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In A Lesson before Dying, Ernest J. Gaines tells about the injustices faced by the black communities, living in the South, from the white respectable classes. The main character, Grant Wiggins, comes back to teach in his home town of Bayonne, after studying at college. Throughout the book, Grant is highly aware of the inequality experienced by his community and by himself in the white social circles, even though he is now an educated man. To the whites, Grant is simply another colored man, which makes him inherently inferior in all aspects, especially in intellect. The main conflict concerns Grant’s personality, continuously struggling to find his identity, as he now looks down on his own community but is looked down upon by the white men. Vivian, Grant’s girlfriend, seems to be the only character, who truly sees what is bothering Grant and knows more about him, than he even knows about himself.
The reader is first introduced to Vivian when she meets Grant over dinner, after he comes back to town. Grant expresses his worries to Vivian, admitting that he does not want to face Jefferson and how he hates being here, emphasizing the fact that he is only here for his love, Vivian. However, Vivian is not swayed by his comments, which hint to the reader that the two have known each other for a long time. She understands why Grant is conflicted and points out that even though he seemingly despises the community, which is his true love and he cares for everyone, desiring to give back through his knowledge and skills. In fact, Vivian states that it is Grant’s duty to give back and the only way, by which he will achieve inner peace.
Through Vivian, the reader is able to conduct character analysis on Grant, because she speaks the truth and confronts Grant straight forwardly, not sugar coating any details. Self-centered and filled with arrogant pride, Grant is encouraged by Vivian to let those character flaws diminish, because unless he can do that, he will never be able to live peacefully in the South, constantly displaying ungratefulness and regret. Even more, Vivian is Grant’s realistic side, his conscience. When Grant is facing emotional troubles, he tends to run away from the scene, because the burden is too large for him to handle (Hager n.pag.).
In their relationship, Vivian speaks with experience, analyzing everything that has happened to predict what will most likely take place in the Grant’s future. Recalling the past, Vivian reminds Grant that he ran away from her to California, when more commitment was needed. Therefore, she is not surprised when Grant suggests to pack up and run away, leaving the exhausted South behind. In return, she pulls him back into reality, forcing him to see his problem of trying to escape every dilemma he is faced with. She also knows that he will not really leave, because he truly cares about his community, and his higher education has only increased his sense of responsibility, which vexes him further. She tells him, “You love them more than you hate this place” (Gaines 102).
Despite being annoyed at times, because of Grant’s lack of confidence in his responsibilities, Vivian has a transparent concept of her responsibilities, mainly to her community as she teaches the young children and educates her own children. However, her love for Grant is undeniable, and she is quite proud of her affair with him behind her husband’s back. Even though the reader can safely suggest that the two have been engaging in the affair for much time now, it is also evident that the two will be together in the open soon, since Vivian is finalizing a divorce with her current husband. Her confidence in their relationship is seen because she does not attempt to hide the affair anymore, as a new couple would, and even enjoys the thrill that her colleagues and students are aware of their secret relationship. In fact, she has specific plans for herself and Grant, to be settled happily ever after in Louisiana; however, her American dream differs from Grant’s (Raymond n.pag.).
Shattering her plans, Grant shows to the reader exactly how insensitive he can be in the relationship. When Vivian goes to meet Grant’s family, he repeatedly forces her to feel like an outsider, refusing to let her find common grounds between her current family and his, saying that they are “far from being the same thing” (Gaines 141). Grant further pushes Vivian away by not paying attention to her life, her children and her plans, while expecting her to give up everything for him and move away. Even though Grant loves this woman, the reader questions his motives, asking whether he truly wants to be with her, or is simply using her as an escape from stress. The point of view is biased, but Vivian’s strong personality cannot be hidden, even if Grant is trying to hide it as the other characters (his aunt) describe her as a woman with immense qualities.
During the climax in their relationship, Vivian confronts Grant at a time, in which he is significantly vulnerable, having suffered from losing control of his anger at the bar. Taking him to her house, Vivian shows Grant that she is the one, who can heal him, if he lets her. She uses this critical emotional time for Grant to tell him the truth and to ultimately teach him a valuable lesson: to be considerate to others around him and appreciate them. Honestly complaining about his lack of appreciation and consideration for her, Vivian tells Grant that she will not stay with him, if things go on this way. In reply, Grant immediately gets angry, as is expected, but then changes his mind as Vivian’s words sink in. He finally realizes that his ultimate happiness is with Vivian and that he needs to stay with her in order to reach a balanced self-concept and life (Hager n.pag.).
In a way, Vivian and Grant’s love for each other surpasses any storybook romance as they are truly the completing halves of each other. Vivian is a vivacious, yet pragmatic woman with sincere love and devotion for things and people in her life, whereas Grant is unrealistic and avoids commitment and responsibility. However, together, they learn to control each other’s weak points, at the same time enhancing stronger characteristics. Vivian played a large role in helping Grant escape his cowardice and at the end, all characters, along with Jefferson learned imperative life lessons, and Grant’s cowardice and pride are “finally over” along with all the other trials in the story (Gaines 256). His compliance is seen when he accepts Vivian’s role in his life, along with his mistakes and faulty mindset, “he finally opens up to Vivian at the end and admits his weakness by laying his weary head in her lap,” ultimately agreeing to work together with her in order to improve himself and their relationship (Smith n.pag.). In the Southern Quarterly, the critic states:
His relationship with Vivian leads to a more earnest commitment to particular human beings, for after she becomes pregnant with his child, Grant’s relationship to the entire community gradually changes. As Vivian is forced by the terms of her divorce to remain within visiting distance of her ex-husband, Grant is now also tied to the area. His dream of escaping the South, perhaps moving back to California (and, in fact, of fleeing all connection with particular human communities), is replaced by the necessity to remain and to change the social conditions of a specific place (n.pag.).