A Lesson Before Dying

How are the others in the black community observing this grim occasion?

Chapter 31

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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.

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.