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A Lesson Before Dying

Ernest J. Gaines

Chapters 30–31

Chapter 29: Jefferson’s Diary

Important Quotations Explained

Summary: Chapter 30

On the morning before Jefferson’s execution, a black truck with a gray tarpaulin cover drives into town. Many people stop to watch it pass. It goes through the business district and pulls into the courthouse.

Vivian and Grant sit at the Rainbow Club the night before the execution. She tells him that from noon until she knows the execution is over, she will have her students kneel beside their desks. After saying goodnight to Vivian at nine o’clock, Grant drives around for a while and then goes to his aunt’s house. He notices a couple of cars parked in front of Miss Emma’s, but he does not stop.

At six-thirty the next morning, Sheriff Guidry sits down to breakfast, feeling nervous. He has never overseen an execution before. He tells his wife that he asked Grant if he would be present, but Grant shook his head. Guidry says Reverend Ambrose asked to attend the execution and Guidry said yes. He also asked the Reverend if one more person from the quarter would like to attend. At eight, Guidry goes to the courthouse and supervises the unloading process. Henry Vincent, the official executioner, tells the sheriff that the prisoner must be shaven. Guidry asks Paul to do it, and Paul reluctantly agrees.

Jefferson remains quiet as Paul shaves his head, ankles, and wrists. As Paul leaves, Jefferson asks him to deliver the notebook to Grant and to keep the radio for himself. Paul says he cannot keep the radio, but he promises to give it to the other inmates. He accepts Jefferson’s gift of a marble. Jefferson asks Paul if he plans to attend the execution and Paul says yes.

Summary: Chapter 31

As the hour of Jefferson’s execution approaches, Grant steps outside the schoolhouse. He remembers old friends, classmates, and baseball teammates. Many of his friends have died, mostly as a result of violence. Grant stifles tears for Jefferson, saying that there will be too many more like him, and he cannot cry for all of them. He thinks of calling Vivian or the Reverend. He thinks Reverend Ambrose is courageous for using the white man’s God as a source of strength. Grant wonders if he has caused Jefferson to lose faith in God and asks Jefferson to forgive his foolishness if he has robbed him of faith. Grant says he puts his faith in Jefferson.

At ten minutes before noon, Grant lines up his students and asks them to kneel. He goes back outside. He wonders what Jefferson is doing at this very minute and asks himself why he is not with Jefferson, or inside praying with his students. Angry, Grant says that he refuses to believe in the same God worshipped by the jurors that convicted Jefferson. Tante Lou, Miss Emma, and Reverend Ambrose believe in God because it frees their minds and gives their bodies a chance to be free. Grant says he knows this because “he knows what it means to be a slave. I am a slave.”

At last, Paul’s car approaches the church. Paul parks his car nearby and brings Jefferson’s notebook to Grant. Paul says that as Jefferson walked toward the electric chair he exuded more strength than any man in the room. He tells Grant he considers him a wonderful teacher for helping Jefferson, but Grant says that he did very little and that maybe Jefferson caused the change. Or, he says sarcastically, maybe God changed Jefferson. Paul offers Grant his hand and asks to be his friend. Grant takes the hand. When Grant goes back to his students, he faces them and cries.

Analysis: Chapters 30–31

Like the first chapter in the novel, Chapter 30 relates information from an undisclosed perspective, blurring our conception of reality. The chapter follows the thoughts and actions of characters besides Grant, indicating that either Grant uses his imagination in writing these sections or that Gaines temporarily uses an omniscient narrator to show us different perspectives. This shift in perspective enables Gaines to present his detailed account of Grant’s individual story in the context of a greater story—the plight of his community, and even the plight of the white people in the town. The final chapters focus more and more on Grant’s connection to other people. In particular, while standing outside the schoolhouse, Grant shows his connection with numerous people, both from his past and from his present. His heart yearns for Reverend Ambrose, Vivian, his baseball buddies, and Jefferson. The novel ends with Grant’s noticeable connection with the white deputy, Paul. Moreover, the connection of Paul’s and Grant’s hands and Grant’s subsequent weeping in the schoolhouse recall specific moments in Jefferson’s development during Grant’s visits. Gaines has already shown the pressing of hands between Jefferson and Grant and the weeping that followed Grant’s eloquent speech. Here, he gives the impression that Grant too is a humble hero, connected with humanity. Finally, Grant’s crying in front of his students shows that he is finally ready to connect with the children with whom his has been so strict throughout the novel. He is ready to be a leader because he is ready to be vulnerable.

Before dying, Jefferson completes his transformation into a dignified, compassionate, exemplary human being. When Paul enters the cell to shave Jefferson, he notices that Jefferson stands up immediately and that the radio has been turned off. Before, Jefferson’s bunk and his radio allowed him to isolate himself. He used to lie on the bed and listen to the radio in order to block out the world. In leaving these props behind, Jefferson shows that he wishes to face reality. Of all the people involved in the execution, only Jefferson faces the event unflinchingly. He becomes even more strongly identified with Christ in these last chapters. He seems to convert Paul, who says Jefferson was the “strongest man in the room.” Grant addresses his thoughts to Jefferson in the final chapter as if praying to Jesus Christ for forgiveness or assistance. Grant asks Jefferson to forgive him and says, “My faith is in you, Jefferson.” For Grant, Jefferson has become a hero to emulate in times of despair.

Gaines does not impose a tidy transformation on Grant, who persists with his sarcasm, fear, and self-loathing until the last page of the novel. Although he despises himself for it, he cannot muster up the courage to attend the execution, and he cannot muster up the humility to kneel and pray with his students. He refuses to cry for Jefferson, asking himself if he wants to start weeping for all of the persecuted black men and women in the world. When Paul visits and makes heartrending overtures of sorrow and friendship, Grant hardly answers him. He expresses outrage at the whites’ God, and he provokes Paul’s disapproval by saying sarcastically that perhaps God helped Jefferson.

Still, much in Grant has changed. He risked emotional pain by reaching out to Jefferson. He begs Jefferson’s forgiveness for possibly allowing him to lose faith in God. He grudgingly accepts Paul’s overtures, agreeing to shake the proffered hand. He gives Jefferson credit for becoming strong and good. He cries at the end of the novel, allowing himself to weep for Jefferson even if it might mean he has to start weeping for all black people, and allowing himself to feel the emotion he has repressed throughout the novel.

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Conflicts

by brittdawg22, September 02, 2013

The main conflict of A Lesson Before Dying lies within Grant himself. Even though Grant struggles to manage in the racist white society, his primary struggle is with his own mind. As he says to Vivian, he cannot face Jefferson because he cannot face himself and his own life. Vivian exposes Grant’s conflicted nature by bringing up the fact that he left the South in the past but eventually returned. Grant feels repulsed by the environment in which he grew up, but somehow he cannot bring himself to leave. Despite his statement that Vivian’s... Read more

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151 out of 158 people found this helpful

conflicts

by brittdawg22, September 02, 2013

rant’s inner conflict stems from his experiences in education, including his exposure to the cynical Antoine. Inspired by years of study, Grant wants to make great changes in his hometown. Grant’s behavior defies stereotype, but in order to live, he must follow certain rules that make his small moments of defiance futile. The losing battle between small rebellions and survival becomes clear in Grant’s conversation with Guidry. Grant takes pride in flouting Guidry’s racist expectations by using grammatical English and maintaining his ... Read more

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13 out of 14 people found this helpful

future conflict?

by brittdawg22, September 02, 2013

Her comment here at the end of Chapter 12 shows that she enjoys the thought of living with Grant in the South. Gaines shows Vivian’s emotional state here in order to heighten the ensuing clash between her and Grant that occurs later in the novel.

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