Study Guide

Tante Lou in A Lesson Before Dying

By Ernest J. Gaines

Tante Lou

A Tough Cookie

A tough old lady who doesn't show her love through hugs and kisses, but rather through cooking and scolding, Tante Lou not only raised Grant, she also raised his mother when her mother, Lou's sister, ran off. And Grant knows how to push her buttons. When he drops her off after visiting Henri Pichot, he tells her that he'll eat in town. Ouch.

Tante Lou held the door while she stood there looking at me. Nothing could have hurt her more when I said I was not going to eat her food. I was supposed to eat soon after she had cooked, and if I was not at home I was supposed to eat as soon as I came in. She looked at me without saying anything else, then she closed the door quietly and followed Miss Emma into the yard. (4.6)

Without saying a word, Tante Lou can communicate her pain to Grant, because they know each other so well. It also tells us something about their sort of essential connection that the most hurtful thing he can do is skip one of her meals: she sees her job as feeding Grant. To her, feeding him is the mot basic expression of love: it means that she's keeping him alive, giving him the most basic thing he needs. If he rejects her cooking, that communicates that he doesn't need her, that she's not important anymore.

Her Bark is Worse than her Bite

Tante Lou shows up in the novel as being angry all the time, pretty much always because of Grant's bad attitude. But her actions show how much she cares about her community and family. For example, even though Grant doesn't come home for supper and pretty much has to be dragged kicking and screaming to help Miss Emma and Jefferson, she continues to care for him:

The night before, when I had returned from Bayonne, I had gone to her room to say good night, but she pretended to be asleep, just to avoid speaking to me. And this morning, when I passed her on my way into the kitchen, she said over her shoulder, "Food there if you want it. Or you can go back where you had supper last night." (5.7)

Even though Tante Lou is so mad that she can't even stand to look at our speak to Grant, she doesn't cut off communication with him completely. She still prepares his breakfast [and what a breakfast it is: "two fried eggs, grits, a piece of salt pork, and a biscuit" (5.8), showing him that he has a home and someone who cares for him even if he doesn't appreciate it.

We can also tell by Tante Lou's words that she's a little bit jealous… if someone else is cooking for Grant, then that means she's no longer his primary caretaker, and the most important woman in his life.

Holy Smoke

Tante Lou has seen a lot of suffering through the years and leans on her religion to help her get through the hard times. One of the hardest things for her to face is the fact that Grant doesn't believe in the way that she does. They get into a terrible argument over what's best for Jefferson, and she asks him: "And after that radio and that ice cream, how 'bout his soul, mister?" (23.63). Grant's answer nearly breaks her heart:

"I don't know a thing about the soul," I said.
"Yes, you do," she said. She tightened her mouth. She wanted to cry. And she wanted to slap me. Not only for this moment, but for all those years that I had refused to go to her church. "Yes, you do," she said, shaking her head. "Cause I raised you better."
(23.64-65)

In this scene Grant, the teacher, is claiming he doesn't know something. Ha! But we know that Tante Lou sacrificed not only to send him to the university, but also dedicated her life to raising him. He's supposed to have the answers, and he's rejecting the knowledge that she gave him about the soul.

Tante Lou's reaction is violent, and full of pain. That shows us just how important religion and spiritual questions are for her—they are what give her hope, and when her own nephew, the person who she is planning to send off into the future to carry on her knowledge, rejects them, she is losing all the work she invested in him.

It is funny, because even though they are almost always at odds, Lou and Grant have the same problem. They see all their work trying to educate the younger generation going to waste. Lou tried to show Grant how to be a Christian, and he rejected it. Grant tries to teach his students about reading, writing, and arithmetic, and way too many of them end up dead or in jail. Their anger is the same, but they don't know how to share it with each other.

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