A Lesson Before Dying Summary and Analysis
The weather is cold in the weeks before the Christmas program at Grant’s school, but the turnout for the event is huge because it is dedicated to Jefferson. Reverend Ambrose leads the prayer at the beginning of the show, making a special point of asking God to bless the educated unbelievers (meaning Grant). The children perform carols, a dramatic recitation of the Twelve Nights of Christmas, and a play based on the Nativity. Irene Cole notices that Grant seems to be in a bad mood, but he brushes off her questions. However, he thinks to himself that the Christmas program is the same every year, like everything else in the quarter. He wonders whether life will ever change for the people there.
One day in late February, Farrell Jarreau comes to the schoolhouse to tell Grant that the governor has set a date for Jefferson’s execution, and that he should go to Henri Pichot’s house immediately. Grant leaves Irene Cole in charge of his class and complies, meeting Reverend Ambrose on the way. They both enter Pichot’s house by the front door for the first time. Sheriff Guidry and Pichot are in the sitting room drinking coffee. The sheriff tells Grant that the execution will happen two Fridays after Easter, since it cannot be performed during Lent.
Sheriff Guidry reiterates that he doesn’t want any trouble, and Grant reflects angrily that the system should not let people decide when others should die. He is especially incensed that white men who know nothing of Jefferson’s experiences can so easily convict him with no evidence. Pichot dismisses Grant and the Reverend, and Grant storms off angrily, leaving Reverend Ambrose to tell Miss Emma that a date has been set.
Later that night, Grant goes to visit Miss Emma. Tante Lou, Irene Cole and Reverend Ambrose are there, but no one will speak to Grant, so he leaves after ten minutes. At Tante Lou’s house, he finds that Vivian has come to visit him. She wants to offer her condolences to Miss Emma, so they return to her house, where Emma is very pleased with Vivian’s kind words. However, Tante Lou and Irene receive Vivian coldly.
Later, at the Rainbow Club, Vivian complains, with a hint of jealousy, that Irene Cole is in love with Grant. Grant brushes off her concern, laughing that Vivian is jealous of a twelve-year-old. He goes on to explain his theory of why Irene and Tante Lou are so possessive. According to Grant, black men in the South have only two options in life: to lose their dignity and humanity at the hands of white people, or to run away from their families and live elsewhere. Grant believes that women from the quarter, like Tante Lou and Irene, want Grant to break this cycle, which is why they are so possessive.
Grant goes to visit Jefferson again. At the prison, he is subjected to the same humiliating search, but this time it is performed by Deputy Paul, whom Grant can tell is reluctant to do it. In the cell, Jefferson is sad but resigned to his fate. He mentions that he never got anything he wanted in his whole life, and that for his last meal, he wants a gallon of vanilla ice cream. Noticing that Jefferson seems more engaged, Grant tells him news about the people in the quarter, and promises to bring him a radio.
Joe and Thelma Claiborne, the owners of the Rainbow Club, donate the money for Grant to buy the radio. The clerk at Edwin’s Department Store is very rude to Grant, but nevertheless sells him a new radio. Jefferson is very happy to receive it, and plays music day and night even though his reception is bad in the prison. When Miss Emma brings food the next week, he refuses to come to the dayroom unless he can bring the radio with him. Emma and Grant meet with him in the cell instead.
Reverend Ambrose and Tante Lou are furious with Grant, believing that the “sin box” has turned Jefferson against God and made him reluctant to spend time with them. Grant retorts that he knows nothing about God or spirituality, and is only trying to make Jefferson as comfortable as possible in his last month of life. He continues that giving Jefferson comfort is the only way to reach him, and that the radio is helping him to act civilly.
The next day, Grant visits Jefferson again, bringing pecans the schoolchildren have sent for him. Grant asks him to be kind to Miss Emma and visit with her in the dayroom. Jefferson readily agrees, and promises to write down his thoughts so that he can discuss them with Grant. As Grant is leaving, Jefferson asks him to thank the children for the pecans. Overjoyed at Jefferson’s progress, Grant compares his happiness to that of someone who has just found God.
Over the course of the novel, Gaines gradually gives more information about Jefferson’s status in the community. Before going to jail, Jefferson was just another one of the young boys from the quarter to whom no one paid attention, similar to Grant’s students. Being wrongfully imprisoned has changed the young man into a martyr, but he is not a true hero because he still lacks dignity and concern for others. At the Christmas pageant, Jefferson arouses pity among the audience rather than respect, as they have for Joe Louis and Jackie Robinson. It is Jefferson’s transformation into this kind of hero that is so challenging to Grant.
Grant’s explanation of why the women from the quarter are so possessive hints at his character’s veiled sexist streak. According to Grant, African-American men bear the brunt of the suffering that comes from prejudice, and the woman’s role is to comfort and bear children. Because of this, he believes, women can never understand the decisions that the men must make between freedom (moving to the North) and responsibility (staying with their families in the quarter).
Even within the novel, Gaines presents several counterarguments to this outlook. Women like Tante Lou arguably have an even worse lot than the men from the quarter. While Grant has been able to achieve a limited degree of social status and respect, and is recognized as an educated man even by white people, older black women could never hope for this kind of success, and in later chapters, Reverend Ambrose will point out how much she suffered to put Grant through college. Similarly, Vivian must make life decisions based on what her absent husband would want, while Grant maintains no such ties to past girlfriends.
These chapters introduce the character of Deputy Paul. Although the book has so far acknowledged that white people can be decent (for example, the professor that lends Grant the collection of Joyce stories), the only kind white character to appear has been Edna Guidry, who only helps Miss Emma reluctantly. The development of Paul’s sympathy for Jefferson’s plight foreshadows the cooperation between blacks and Southern whites that will help propel the Civil Rights Movement, shortly after the period in which A Lesson Before Dying is set.
However, Paul’s kindness has limitations—he believes that the police should be “decent” to Jefferson, but nothing more, denying him meaningful compassion or human companionship. Thus, Paul maintains the status quo despite his apparent kindness, and it is left to readers to decide whether this is a morally defensible worldview in the South at this point in history.
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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