A Lesson Before Dying: Character Profiles
Reverend Mose Ambrose
The pastor to the black community and their staunch advocate, Reverend Ambrose is a short, fervent man whose white hair shows his age. Ambrose is not educated to preach, but he “heard the voice” and found his calling. He is dutiful and has developed a deep understanding of the needs of his congregation.
Antoine was the schoolteacher in the quarter when Grant was a student. A man of Creole blood, he feels superior to darker-skinned blacks. Antoine predicted that most of his students “would die violently” or “be brought down to the level of beasts.” When Grant is preparing to teach, Antoine, a defeatist, predicts failure. His words burn in Grant’s memory long after Antoine’s early death.
The unnamed, court-appointed defense attorney tries to persuade the jury that Jefferson is not really a man but a foolish boy, not really a human who can make ethical decisions but a beast. He argues that there would be no more justice in sentencing Jefferson to death than in sentencing a hog, a comment that spurs the main action of the novel.
Vivian is also a schoolteacher, originally from Free LaCove. She and Grant are in love, but Vivian is waiting for a divorce from her husband, who lives in Houston, Texas, and who holds the custody of their two children over her head, forcing her to live circumspectly. Vivian is tall, light-skinned, and pretty; she is also gracious and community-minded.
Bear and Brother
Bear and Brother are two friends who offer Jefferson a ride intending to borrow money for liquor from him. He goes with them to GropÈ’s store and witnesses the gun battle that leaves Brother, Bear, and the storekeeper dead.
This young, white deputy develops sympathy for Jefferson and friendship with Grant. In opposition to the sheriff’s treatment of Jefferson as an “aggravation” and the chief deputy’s racist attitudes, Paul sees the condemned man, his godmother, the reverend, and the teacher as fellow humans.
Tall and angular, Eloise is one of the dear friends who support Emma during Jefferson’s trial and imprisonment. With Inez, the four women form a supportive quartet and exert their combined wills on Grant to act on Jefferson’s behalf.
Joe and Thelma Claiborne
Joe and Thelma run the Rainbow Club in Bayonne. They are sympathetic to Jefferson’s troubles.
Miss Emma Glenn
Miss Emma is Jefferson’s godmother (nannan) and cares deeply about her godson. A widow in her seventies, she is short and heavy, an imposing presence.
GropÈ is the white storekeeper for whose murder Jefferson is tried and found guilty. GropÈ refuses to extend credit to Brother and Bear when they attempt to buy liquor from him. Alarmed by their drunken behavior, he fires at them with his revolver, and they fire back.
Claude and Oscar Guerin
Claude and Oscar are special deputies. They supervise the execution to assure that it is carried out properly.
Sam and Edna Guidry
Sam Guidry is sheriff of the parish. A tall, tan man with graying hair, he wants the jail to run without any “aggravations” and is not sympathetic to Jefferson. His wife, Edna, a nervous but kind woman, intercedes with her husband on Emma and Lou’s behalf, persuading him to allow Grant to visit Jefferson in jail and later to allow Jefferson access to the day room. Edna is a character whose actions suggest that, in a different society, she could count Emma and Lou among her friends.
Farrell is a slight man in his late fifties who does light handiwork and runs errands for Pichot. Grant describes him as a man who knows only what he can learn “by stealth or through an innate sense of things around him.”
Jefferson is a young black man who grew up in the quarter. Since his boyhood, he has done manual labor and has had only slight opportunities for education. Yet he is sensitive and thoughtful, as his journal shows. Condemned to death for a crime he did not commit, Jefferson is in jail during the novel’s plot. Readers must wait until the last half of the novel to get to know this character, yet his struggle is at the novel's heart.
A maid and cook in Henry Pinchot’s house, Inez is in her forties.
Rita Lawrence and her grandson Bok
Rita lives in the quarter and cares tenderly for her large, adult grandson, Bok, who is mentally handicapped. The gentle Bok loves marbles more than anything; he keeps his treasured marbles in his pocket, where he can touch them for comfort.
Tante (aunt) Lou is Grant’s aunt. She raised him, making sacrifices so that he could get a college degree. A determined woman in her seventies, she demands that Grant serve the community as a leader—the role for which she sent him to college.
Dr. Joseph Morgan
Superintendent of schools, Dr. Joseph is a heavy, exhausted white man who demeans both Grant and Grant’s students during his annual visit. He dismisses Grant’s explanation of what the school needs and is clearly irritated by his responsibility to inspect the school.
Pichot is the brother-in-law of the sheriff and owner of a plantation that employs many black people in “the quarter.” In his sixties, Pichot dresses in a gentlemanly style and enforces class distinctions rigorously. Born into a position of command and relative wealth, he expects deference from all black people and has no use for Grant, an educated black man.
The Residents of the Quarter
These are the people that make up the black community around Pichot’s plantation house. They play various parts in the story, some more and some less important. But as a community, as a group, they support each other. Grant tries to stand outside this community, to be in it but not of it, for most of the novel.
A banker from a nearby town, Rougon is Pichot’s friend and belongs to his class. He is astonished when Miss Emma dares to request something of Pichot.
Grant’s students range in age from six to fourteen. Several play minor roles in the story. Irene Cole is an older, competent girl who often assists or teaches for Grant.
Vincent is the executioner who brings the chair to Bayonne.
Grant is the novel’s first-person narrator. For six years Grant has taught elementary school in the black community’s church, but he is conflicted about his work, unable to commit whole-heartedly to his students or to believe that his teaching will benefit them.