A Lesson Before Dying
Summary: Chapter 16
On Monday, Grant sees Tante Lou, Reverend Ambrose, and Miss Emma returning from visiting Jefferson. They stop at Miss Emma’s house and go inside. In school, Grant finds his students planning for the annual Christmas program. He reminds them to keep just one person in mind this Christmas season, referring to Jefferson.
At her request, Grant visits Miss Emma. Miss Emma knows Grant lied about his previous visit to Jefferson, because her own visit was disturbing: Jefferson asked her if she had any “corn for a hog,” asking viciously and repeatedly until Miss Emma grew so distressed that she slapped him. Grant is irritated, feeling once again that he cannot help Jefferson and stating that he will not let Jefferson make him feel guilty. Tante Lou insists that Grant continue his visits.
Summary: Chapter 17
Over the course of the week, Grant feels his anger dissipating. He reflects on the fact that he never stays angry for a long time, although he never believes in anything for very long either.
On Friday, when Grant enters Jefferson’s cell, he has no idea how to help Jefferson. He tries talking about Miss Emma and the pain Jefferson causes her. Jefferson says that Grant wouldn’t be talking about love and compassion if Grant sat on death row. Jefferson says he never asked to be born. Saying that Grant’s visits anger him, Jefferson threatens to scream and cause a ruckus. Grant thinks that despite Jefferson’s angry words, his eyes indicate that he needs Grant. Jefferson says only the living need to have good manners; then he throws his food on the floor.
At Guidry’s request, Grant enters his office and stands for a few minutes, waiting as the sheriff talks on the phone. When Guidry finally hangs up, he asks Grant whether or not he sees an improvement in Jefferson, and Grant answers sincerely that he does not. Guidry is angry, and Grant finds out later that his anger stems from a visit Miss Emma paid to Mrs. Guidry, during which she asked if she could meet with Jefferson in the dayroom or in some other large room so that she could sit down. Grant denies Guidry’s accusation that Grant encouraged Miss Emma to make the request. Guidry asks Clark and a “fat man” named Frank what he should do. Clark declares that Jefferson should remain in his cell, Frank declines to answer, and Guidry decides to ask Jefferson what he would prefer. Still, Guidry says, even if Jefferson gets to go to the dayroom, he will have to be in shackles.
Summary: Chapter 18
As promised, Guidry asks Jefferson if he would like to meet his visitors in the dayroom, and he says he would. When Miss Emma, Tante Lou, and Reverend Ambrose visit Jefferson in the day room, Jefferson’s arms and legs are shackled. He sits down at the table and Miss Emma tries to feed him, but he refuses to eat.
Grant goes to visit Jefferson. Again, Jefferson refuses to eat. Grant mentions the Christmas program, and Jefferson asks whether Christmas was when Christ was born or when he died. Grant responds, “Born.” Jefferson says that Easter was when “they nailed Him to the cross.” Grant asks Jefferson if he knows what “moral” means. He reminds Jefferson that human beings have an obligation to each other. Jefferson insists that he is only a hog, not a human being.
Analysis: Chapters 16–18
Grant begins to realize that he has a capricious nature. His anger waxes and wanes, and his beliefs shift quickly. Sometimes he agrees with Professor Antoine’s cynical worldview, sometimes he feels more optimistic than his teacher. Grant alternates between neutrality and near-desperation, between insisting he cannot help Jefferson and determining to reach Jefferson somehow. First, he complains to Miss Emma that he does not want to go back to Jefferson; he then tries to engage Jefferson positively when he visits him. Gaines shows how Grant begins to sense his own failings, and, in doing so, he begins to enable himself to evoke positive change in Jefferson. This change is not immediately perceptible, but even though Jefferson continues to shun his food and to sarcastically and aggressively insist that he is a hog, at least Grant begins to find some strength in these scenes.
Sheriff Guidry both embodies and defies the characteristics of the typically racist white man. Gaines’s description shows that Grant and the other black characters would face harsh consequences for displaying insolence or disrespect toward Guidry and other men of his ilk. Grant must stand and wait while the sheriff uses the phone, and he must end each sentence by calling Guidry “sir.” However, at times Guidry transcends the stereotypical behavior of the bigoted, authoritarian, white racist. Even though Grant’s visits to Jefferson have become a nuisance, Guidry cannot bring himself to end the visitation rights. He also makes a concession to Miss Emma, even though she went behind his back to ask his wife about meeting Jefferson in the dayroom. Gaines juxtaposes Guidry’s softening heart with the unfeeling reactions of the other whites in the room. Whereas Chuck has no pity for the black man, and Frank refuses to consider his plight, Guidry displays gruff feeling for Jefferson. Guidry tries to maintain his authority while granting concessions not only to his wife, but to Miss Emma, Jefferson, and possibly his own conscience.
By refusing to use his intellectual and spiritual capabilities, Jefferson becomes the negative archetype of his race. He decides to carry the mantle of inferiority placed on him, rather than fight to shake it off. From perversity and anger, he willingly embodies all of the stereotypes whites heap on blacks: he does not think or act independently; he does not fight against his oppressors; he is more animal than man. By embodying these stereotypes and acting like an animal, he throws the ugliness of stereotypes in the face of his black friends and relations. Although Jefferson insists he does not want Grant’s help, he undermines that assertion by showing Grant how much his lawyer’s humiliating words hurt him. When he roots about in his food and calls himself a hog, he wordlessly shows Grant his anger and shame at being called a hog, and asks Grant for help in digging himself out of the stereotype he has come to embody. For the first half of this novel, Jefferson is not only physically imprisoned, he is spiritually imprisoned by his own unhappiness.
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