A Lesson Before Dying
Chapter 29: Jefferson’s Diary
Good by mr wigin tell them im strong tell them im a man
This chapter consists of Jefferson’s diary. Jefferson has never received much formal education, and misspellings fill the diary. Some of the time, he addresses his writing to Grant, as if writing a letter. Jefferson writes about the other men in prison and wonders why poor people seem to suffer so much more than the rich do. He concludes that the Lord caters to white people. A few days later, Jefferson writes about Grant’s assertion that he is better than white people think. Jefferson wants proof of his worth. He says he has never done so much thinking in his life, and he begins to realize how little he has always expected of himself.
The Monday before Jefferson’s execution, he writes that the sheriff, Mr. Pichot, and Mr. Morgan visit him in his cell. Jefferson hears Mr. Morgan and Sheriff Guidry talking about their bet. Mr. Morgan wants to double the stakes. He bets that Grant will fail. Mr. Pichot asks Jefferson how he is doing and then offers to sharpen his pencil with his own knife. Then, with Guidry’s permission, Pichot gives Jefferson the knife. Jefferson says he will give it back in a few days. During the next few days, people from all over town come to speak to Jefferson. His friend Bok reluctantly gives Jefferson one of his marbles, and Jefferson cries because no one has ever paid so much attention to him.
Vivian comes with Grant to visit Jefferson on his last night. Jefferson is humiliated in front of her, for he has not bathed recently and thinks he is ugly, but Vivian tells him he looks handsome and strong. She kisses his face. Jefferson apologizes to Grant for crying when Grant told him he would not be at the execution. He explains that he cried because nobody was ever as good to him as Grant is— nobody but Grant made him feel he is somebody.
Guidry asks what Jefferson wants for supper and Jefferson asks for his godmother’s cooking and a little ice cream for dessert. After Jefferson has dinner and a shower, Guidry asks him if he feels he was treated well. Jefferson says he does, and Guidry says he should write that in his tablet. Guidry offers to leave the light on so that he can continue to write. Jefferson cannot sleep and writes in his journal. He resolves to see the sunrise on his last morning. He says he cannot listen to the radio because it plays only for the living. Jefferson is afraid, but determined to stay strong. He writes goodbye to Mr. Wiggins and asks him to “tell them im a man.” He says he will give the diary to Paul to deliver to Grant.
Jefferson’s diary testifies to the mutual benefits he and Grant get from their friendship and love for one another. Grant bought the diary for Jefferson, and Jefferson writes in it usually as if writing a letter to Grant. Even when he is alone in his cell, Jefferson can write to Grant and feel he has companionship. As Jefferson writes down his thoughts, he begins to think seriously about the world and his role in it. Showing the influence of Grant’s words, Jefferson writes that he realizes how important he has become to his community. Moreover, the diary will serve as a boon for Grant’s self-confidence and his sense of self-worth, as he himself initiated the use of the diary by engaging Jefferson and buying him the notebook and pencil.
The white characters are not uniformly cruel to Jefferson, although their token kindnesses do not matter much in the face of the death penalty their people imposed on Jefferson. Mr. Pichot shows some compassion toward Jefferson by offering to sharpen his pencil and then giving him the knife as a gift. Guidry kindly offers to leave the light on so Jefferson can write. Also, in the past, Guidry has allowed numerous visitors to see Jefferson. Guidry asks Jefferson to speak well of him in the diary, perhaps both because he wants kind things written about him and because he is anxious for Jefferson to like him.
Jefferson’s diary indicates that he places his faith in his tangible friendship with Grant, not necessarily in God. Jefferson does not know whether he should put his faith in religion, since different people say different things about it. Some say heaven does not exist for blacks, but Reverend Ambrose says heaven is for all people. Jefferson’s touching apology to Grant for crying shows that he worries about Grant’s feelings and about what Grant thinks of him. He credits Grant for convincing him that he is somebody. His diary attests to the fact that some combination of Grant’s influence and Jefferson’s own strength has allowed Jefferson to face his death with almost superhuman calm and understanding.
Gaines shows that the uneducated can possess intelligence and nobility. Misspellings and grammatical errors fill Jefferson’s diary, but they do nothing to detract from the sophistication of his thoughts and the bravery and sadness that comes through in his writing. In some ways, Jefferson’s writing seems superior to Grant’s. We know Grant’s writing intimately; he narrates the novel except for this chapter. Although Grant writes intelligent, affecting prose, he does not match the unembarrassed expression of emotion that comes through in Jefferson’s writing. Neither does he match Jefferson’s lyricism, especially in the last few lines of the diary, in which Jefferson notes the bluebird singing and the blue sky in the last few hours before his death.
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