A Lesson Before Dying
Summary: Chapter 9
Grant takes Miss Emma to the jail in Bayonne. When they arrive, they meet two deputies, Clark and Paul. Clark orders Paul to search through the package Emma has brought for Jefferson. After a thorough inspection, they allow Emma and Grant into Jefferson’s cell. They find Jefferson lying flat on his bunk, staring at the ceiling. Jefferson does not respond to Emma’s questions. He refuses her food too, merely saying, “It don’t matter.” She asks him to clarify, and he tells her, “Nothing don’t matter.” In a vague manner, he asks when they are going to execute him. Emma does not understand his question, but Grant does. Emma continues to talk, but she cannot get him to say much else.
Summary: Chapter 10
The next two visits follow a similar pattern. On the day of the fourth visit, Tante Lou tells Grant that Miss Emma is ill and cannot go to the prison today. Grant enters the house to find Miss Emma in her chair, coughing unconvincingly. Grant thinks she is feigning illness because she and his aunt expect him to go to the jail alone from now on. Grant is angry and tells them he feels humiliated performing the duties they ask of him. Through her tears, Miss Emma apologizes for humiliating him, but says she has no one else to whom she can turn for help. Grant departs.
Summary: Chapter 11
When Grant gets to Jefferson’s cell, he is unsure of what to say. He asks Jefferson if he is hungry. Jefferson asks if Grant has brought any corn, saying that hogs eat corn. Grinning angrily, Jefferson acts like a hog, kneeling down and sticking his head in the bag of food Grant brought. Grant watches him carefully and asks if Jefferson is trying to make him feel guilty so that Grant will leave him alone. He says white men think Jefferson’s situation is hopeless. Jefferson does not respond. Grant wants to ask Jefferson what he is thinking about, but he stifles the impulse.
Summary: Chapter 12
Grant knows he will have to lie to protect Miss Emma from the news of Jefferson’s disturbing anger, but he cannot face her. He drives to the Rainbow Club. Sitting at the bar, he listens to some old men talking about Jackie Robinson and remembers the excitement and pride the town felt when the boxer Joe Louis achieved heroic success. He recalls a recurring dream he used to have in which a young man on his way to the electric chair cried out for Joe Louis to save him. He wonders if Jefferson would call out to Jackie Robinson for help.
Grant quickly leaves the bar and walks to the school where -Vivian teaches the sixth and seventh grades. Grant finds Vivian working quietly at her desk. He asks her to leave town with him that night, but she reminds him that they should not be seen together. She does not want to give her husband any excuse to take her children. He tells her about his visit to Jefferson’s cell and, once again, he tells her he wants to leave the South forever. She says he cannot bring himself to leave because he loves his people more than he hates the South. Grant says that he wants more than he has. Before they leave to get a drink, Vivian tells him that most of the teachers and students at her school know about their love affair.
Analysis: Chapters 9–12
Grant and Jefferson view each other as foes. During Grant’s first solo visit to Jefferson’s cell, Jefferson shows that he took offense at his lawyer’s words, but in the absence of a true enemy to rage against, he takes out his anger on Grant. Jefferson makes it clear that being called a hog angers him more than the death sentence does. Sheriff Guidry says Jefferson can die like a “contented hog,” but Jefferson is not contented, animalistic, or stupid; he realizes that his lawyer’s words denied him his humanity, his will, and his spirit. Like Jefferson, Grant feels trapped and humiliated. He bemoans having to visit Jefferson, particularly if he has to go alone. Although Grant does not show the same amount of aggression that Jefferson does in the cell, Grant’s will to abandon Jefferson and the South can itself be seen as an aggressive affront. Grant’s inability to see the good that might come from his visits with Jefferson prevents him from interacting positively with Jefferson. Instead of calmly dealing with Jefferson’s outburst, Grant reacts in an accusatory and almost petty fashion, asking Jefferson if he is trying to make him feel guilty.
Grant’s discussion of Joe Louis and Jackie Robinson suggests that because few black public figures and heroes existed in the 1940s, sports figures like Joe Louis and Jackie Robinson shouldered the burden of personifying black greatness in public. These giants take on almost godlike qualities in the public eye; Grant dreams that the men could rescue the downtrodden from death. In his dream, a young man calls for Joe Louis to save him as if asking Jesus Christ for salvation. In this novel, however, Gaines shows how Jefferson and Grant come to serve as heroes for each other. Each develops a strong sense of humanity and character by working with the person in front of him, not by searching for a god to save him. Gaines does not wish to diminish the accomplishments of heroes like Joe Louis or Jackie Robinson, nor does he aim to degrade people for looking up to these heroes. Rather, he tries to show how two ordinary black men living in the troubled South become heroic figures for each other and for others too.
For Grant, Vivian and the Club both provide an escape and demand conscientiousness. While at the Club, Grant wonders whether Jefferson would ask for salvation from Jackie Robinson like the young man in his dream. In realizing that Jefferson would have to appeal to Jackie Robinson, Grant realizes that Jefferson lacks a positive role model, a hero, or a God who can actually save him. Vivian acts as Grant’s conscience, drawing attention to his tendency to deny reality. After Grant expresses a longing to leave the South, Vivian brings him back to earth, saying that both she and Grant must remain in the South. She says the South is all they have, implying that despite the difficulties they face, they have an obligation to the black quarter and its inhabitants—they cannot forsake their roots and community. Vivian knows why Grant never acts upon his urge to leave the South and spells it out for him, saying, “You love them more than you hate this place.” Grant says he wants more, which points both to his laudable desire to create a better life for himself and his bullheaded resistance to Vivian’s sensible observations. Although with his departure and return Grant has proven Vivian right in her idea that he loves his people more he hates the South, he remains convinced that by running away he and Vivian will solve all of their problems.
Vivian is proud of her love for Grant, and, despite her will to remain in Bayonne to keep her children, she cannot hide this love. The fact that the whole school is suspicious of their relationship, and that Vivian proudly accepts and announces that they suspect it, indicates that she foresees their ultimate union with one another. 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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