Study Guide

A Lesson Before Dying Poverty

By Ernest J. Gaines

Poverty

Chapter 1

He took the money out of hunger and plain stupidity. (1.11)

Grant is telling it like it is. He admits that Jefferson did take the money. He also acknowledges that it was a result of poverty, not necessarily meanness. However, he recognizes that it was one of the stupidest things Jefferson could have done in that moment, and sealed his fate in the electric chair.

He knew taking money was wrong. His nannan had told him never to steal. He didn't want to steal. But he didn't have a solitary dime in his pocket. (1.7)

Morality often goes out the window when necessity comes into play. Jefferson does know right from wrong, and remembers who taught him all about it, but somehow his empty pockets become more powerful than his nannan's lessons.

Chapter 3

Fifteen or twenty families sent their children to the school, and I always made it a point—they expected it of me—to ask them to do something for the school during the six-month session. (3.2)

Because the school gets little to no support from the school district, the families have to work together to make sure that it has the supplies it needs, like wood to burn in the winter. Even though this is a sign of poverty, you can see that it is also a point of pride among the families, who expect to be asked to help.

Chapter 5
Grant Wiggins

"Put that chalk down. I can't afford to break it." (5.12)

Just as wood is precious in the school, chalk, too is hard to come by. Grant has to yell at kids who use too much, writing too thickly, and the students have to take turns writing on their slates because they don't have enough chalk to go around. When Grant is going to punish a kid he cares more about the chalk than their skin.

Chapter 7

He came from a large family—thirteen, fourteen, fifteen: I don't know how many—and he had to fight for every crumb of food he got. (7.50)

Desperate times call for desperate measures, like bopping your older brother on the head with a frying pan to get an extra helping. Grant's observation about his problem-child student shows how situations of poverty affect people in every aspect of their lives.

"I don't have all the books I need. In some classes I have two children studying out of one book. And even with that, some of the pages in the book are missing. I need more paper to write on, I need more chalk for the blackboards, I need more pencils, I even need a better heater." (7.70)

When Dr. Joseph, the superintendent comes to town, Grant tries his best to explain how tough it is to teach with no resources. The repetition of "I need" shows just how desperate he is, and also the magnitude of the problem he's dealing with.

Dr. Joseph Morgan

"Can't they work?" he asked me. "Look at all the pecan trees." [. . .] "Get them off their lazy butts, they can make enough for a dozen toothbrushes in one evening." "That money usually goes to helping the family, Dr. Joseph." (7.83-84)

This heartbreaking conversation between Dr. Joseph and Grant gives us a vision of the utter lack of communication happening between the government and the people it supposedly represents. Dr. Joseph's concept of what children should be doing, and Grant's knowledge of what they are doing, are completely at odds with one another.

Chapter 22

It was the kind of "here" that let you know this was hard-earned money but, also, that you needed it more than she did, and the kind of "here" that said she wished you had it and didn't have to borrow it from her, but since you did not have it, and she did, then "here" it was, with a kind of love. (22.85)

The way that Thelma Claiborne says "here" when she hands Grant the money for Jefferson's radio gets picked apart in these sentences. Grant explains all the different meanings hidden behind that one syllable: all of them are lamenting the great poverty that both Thelma and Grant live in.

Edwin's was not the best store in town, but it was the place where most people bought what they needed. Those with money went either to Morgan's department store or to Baton Rouge and New Orleans. (22.87)

Here we get a picture of just how widespread the problem of poverty is in Bayonne. It's not just a few people or a minority that are suffering. Grant says that it is where "most people" do their shopping, while those with money go out of town. That means that most people don't have money.

Chapter 25

Even took that kind of work from the white boys, because they would do it so much cheaper than the white boys would. Anything not to work alongside the n*****s. (25.6)

And once again, racism rears its ugly head. The biracial bricklayers in the bar let their own prejudices affect their earning power. They are willing to earn less just to make sure that they are one rung above black people on the social ladder.