A Lesson Before Dying:Essay Questions
1. In what ways is the past both a burden and a gift to the novel’s characters?
The characters in the novel have both a cultural and a personal past. The centuries of slavery, the war fought to end it, and the decades of Jim Crow and discrimination continue to exert pressure on the people of Bayonne and the quarter, keeping whites and blacks largely segregated and forcing blacks into economic distress. In this sense, the past is a burden. Yet it is also a source of stories of strength in the face of adversity and unexpected alliances. Readers see one such alliance in the relationship of Henry Pichot and Emma Glenn. Though he is a white employer and she was once his black employee, their connection goes beyond this business arrangement. Emma feels that she can call on him in her time of need, and Pichot is deeply unhappy about what has happened to Jefferson. Personal pasts, too, act both as burdens and gifts. Grant’s past—abandoned by his parents, mentored by a bitter teacher, and educated so that he is alone in the quarter intellectually—causes him to doubt whether he has a home and a future among the people of the quarter. Yet viewed differently, his past has advantages, too. His parents were strong enough to leave to find work and succeed in California; his aunt is a fiercely strong woman who has made his education possible and who still serves as (sometimes unwanted) a moral