A Lesson Before Dying
Summary: Chapter 1
What justice would there be to take this life? Justice, gentlemen? Why, I would just as soon put a hog in the electric chair as this.
Grant Wiggins recalls the outcome of a trial. He says that he was not there, but he knew what the verdict would be. He pictures the courtroom, the judge, and the attorneys. He pictures his aunt, Tante Lou, sitting beside the defendant’s godmother, Miss Emma, both watching the proceedings with solemn rigidity. Grant can picture the back of Jefferson’s close-cropped black head as he sits at the defendant’s table.
Grant recalls the incidents leading up to the trial. Jefferson, Grant says, was on his way to the White Rabbit Bar and Lounge when Brother and Bear, two young black men, drove up beside him and offered him a ride. The three men drove to a store, where Brother and Bear demanded that Alcee Gropé, the store owner, give them drinks on credit. Alcee refused, and the ensuing argument led to a shootout. Alcee, Brother, and Bear all died, leaving Jefferson alone in the store. Grant says Jefferson stood at the scene of the crime, confused and frightened, and took a slug of whiskey to calm his nerves. He looked around and saw the open cash register full of money. He knew that stealing was wrong, but he also knew that he would need to run, so he took some money. He had nearly reached the door when two white men walked into the store.
Grant says the prosecution argued that Jefferson had gone to the store intending to rob and kill Alcee Gropé. The prosecution claimed that Jefferson stuffed the money into his pockets and celebrated the murder by drinking some of Alcee’s liquor. Grant says that Jefferson’s attorney defended Jefferson by insisting that he is a boy and a fool, and therefore incapable of planning the robbery and murder. The attorney said he would rather put a hog in the electric chair than such a mindless individual. The white jury members deliberated for just a few hours before finding Jefferson guilty of robbery and murder in the first degree. A few days later, the judge sentenced Jefferson to death by electrocution.
Summary: Chapter 2
When Grant comes home from school on the afternoon of the trial, he finds his aunt, Tante Lou, and Jefferson’s godmother, Miss Emma, sitting quietly at the table. He hurries to his room. He knows they want to talk about the trial and wishes desperately to avoid the subject. For courtesy’s sake, however, he goes out to the kitchen. He tries to excuse himself quickly, but they insist on talking to him. Grief-stricken, Miss Emma thinks about how Jefferson’s attorney compared Jefferson to a hog. She tells Grant that she does not want Jefferson to die a hog and that she wants Grant to accompany her to the prison and teach Jefferson to die with dignity. Grant angrily refuses, insisting he can do nothing to help Jefferson. Tante Lou tells Grant that all three of them must visit Mr. Henry Pichot because his brother-in-law, the sheriff, might admit them to see Jefferson. Grant clenches his fists in fury. He wants to scream at his aunt and tell her how much he hates the town and how helpless he feels in this oppressive environment, but he knows that she would not hear him.
Analysis: Chapters 1–2
The first chapter opens with the novel’s fundamental concern: how can justice prevail in a society dominated by a single group of people? In Jefferson’s trial, the judge is white, the lawyers are white, and every member of the jury is white. Therefore, Jefferson receives a trial not by his peers, but by his oppressors. Jefferson’s attorney pleads for Jefferson’s innocence by appealing to white prejudices, arguing that Jefferson is as morally blank as a hog. This trial robs Jefferson of his legal rights. Because he is black in a racist society, the law will not help Jefferson. The jurors are not even asked to consider the legality of the situation. Rather, they are asked to acquit him because he is a pathetic creature.
On one hand, Gaines condemns the society as racist. To Grant, the trial is an elaborate performance with a predetermined conclusion: Jefferson will be found guilty. Grant understands that in this society, a black man is guilty until proven innocent. Under the law, the prosecution has to prove Jefferson’s guilt, but under the rules of convention in this racist society, the prosecution must only concoct a vague theory based on no evidence. Jefferson’s attorney defends his client not by using the evidence, but by damning Jefferson as a hog and a fool too stupid to plan such a crime. Grant’s decision to stay away from the trial begins to seem not a cynical refusal to hope for a not guilty verdict, but a sensible realization that no matter what the evidence says, Jefferson will be found guilty. On the other hand, Gaines intentionally blurs the truth in this opening chapter, questioning the truth of Grant’s statements. At this point, we do not know for sure what happened during the crime. Grant details several different versions of the crime even though he witnessed neither the crime nor the trial. Gaines deliberately leaves the story murky in order to suggest the murkiness of racism in Americ
The opening chapter paints Grant, the narrator, as a proud black man who suffers because he lives in a racist time and place. Gaines suggests Grant might be deceiving himself, since he distances himself from Jefferson’s trial and yet claims to know exactly what happened there. Although Grant says he did not attend Jefferson’s trial because he knew what the verdict would be, Gaines suggests that Grant also stayed away because he willfully imposes a distance between himself and his family and community. Grant says he could have sat with his aunt and Jefferson’s godmother, but he chose to separate himself from them.
Grant explains his anger toward his aunt and Miss Emma by saying that they ask him to perform a difficult, perhaps impossible, task: Miss Emma wants him to undo the effects of eighteen years of racist oppression. The huge machinery of the oppressors has ground down Jefferson, and Miss Emma wants Grant to take on this machinery and give Jefferson defiance and strength of character. Like most of the people in the audience, Miss Emma understood the racism in the defense attorney’s speech and she wants to fight it.
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