A Lesson Before Dying Summary and Analysis
Grant and Miss Emma visit Jefferson two more times, and each time he refuses to speak to them. On the day of the fourth visit, Grant goes to pick up Miss Emma, only to find that she is sick and wants him to visit Jefferson alone. Grant suspects that Emma is only pretending to be sick, and that she planned from the beginning to have him take her place as Jefferson’s caretaker. He complains to Tante Lou that he is tired of being humiliated by the thorough searches at the prison, and that teaching Jefferson is stripping him of his dignity as an educated man.
Despite his misgivings, Grant feels guilty and goes to the jail alone. He is subjected to the usual search procedure, and Sam Guidry reminds him that his lessons had better not incite a riot. In his cell, Jefferson refuses the food Miss Emma has sent him, because such food is for humans, and “I’m a old hog they fattening up to kill for Christmas” (83). Grant replies that he is a man, but Jefferson continues to insist that he is a hog, crawling on the floor and eating out of the bag without using his hands.
Grant is irritated by Jefferson’s behavior, but says that he won’t tell Miss Emma because it would break her heart. He berates Jefferson, saying that by refusing to speak to Grant like an adult, he is letting Sam Guidry and “the white man” (84) win. Jefferson refuses to speak to him. Grant has only been at the prison for thirty minutes, but not wanting the guards to infer that Jefferson is misbehaving, he stays for the rest of the hour and then leaves.
Rather than returning to the quarter, Grant heads for the Rainbow Club. The men there are discussing Jackie Robinson, who has just finished his second year with the Brooklyn Dodgers (a fact that dates the story to 1948). Listening to how excited they are about the baseball hero, Grant reminisces about his adolescence, when Joe Louis was the only famous black athlete. He recalls how proud the people in the quarter were when Louis won his second fight against the German boxer Max Schmeling.
Grant’s thoughts turn to the time an Irish literature professor gave a guest lecture at his college. The professor emphasized the work of Parnell and James Joyce, and mentioned that one Joyce story, “Ivy Day in the Committee Room,” was universally potent, regardless of race or nationality. Grant sought out the story, but does not initially recognize its universality, griping that it was just about old white men discussing politics. Only later, when he sees how much his people revere Joe Louis and Jackie Robinson, does Grant realize that the story was really about the importance of heroes. Still in a bad mood, he goes to visit Vivian, and begs her to run away with him, if only for the weekend. She refuses, afraid that leaving town for any period of time will give her husband an excuse to take custody of her children.
Grant returns to Tante Lou’s house late at night, to find that Tante Lou, Miss Emma, and Reverend Ambrose have waited up for him. They interrogate him about how Jefferson is doing, but Grant is in a bad mood and only gives short, irritated responses. Reverend Ambrose asks Grant whether, deep down, he believes Jefferson has grasped the gravity of his situation. Grant demurs, and Reverend Ambrose observes that both Jefferson and Grant “didn’t keep the faith” (101).
The tense moment eventually ends, and the Reverend asks Grant if Jefferson needs anything, since he is planning to visit the jail on Monday. Grant suggests clean clothes and more food, but the Reverend explains that he was thinking more along the lines of Bible verses. The next morning, Grant sits alone in the house after Tante Lou has left for church. Vivian surprises Grant by appearing at the door to visit him—she has never come to the quarter before.
In these chapters, Grant continues to demonstrate immaturity in his attitude toward Jefferson. Reluctant to visit the man at all, he only does so to avoid the wrath of his aunt. His conversation with Reverend Ambrose is very important to understanding Grant’s beliefs about dignity. Reverend Ambrose asks Grant what Jefferson needs most, and he suggests concrete amenities—clean clothes and food. The Reverend, on the other hand, believes that Bible passages are more important to helping the doomed convict. Ambrose seems to believe that improving Jefferson’s physical situation is less important than getting him to become self-aware.
In contrast, Grant represents a newer, more secular approach to improving the lives of African-Americans. He believes that fulfilling Jefferson’s basic needs is enough to give him dignity, which is consistent with his belief that his own dignity comes from his college education. In both cases, material comfort is the source of dignity rather than spiritual wisdom.
These two outlooks would clash on a broader historical stage during the civil rights movement, to come fifteen years later. Some African-American leaders, such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., emphasized nonviolence and internal strength as a way to fight oppression, while others, like Malcolm X, demanded immediate, concrete improvements in quality of life, “by any means necessary.” These two outlooks have rough analogs in Gaines’s novel, in which Reverend Ambrose’s spirituality is put in conflict with Grant’s materialism.
In this section, Grant meditates on several heroes of the people in the quarter: Jackie Robinson and Joe Louis. It is important to note the choice of heroes—both men are entertainment figures who became famous for being the first black men to succeed in white sports leagues. This choice of heroes speaks to the aspirations of the people in the quarter; they are not interested in living independently of white people, as advocated by Marcus Garvey or imagined by Zora Neale Hurston in Their Eyes Were Watching God. Rather, they wish to integrate themselves into white society.
Although Grant remains aloof from the hero-worship of Robinson and Louis, the novel seems to endorse a moderate, pro-integration stance in these chapters. Although dignity may come from within, the great antagonist of the novel is not so much an individual as it is the broad racism of Southern society. While Gaines seems to suggest that both material and spiritual improvements were necessary for African-Americans to cope in this period, the ultimate solution to the problem is not dignity, but the eradication of racism.
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
- Test Yourself! - Quiz 1
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