A Lesson Before Dying Summary and Analysis
Grant goes to Henri’s house, entering through the kitchen as he did the day before with Tante Lou and Miss Emma. In the kitchen, Henri’s maid, Inez Lane, reveals to Grant that Henri and his friend Louis have made a bet about whether Grant will be able to give Jefferson some dignity before his execution (Louis bet against him). Although Grant arrived at the house promptly, Henri makes him wait in the kitchen for two and a half hours before coming out to speak with him. As he waits, Edna Guidry, the sheriff’s wife, comes down from dinner to send her regards to Tante Lou, and confides that she admires Grant for trying to teach Jefferson, and will say so to her husband.
At last, Henri and the sheriff, Sam Guidry, come down from dinner to talk to Grant, accompanied by Louis Rougon and a smirking fat man. Grant intuits that the sheriff has already made up his mind about whether he will be allowed to visit Jefferson, so he feels no need to be obsequious to the white men. Sam questions Grant about his intentions for the lessons, and Grant is open about his reluctance to give the lessons, explaining that it is a favor to his aunt. Sam and Henri note ominously that Grant is “a little too smart for [his] own good” (49) when he correctly uses “doesn’t” instead of “don’t.” Nevertheless, Sam consents to the visits, although he thinks they’re futile and unnecessary.
In the weeks before Grant’s first visit to Jefferson, the superintendent of schools, Dr. Joseph Morgan, comes to visit Grant’s classroom. He spends a great deal of time quizzing the students about their lessons and inspecting their hygiene and dental health, a scene that Grant wryly likens to a slave trader examining his purchases at an auction. As he leaves, Dr. Morgan commends Grant but advises him to spend more time drilling the students on the Pledge of Allegiance and teaching them about hygiene. Grant attempts to bring up the fact that the school is short on books, but the superintendent brushes off his complaints, saying that the white schools are in the same situation.
Several days later, firewood is delivered to the school for the winter. As Grant watches the older boys chop it, he thinks back to his own school days. Most of his friends from that time have died violently or been imprisoned. He remembers his own schoolteacher, Matthew Antoine, who advised the boys to leave the South, since no freedom or justice could exist there for blacks.
Grant had a complex relationship with Matthew Antoine, who viewed learning as a burden of dubious usefulness, and sometimes resented Grant for being a more challenging student than the ones that did not care about learning. As Grant grows older, Matthew Antoine becomes more hateful toward him, especially when it becomes clear that Grant will take Matthew’s old job as a plantation schoolteacher. The retired teacher resents that Grant is wasting his intellect and potential by accepting a job at the school, where he will never make a difference. The year before Matthew died, Grant remembers visiting him and asking why he never left Bayonne. Matthew explains that because he was Creole, of mixed race, he felt superior to the blacks in the quarter, and he was afraid to move to a place where he would not be better than other blacks because of his mixed heritage.
On the day of Grant’s first visit to Jefferson, he drives to the jail in Bayonne with Miss Emma. Although Miss Emma has repeatedly insisted that Grant need not teach Jefferson if he doesn’t want to, she knows how reluctant he is to do it, and their drive together is silent and awkward. When they arrive, Grant senses that the jail is a hostile place—it flies the confederate flag, and “colored” visitors have to use a filthy outhouse instead of the clean toilets inside.
As a precaution, the deputy locks Grant and Miss Emma in Jefferson’s cell. Although the other black inmates are crowded together eight to a room, Jefferson has his own cell because he is on death row. The first question Jefferson asks Grant is whether he is the executioner come to introduce himself. Grant shakes his head, and Jefferson turns his back to Emma and Grant and refuses to speak to them further. As they leave the jail, Miss Emma begins to cry.
This section deals extensively with the causes of poverty and violence in black communities. The underlying question is whether African-Americans in this place and time hold personal responsibility for their miserable situation, or if they are the victims of a corrupt system. Grant seems to believe that there is some truth to both explanations.
The systemic causes of the social malaise in the quarter make themselves brutally apparent in this chapter. Gaines emphasizes the small and large indignities that African-Americans suffer due to segregation, from used textbooks to being beaten and murdered by white people. Other problems are clearly but indirectly related to racism. Because of the shoddy quality of schools (and more directly, Jim Crow laws), most of the black people in the quarter can only make money by picking pecans. Many of Grant’s students come from families that cannot even afford toothbrushes, something that the superintendent interprets as a sign of laziness rather than a consequence of systemic inequality. He then uses this as evidence to justify his own racist views.
In some cases, Grant tries to rebel against this status quo, attempting to call the textbook problem to the superintendent’s attention. At others, he accepts that there is nothing he can do about racism, and he does not complain when he is made to use the disgusting outhouse at the prison instead of the clean bathrooms reserved for white people.
Grant’s pragmatic approach to surviving in a racist society is perhaps best illustrated through his encounter with Sheriff Sam. He is quick to analyze the sheriff’s demeanor, and after noticing that the sheriff already seems to have decided about letting Grant visit the prison, he decides that he does not need to behave subserviently in this particular conversation. The fundamental injustice of Southern society, it seems, is not that blacks have been denigrated beyond the possibility of maintaining their personal dignity. Rather, it is that people like Grant and Matthew Antoine must constantly analyze and negotiate in order to live a dignified life, something that should be a basic right for everyone.
It is not difficult for an intelligent, curious African-American to maintain his dignity in the quarter. The challenge of teaching Jefferson, and the true reason that Grant is so reluctant to do so, is that he must impart dignity to an unintelligent, morally bankrupt young man—the quarter’s lowest common denominator, so to speak. However, as the novel will demonstrate in later sections, this task of imparting dignity to everyone—not just the best and brightest—is critical to social progress.
A Lesson Before Dying Essays and Related Content
- A Lesson Before Dying: Major Themes
- A Lesson Before Dying: Questions
- A Lesson Before Dying: Purchase the Novel and Related Material
- Ernest J. Gaines: Biography
- A Lesson Before Dying Summary
- About A Lesson Before Dying
- Character List
- Glossary of Terms
- Major Themes
- Quotes and Analysis
- Summary and Analysis of Chapters 1-5
- Summary and Analysis of Chapters 6-9
- Summary and Analysis of Chapters 10-13
- Summary and Analysis of Chapters 14-18
- Summary and Analysis of Chapters 19-23
- Summary and Analysis of Chapters 24-27
- Summary and Analysis of Chapters 28-31
- Cajun Culture and History
- Related Links on A Lesson Before Dying
- Suggested Essay Questions
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