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Vivian in A Lesson Before Dying

Instructor: Erica Schimmel

Erica has taught college English writing and literature courses and has a master's degree in children's literature.

They say behind every great man is a great woman. Who is the woman behind Grant Wiggins in Ernest J. Gaines' 'A Lesson Before Dying'? Let's meet Vivian Baptiste in this lesson.

Lady Love

Have you ever been in love before? Even if you have not, you have probably seen couples in love either in real life or in the movies. We usually think of a romantic partner as someone we can talk to and share ourselves with more than anyone else. This is exactly how Grant Wiggins feels in Ernest J. Gaines' A Lesson Before Dying. Grant feels unsatisfied and unhappy about his life as a black man living thirteen miles outside of Bayonne, Louisiana. His job is stressful, and he lives with his somewhat overbearing aunt, Tante Lou. As if that were not hard enough, Miss Emma has asked him to visit her godson, Jefferson, in jail awaiting execution for a murder he did not commit. Tante Lou insists Grant do it, and understandably, Grant is feeling a bit stressed.

Like many people, when Grant feels stressed, he wants to be with the woman he loves: Vivian Baptiste. Like most people in love, Grant thinks ''every bit of her was perfect.'' He believes Vivian is the only thing keeping him in Louisiana. Let us learn a bit more about this lovely lady.

Who Is Vivian?

Vivian is a teacher at an all-black Catholic school in Bayonne, where she teaches sixth and seventh grades. Vivian is a beautiful woman. Her appearance causes quite a stir, not just among men who pause to watch her walk by. She is tall with long black hair and high cheekbones. She has ''greenish-brown eyes, and her nostrils and lips showed some thickness, but not much.'' Even though she knows she is beautiful, she does not ''flaunt'' her beauty, because she is also a kind and gentle woman. Her ''light brown skin'' is part of the reason her appearance causes a stir.

Why does it matter that Vivian's skin is lighter than other black people in the novel? Vivian is mulatto, meaning she has both white and black mixed in her ancestry. Unfortunately, this causes division beyond the segregation between blacks and whites. Some mulattoes, including Vivian's family, act and feel like they are better than other black people because of their lighter skin. Because of this, some people with darker skin, such as Tante Lou, are suspicious that Vivian thinks this way, too. Tante Lou need not fear, though.

Vivian's beauty is not the only thing that is almost scandalous. Even though Vivian is dating Grant, she is technically still married. In fact, she was married and pregnant when she and Grant met three years prior. She and Grant have to be careful about being seen together too much while she waits for her divorce to be finalized because she does not want to give her soon-to-be ex-husband reason to try and take her two children away from her. This is also why she keeps saying no when Grant asks her to run away with him. She does not want to take any chances. Turns out she is right to worry. When her husband learns about Grant he lets her know he will only agree to the divorce if he can see the children every weekend.

Support System

Despite the complications, Grant and Vivian love each other very much. Grant turns to Vivian when he is upset, like when Miss Emma and Tante Lou first ask him to begin visiting Jefferson. He leans on her when his visits with Jefferson do not go well, and shares in the success when they have a breakthrough. Vivian supports him through all of this and is one of the main reasons he continues to do so despite the challenges with Jefferson. She is even patient when the stress of visiting Jefferson has an effect on Grant's ability to maintain their sex life.

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