichot’s house. All Tante Lou’s life
she just wants the best for Grant and wants him to be proud of where he comes
from and be proud of his heritage. She knows that he is smart enough and could
be the one to make a change in the community.  

Vivian is the last main female character that we get
introduced to. She is the love of Grant’s life. Whenever Grant is going through
something or having mixed feelings she is the one he runs to. Grant wants to
pack up and run away from Bayonne but Vivian always convinces him to stay. Grant
tells Vivian, “People do it all the time. Just pack up and leave.” Some people
can, but we can’t,” Vivian said. “We’re teachers, and we have a commitment” (29).


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