However, she is also distraught over how Jefferson's defense attorney treated him. She says, "Called him a hog" (Gaines 12). The defense attorney, in trying to save Jefferson from the death penalty, compares the young man to a hog. The attorney says that Jefferson is an animal and beneath common humanity.
Also, Miss Emma is the catalyst for what will become Grant's change of attitude and call to action. Early in the novel, Miss Emma laments over Jefferson's verdict even though she believes him to be innocent of the crime. Reflecting on this, she says, "You don't have to do it" (Gaines 13). This simple statement explains the whole problem of racism in the American south. It really didn't matter if Jefferson had been actually responsible for the crime he was accused. There was no way that an all-white jury was going to acquit him. There could have been eye witnesses that declared another man the culprit and it wouldn't have mattered. Justice for African-American defendants simply was not a reality during the time period.
The third female character that has a major impact on the males of the story is Vivian. Her basic function in the story is as Grant's love interest. She begins as something of a "B story." That is to say, Vivian's initial purpose is as a distraction for the protagonist and the reader from the main thread of the novel. However, as the novel continues, she becomes more important in Grant Wiggins' life. Consequently, she also becomes more important to the main storyline. Grant himself thinks of Vivian at first only as a woman. In this capacity, her purpose is to please the male character. Grant has already been controlled by his aunt and by Miss Emma into doing things that he did not wish to do. So, he sees his interactions with Vivian as a way of reasserting his masculinity. Vivian is not as strong it seems as the older two women. She has a former husband who she fears. Therefore, Grant not only gets to feel like a masculine man by bedding her, but he also gets to fulfill the fantasy of the knight in shining armor who is protecting the damsel in distress from the villain.
As the story progresses, Vivian's role within the story changes. Instead of meeting Grant's physical needs, she becomes a catalyst for an emotional change. The most important scene with Vivian is when she is at the sink making a salad. Here she is performing a classically female responsibility, the preparation of food. Grant is the dominating being at the start of the scene. He has decided how much care and consideration he will give the various people in his life, including Vivian. However, at this point in the story, Vivian has developed feelings for Grant that are deeper than a mere sexual attraction. In this capacity, she is able to see that Grant is the type of person who cares more about himself and his own desires than anything else. In this salad-making scene, Vivian quietly, but powerfully forces Grant Wiggins to look within himself and to understand his interactions with other people. He asks her what she is doing, making small talk. Vivian "knew I could see what she was doing, so she didn't answer me" (Gaines 210). Even his affection for his aunt and the other members of his acquaintance are only in relation to how much that affection benefits him. However, in understanding Vivian's subliminal message, he begins to change his personality and learn to think of others before himself.
The three female characters in A Lesson Before Dying are Tante Lou, Miss Emma, and Vivian. The three women are very different characters. Each one functions within the story as catalysts for change. Only through the interactions with these women do the main male characters of Grant and Jefferson experience any evolution. Through the woman, the man becomes more human.
Gaines, Ernest J. A Lesson Before Dying. New…