A Lesson Before Dying Summary and Analysis
Grant visits Jefferson, bringing him sweet potatoes. He notices that Jefferson has been writing down his thoughts, as promised, and he asks Jefferson if he can read the notebook. The young prisoner’s handwriting is labored, child-like, and ungrammatical. He has filled three-quarters of a page with his fears of his execution, and his meditations that “If I ain’t nothing but a hog, how come they just don’t knock me in the head like a hog? Starb me like a hog? ... Man walk on two foots, hog walk on four hoofs” (220).
Grant offers Jefferson a pencil sharpener and urges him to pray. Even if he doesn’t believe in religion, Grant explains, Jefferson should still pray because it will comfort Miss Emma. Jefferson retorts that no one ever did anything for him, and Grant concedes that this is so, but insists that he can improve his life by having faith and being kind to others. Jefferson sadly wonders what his execution will feel like.
Chapter 29 consists of “Jefferson’s Diary,” which is written in very flawed English and evokes the “stream-of-consciousness” technique. The diary, addressed to Grant, begins by recording Jefferson’s mundane daily routine, but quickly reveals sophisticated musings about whether God prefers white people to African-Americans. The diary also contains vignettes from Jefferson’s past, including one about a worker who blasphemes God when he gets drunk, and another about Jefferson being forced to work long hours in the fields starting at age six. The first section of the diary ends with an aside from Jefferson to Grant, revealing that Grant wants Jefferson to write down deeper thoughts and feelings than what he has so far.
Henri Pichot, Mr. Morgan, and Sheriff Guidry visit Jefferson in his cell and are impressed with his relative civility. Henri sharpens Jefferson’s pencil, and gives him a small knife as a gift. Mr. Morgan doubles his bet with Henri that Jefferson will be unable to attain some dignity before his death. The schoolchildren and the people from the quarter visit Jefferson, and he is touched by all of the attention he receives from the children. Bok Lawrence gives Jefferson one of his marbles, and Vivian gives him a kiss. Jefferson begins to cry when Grant leaves after his latest lesson, because “nobody aint never been that good to me an make me think im sombody” (232).
The eve of Jefferson’s execution arrives. Instead of a gallon of vanilla ice cream, he asks for a meal of fried okra cooked by Miss Emma. He takes a long shower and Sheriff Guidry instructs him to write that he was treated well in the prison. Jefferson does so, and then stays up all night writing about his fears and his attempts to stay strong.
The next day, a young laborer named Sidney DeRogers is unable to make a purchase at the general store because of the chaos outside—Jefferson has just been executed. The narrative then doubles back to the previous night. Tante Lou spent the night comforting Miss Emma, and Grant had a somber evening with Vivian at the Rainbow Club before drinking himself to sleep. Reverend Ambrose sleeps fitfully before going to the prison to serve as a witness to the execution. Sheriff Guidry had offered Grant permission to attend, but Grant declined. Reverend Ambrose watches along with Harry Williams, a man from the quarter.
Melvina Jack and Juanita DeJean, two clerks at Edwin’s Department Store, see the electric chair being brought to the jail. Fee Jenkins, another prisoner, observes the preparations for the execution, and hears a woman saying that she would prefer not to be present. Clay Lemon, a laborer from the quarter, hears the loud racket of Harry Vincent testing the electric chair, and sees a woman expressing horror at the noise.
Sheriff Guidry asks Paul and the special deputy, Claude Guerin, to shave Jefferson’s head, arms, and legs in preparation for the execution. Paul and Claude reluctantly agree, but then delegate the task to another prisoner, Murphy. While being shaved, Jefferson asks Claude how his wife and son are doing. He then offers Paul his radio and the marble that Bok Lawrence gave him. Paul cannot accept the radio and says he will give it to the other prisoners, but he keeps the marble. Jefferson gives him Henri Pichot’s knife, to return to Henri, and asks Paul if he will be at the execution. Paul promises that he will be.
At the schoolhouse, Grant tells the children that they are to pray starting at noon until he hears from the courthouse about Jefferson’s fate.
Grant leaves Irene and Odessa in charge of the class and goes outside, reflecting that Reverend Ambrose is stronger than he is, because he was able to be there with Jefferson at the execution. Grant hopes that he has not led Jefferson to question his faith, since religion is the only thing that people have when they know they are about to die. He reflects that although he cannot personally embrace religion, he accepts that it gives hope to an enslaved people. He notices a yellow butterfly alight on a patch of barren bull grass, and intuits that this is Jefferson’s spirit and the execution has already happened.
Paul Bonin delivers Jefferson’s diary to Grant, and tells him that Jefferson faced his death with great strength and dignity. He commends Grant’s teaching, and asks to see the diary later if Grant feels it’s appropriate. The men make small talk, and Paul offers Grant his friendship. Grant solemnly accepts and returns to the schoolhouse to teach his class.
In the final section of the novel, Gaines employs several unconventional narrative techniques to convey the drama of Jefferson’s death. In Chapters 29 and 30, Gaines focuses on the eve of the execution, describing the nights of Jefferson, Grant, Reverend Ambrose, Tante Lou, and Sheriff Guidry. Jefferson’s experiences receive the most attention, and Gaines abandons Grant’s first-person narration in favor of Jefferson’s diary.
This dramatic shift in style emphasizes the differences between the narrative voices of Grant and Jefferson, and the convict’s lack of education is thrown into relief when contrasted with Grant’s articulate, measured narration. The misspellings and lack of punctuation in Jefferson’s section evoke Faulkner’s use of stream of consciousness, especially in Benjy’s section of The Sound and the Fury. In both novels, the raw, visceral experiences of an innocent are used to depict the evils of the wider world. In Gaines and Faulkner, the reader is expected to make inferences based on information that the narrator himself does not understand—for example, readers will know the significance of Mr. Morgan’s bet even though Jefferson does not.
In Chapter 30, Gaines again departs from narrating the novel from Grant’s perspective. Instead, he describes, in third person, the experiences of various people from the quarter on the day of Jefferson’s execution. These characters do not appear elsewhere in the novel, and it is unclear how Grant would know what they were doing on the day of the execution. By focusing on characters outside of Grant and Jefferson’s inner circles, Gaines reveals the importance Jefferson has assumed as a public figure and as a hero to his former peers.
By refraining from directly describing Jefferson’s death, Gaines increases the drama and power of the moment while also implicating the reader in Grant’s cowardice. Grant expresses regret and shame that he was unable to walk with Jefferson to the electric chair, admitting that despite his pride, it turned out that Reverend Ambrose was actually stronger than him. By concealing the moment from the reader and instead depicting the reactions of the townspeople, Gaines places the reader in the same position as Grant, unable to achieve the closure that would come with directly “witnessing” the execution. This lack of closure reflects the experience for Jefferson’s family and friends, who will never fully heal, as well as the lack of closure for the real people that went through similar situations.
Grant’s partial embrace of religion at the end of the novel enables reconciliation where it had previously seemed none was possible. Grant’s conflict with Reverend Ambrose was rooted in stubbornness and unwillingness to cooperate on both sides, and it is only by conceding that he may be wrong that Grant is able to find inner peace and common ground with the Reverend. Staying true to his own secular beliefs, Grant acknowledges the value of religion for others, and in doing so, performs an act of consideration and empathy—both qualities that he tried to teach Jefferson. A Lesson Before Dying closes with the hopeful suggestion that Grant may follow his own advice, learning as much from Jefferson as Jefferson learned from him.
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
- Test Yourself! - Quiz 2
- Test Yourself! - Quiz 3
- Test Yourself! - Quiz 4
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